Have you ever been to Japan? If so, maybe you had a swell time. Maybe you had an awful time. Let’s see if any of your complaints match up to this poll.
Back in 2014*, respected newspaper Nikkei asked one hundred foreigners visiting Japan to name what they found disappointing about their trip. With the 2020 Olympics approaching, expect the country and its media to obsess over Japanese “hospitality,” or “omotenashi” (おもてなし).
*This article was originally published on February 18, 2014.
Below, you can see the responses of those polled (note that Nikkei included quotes for some of the results and there were multiple replies). Keep in mind, this is just one poll!
10. There aren’t many souvenir shops: 6 votes
10. There’s no flexibility in interactions/dealings with people: 6 votes (tied)
9. Withdrawing and exchanging money are difficult: 8 votes
8. Many stores over package and over wrap: 9 votes
7. Some restaurants don’t have non-smoking sections: 11 votes
6. Food portions are small: 12 votes
5. Lots of places were cash only: 15 votes
“Even though it’s a developed country, I was surprised that lots of small shops don’t take credit card.” - Australian female, age 28
4. Not being told the way to eat certain dishes at restaurants: 17 votes
“At a beef bowl restaurant, my meal came with a raw egg. The waiter didn’t explain anything, and I didn’t know what to do with it.” - Chinese male, age 27
3. Unable to understand “meal ticket systems” at restaurants: 19 votes
“There was a ticket machine at the restaurant, but I couldn’t understand it and the staff only spoke Japanese, so I gave up and left.” - American male, age 39
2. Free Wi-Fi lacking: 31 votes
“Compared to other countries, there’s not much free Wi-Fi, and it’s also hard to use.” Australian woman, age 59
1. There are few foreign language services: 39 votes
“The subway system was too complicated, and I didn’t understand it. So, I tried asking the station attendant, who didn’t understand any English...” - German woman, age 41.
“There were few English language menus at restaurants. At the very least, I want the menus to have photos.” - Australian woman, age 24.
“My kids got upset because there weren’t any English channels on the hotel television.” - Australian man, age 48.
Some of these I get! Some of these, less so. For example, there are tons of souvenir shops. However, what foreigners buy as souvenirs and what Japanese people buy tend to be different: for Japanese, souvenirs tend to be snacks and sweets, while many foreigners imagine souvenirs as t-shirts, mugs, and key chains.
As for flexibility in dealing with others, I’ve found people extremely flexible—going out of their way to help or not charging for items or services when they easily could.
As for wrapping, well, that’s how Japan rolls. There’s a huge culture of wrapping that filters through society—from the retail experience to how people even present others money. It’s one thing that makes Japan, well, Japan.
However! Withdrawing money in Japan if you are visiting is a giant pain in the ass. Over the years, I’ve seen many friends and colleagues have a tough time dealing with ATMS and banks that are geared for domestic customers and not international ones.
The lack of free Wi-Fi is a drag in the ass for residents, too. But it’s changing, with cities like Osaka beginning to lead the way in free hotspot. Still, the Wi-Fi situation in Japan sucks.
Many of the other complaints have to do with eating out, which is probably one of the most difficult things for visitors. When I first visited Japan well over a decade ago, I couldn’t speak any Japanese and going into restaurants was incredibly intimidating. Pretty much every meal of my trip was either eating something from Family Mart or eating fast food as both were less stressful than trying to navigate menus and restaurant staff. Now that I’ve lived here for a long, long time, eating out and ordering are no longer issues, but I can certainly remember that feeling of not being able to understand menus and restaurant staff.
Blame a homogeneous population. Blame a broken English education system. Blame intrinsic differences between the languages. For whatever reason, English is extremely difficult for most Japanese—and thus, many people simply lack confidence to use it. (Heck, my kids struggle with English.) So, I dunno about complaining about Japanese people not speaking English? They don’t speak English because they speak Japanese. It might be a good idea for people who work at train stations to bone up on their English skills in areas frequented by tourists.
Honestly, I’m not exactly sure of what’s the best way to order out in Japan if you are visiting and don’t speak the language. It would be great if more restaurants had English menus, but I’m not entirely confident that will happen—even with the upcoming 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. One piece of advice I can offer is to point to the plastic food samples in front of restaurants. Many Japanese people use the plastic food when deciding what they are going to eat, anyway. The only difference is that you might have to drag the waiter outside and point to what you want in the display.
As for restaurants that use ticket machines (typically noodle restaurants), my advice is even simpler: Point to other people’s food. Someone should be able to help you. Hopefully!
And for things like portions, many restaurants offer larger servings (ohmori or 大盛り), sometimes free of charge. Then, there are the restaurants that have free second servings. If you go to a tonkatsu restaurant, for example, you can get free refills of rice, miso soup, and cabbage. (Sorry, no tonkatsu free second servings!) Stuff like this all Japanese people know; however, most visitors don’t. But now you do.
If you are visiting Japan, here are cheat sheets for super basic Japanese, interesting restaurants, and even capsule hotels. Japan is a wonderful place to visit, and shortcomings aside, fingers crossed you have a nice time.
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