When I’m in public (anywhere in the world), I’m easily irritated and annoyed by loud noises, distinct smells, and bad behavior of people – especially adults. Growing up in Germany, a lot of those things had been bothering me my entire life. I was more than glad to see in Japan that yes, things can actually be done differently. More efficient. More respectful towards each other. In my perception, the big, underlying rule for Japanese public life is: “Don’t bother other people.“ Let me give you some examples:
1. Smoking bans on streets
When I’m walking down the street in Germany, I’m constantly confronted with someone walking in front of me with a cigarette in hand, which means I’m walking in a cloud of smoke, thank you very much. Of course I can stop and give that person a head start, but about two seconds later, I’ll be dealing with the next selfish smoker, who doesn’t give a damn about bothering other people with their disgusting addiction. (And yes, I do feel that strongly about this.) In Japan, I barely ever see anyone walking with their cigarette in hand. In fact, there are signs in a lot of places informing you of the fine you have to pay if you do so. Smoking is allowed in designated smoking areas, often surrounded by some kind of walls.
2. No garbage cans
Despite the fact that there are no garbage cans in public, Japan is a ridiculously clean country. How does that work? Simple. People take their own trash home and dispose it there. I have to admit, the first couple of months, I couldn’t wrap my mind around this concept and intuitively kept looking for garbage cans when I was outside, only to remind myself for the hundredth time that there weren’t any. A year later, this has changed completely: What I now can’t wrap my mind around is how I could expect someone else to come and pick up after me by emptying pubic garbage cans.
Two things I dearly miss now that I’m in Germany for summer break: Clean public toilets (or even just public toilets!) and drinks machines. Both are never far when in Japan. There are clean, free of charge public toilets in train stations and convenience stores, so basically everywhere. Same goes for drinks machines, which can be found even in the countryside, in the middle of nowhere.
4. Customer service
Yes, it is really true. Customer service in Japan is amazing. Staff at shops and restaurants is polite and helpful, even or especially with people who can barely communicate in Japanese. With banks being the only exception, staff in public places has never let me down, not helped me or left me feel embarrassed. And yes, maybe some people do think I’m the annoying foreigner, but they never ever show it to me. Which to me has nothing to do with being fake, but being respectful.
5. Public transport and travel information
Traveling in Japan stopped stressing me out quite soon when I realized that for one thing, the public transport system is fairly easy to understand and for another, even if you do get lost, there is always station staff (or random people) around to ask. It has never happened that someone didn’t help me find my way. (Well, ok: The only time people didn’t help me was back in the days, when I still approached people in English. Rookie mistake!) Also, maps at touristy spots are idiot proof, even for people like me, who can’t read maps at all.
6. Quiet trains
To elaborate on the public transport praise: I love, love, love how quiet people are on trains. People don’t talk on cellphones. Most of the time, they don’t even talk to each other. Reading, engaging with your phone and sleeping are the main activities. To compare this to Germany: I’ve oh so many times been on trains with people talking loudly into their cellphones or with each other (I don’t want to know about your problems, I really don’t!), kids throwing hour long temper tantrums (parenting gone wrong), and teenagers shouting racist comments around (get me the f out of here!). Yes, I really love Japanese trains.
7. Feeling safe
Yes, there are earthquakes in Japan, but at least you don’t have to fear the people around you. From what I have experienced, self-control is firmly established in the Japanese mindset. Like many other foreigners, I’ve gotten used to leaving my bag on my chair when I go to the bathroom in a cafe. I’ve even done the putting my phone on the table to reserve it while ordering at the counter. People aren’t likely to take my stuff which is really relaxing. It’s nice to go through life without being suspicious of everyone. Same goes for walking home alone at night: In Japan, I’ve lost all my peeking over my shoulder to check if anyone is following me behaviors and mindsets. Even drunk people on the last train or stumbling home in a dark street don’t cause a ruckus. Most people try to hide the fact that they are drunk at all by being extra inconspicuous.
8. Sense of community
I don’t know whether this is due to the small houses and apartments or a general sense of enjoying other people’s company, but in Japan, people share a lot of public spaces. My favourite one is the Onsen, the “hot spring public bath“. Sitting in one, surrounded by Japanese women chitchatting with each other, is the nicest weekly experiences for me. Another famous event where everyone comes together is Hanami, the “cherry blossom viewing“, which means picnic blanket next to picnic blanket next to picnic blanket.
All in all: In my view, Japanese public life is harmony-oriented, functional, and communal. And I like it that way.