Navigating the cultural differences between Japan and the U.S.

Navigating the cultural differences between Japan and the U.S.


There were many cultural differences I noticed when I moved to the US from Japan. My initial impression was that Americans were less polite than the Japanese, but they were more friendly. I never saw strangers striking up a conversation with each other in Japan, and I was shocked to learn that students called their college professors by their first names! At least they did at Berklee.

In Japan, image is very important. People care what other people are thinking about them and how they are dressed. I felt in the US though, people dressed however they wanted and nobody cared. Even after all these years I still see people dressed so crazily and I think to myself, “Never in Japan!”

I was shocked to learn there was no time schedule for the city public transportation in the US. In Japan, the schedule of all the trains is displayed in every station and the trains show up exactly when they’re supposed to because in Japan, being one minute late is a big deal.

In Japan, a piano lesson usually consists mostly of pointing out the inadequacies in someone’s playing, then saying good job in the end. In the US, the focus is mostly on the good qualities of someone’s playing, then maybe adding one thing they need to work on. Japan is focused more on technique but the US is more focused on spirit. Most American musicians seem overly confident, while Japanese musicians are always telling themselves they have to work harder.

Most Japanese will tell you, though, the main difference is the food. If you’ve been to Japan then you know what I’m talking about, but if not I have to say I’m sorry, but food is better in Japan. There is of course great food in America but you have to look for it and it is usually expensive. Most restaurants here are more focused on profits than trying to make the best food they can.

vending machine

Everyone in Japan takes eating very seriously. It’s an experience and not just something you do for nourishment. So many places have food displays, it’s actually a big business in Japan where companies make artificial food for display that looks identical to the food being served.

Restaurants take so much pride, regardless of the price. It could be a noodle stand on the corner with room for only about 6 people, but you can bet it’s going to be good. It has to be or they would be shamed and certainly would never be able to stay in business. Mostly though I was shocked at the portion size in the US. When I moved here I couldn’t finish it, but now I can. Uh oh!

Lastly, I never saw a vending machine chained down in Japan, if you left your wallet somewhere in Japan it would probably still be there the next day. Oh yeah and there are a lot more bikes in Japan. A lot!


2 Responses

  1. John T. says:

    This was great, I am glad that you did this as I enjoyed reading it. I think that America could learn much from Japan, as far as how they dress and how they are disciplined and tell themselves to work harder all the time, but I have to disagree about the food. I love all the different types of food in America and being Italian-American the restaurants in America-just fantastic!

    I’ll take America’s food, friendliness, and spirit and combine that with Japan’s class, beauty and work ethic, and agree that both countries have much to offer and learn from each other. That is probably why Japan and the US are great friends and allies each pledging to come to the others aid if attacked by others. We may be different in some ways, but there is a bond there that connects us.

  2. Yoko Miwa says:

    Agreed John, you are very wise 🙂 Italian food is amazing in Japan too, many chefs went to Italy to study. I guess the part I left out is we borrow a lot of ideas and culture from Europe like our desserts are uniquely Japanese but obviously French influenced.

    Saying the food is better in Japan wasn’t entirely correct, one thing for sure the bar is set very high for restaurants – much like it is in NYC but it’s like this everywhere you go in Japan and I don’t see that everywhere I go here.

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