The Japanese archipelago is composed of 5 main islands and 3,000 smaller islands stretching from sub-arctic Hokkaido to subtropical Okinawa. Japan has a population of 127 million. 75% of the population lives in urban areas, making it relatively crowded.
Japan has 4 distinct seasons starting with a cold and dry winter. The welcome spring is mild and brings out Japan’s famous cherry blossoms. The summer starts with the rainy season in late June or early July, followed by heat and humidity through August. The arrival of autumn is marked by typhoons and heavy rain in September. The colorful fall leaves are spectacular and draw crowds of tourists. The far north and south naturally experience the extremes of hot and cold, making Hokkaido good for skiing in winter and Okinawa a popular seaside destination during the warmer months.
Japanese is the national language. Increasingly, more English signage, pamphlets and menus are available.
The Yen (¥) is the currency in Japan. There are 4 types of Japanese paper currency – 1,000 Yen, 2,000 Yen, 5,000 Yen and 10,000 Yen and 6 different coins – 1 Yen, 5 Yen, 10 Yen, 50 Yen, 100 Yen and 500 Yen. Both 5 Yen and 50 Yen coins have a round hole in the middle.
Tipping is not customary or necessary in Japan. In many restaurants a service charge of 10-15% will be included in the bill although this is usually stated on the menu.
The power supply is 100V/50Hz in Eastern Japan and 100V/60Hz in Western Japan, but most electrical items can be used in both areas. The power outlets are identical to 2-pin North American outlets.
The metric system is used in Japan, however some traditional Japanese units of measurements are still in wide use as well. The most common is, Jo, a traditional Japanese unit used especially in real estate to describe the size of a room. One Jo is equivalent to the size of a standard Tatami mat.
On the whole, Japan is a very safe place to live. It is always best to be diligent, however, you do not need to be overly concerned about your safety in urban areas at any time of the day or night. Always keep doors and windows locked when you are not at home to prevent the risk of burglary.
There are a large number of customs unique to Japan. Many involve paying respect to others and humbling yourself. By watching and following what others do and by asking questions, you can pick up many of them. Here are some of the major things to note:
・Take your shoes off when entering temples or someone’s home. Take off your slippers before standing on Tatami mats. Use separate slippers in toilets, if provided.
・Avoid blowing your noise and burping in public. Slurping noodles is okay.
・Avoid too much physical contact, being noisy and pointing with your index finger.
・Wash and rinse your body well before getting into a shared bath or Onsen, and do not let soap bubbles get into the bath.
・Whenever possible, avoid criticizing other people directly or being too direct on negative matters. “I am not sure” or “It’s very difficult” is often the Japanese way of saying “No”.
・Although you can usually use your signature, circumstances such as obtaining a loan may require a Hanko or Inkan (personal signature seal) which can be made at specialty shops or at stores like Tokyu Hands.
Japanese Year System
The western calendar is widely used in Japan, however, a unique year system called Gengo (or Nengo) appears in everyday life. Because government offices require you to fill out forms in Gengo in many cases, it is useful to know the calculation.
Showa (1926-1989) subtract 25 from the last two digits of the western calendar
Example: 1980 = Showa 55
1989-1999: subtract 88 from the last two digits of the western calendar
Example: 1995 = Heisei 7
2000-present: add 12 to the last two digits of the western calendar
Example: 2012 = Heisei 24
In Japan, there are a total of 15 national holidays in a year. Most are based on the Shinto practice of worshipping nature. Recently, “Happy Monday” has become more common which allows people to take a long weekend off (Saturday, Sunday and Monday). If a national holiday falls on a Sunday, the following Monday will also be a holiday.