Behave Properly when Staying in a Japanese Home

Edited by Doug Collins

Whether you're on vacation, studying abroad or working in Japan, the opportunity may arise for you to spend a couple of nights with a Japanese family. With an entirely different culture to the west, home life has several differences you should know about before staying. Although most Japanese families do realize that many "gaikokujin" (foreigners) aren't aware of these differences, it's very important to do your research before you go. 'Homestay' - staying with a family from a different country - is a fantastic experience that you should try if you get the chance. This article will use the Tamura family from Gunma Prefecture as an example. They have participated in homestay three times and are a wonderful family to stay with.

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Here are a few things that are different in a Japanese family's home. Not all households are the same, of course, but these will usually apply. This article will examine each one and give advice on how to behave and important things to remember.

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  • Food - types of food and how to eat it, including table manners and using chopsticks.
  • Furniture - sofas and beds, and how they differ from the west.
  • Bathing - how and when to bathe.
  • Footwear - outdoor shoes, indoor slippers and bathroom slippers.
  • General etiquette - being friendly, cultural exchange and useful Japanese phrases.

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Food and Dining

Just like anywhere, dining can vary across Japanese households. The Tamuras have a regular sized dining table and chairs where they eat together every evening. Mother cooks, before setting out bowls and a pair of chopsticks, and sometimes a spoon, for each family member.

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Before Eating

It's not usually common for Japanese families to pray together religiously as you may do in the west, but there is one phrase you will always hear at the dining table: "Itadakimasu!" (ee-ta-da-kee-mass!) There's no exact English equivalent, but it means something along the lines of "let's eat"/"thank you for the meal". Make sure you say it before you tuck in, too.

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Chopstick Rules

Chopsticks are used to eat most things but soup, curry and mapo tofu (a tofu, chili and meat dish) are usually eaten with a spoon. Here are a few chopstick rules to keep in mind.

  • Don't stab or pierce your food. Pick up fish, meat, etc carefully between the chopsticks before bringing them to your mouth.
  • Don't pass food between chopsticks.
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  • When you've had enough to eat, never stick your chopsticks into your rice. This symbolizes death. Place your chopsticks neatly side by side beside your bowl when you've finished eating.
  • When you're eating from a small bowl, hold the bowl in your left hand and bring it close to your face, sitting upright. To eat rice with chopsticks, you scoop the rice into your mouth rather than picking it up whilst the bowl is on the table. Try and finish all the rice in your bowl.

Japanese Cooking

Be sure to mention to Mother (or whoever is cooking) if you have any food you don't like or are allergic to. Home cooked meals are always more delicious than in restaurants, so make sure you try anything that is given to you at least once. There are a variety of dishes to eat in Japan, but in the Tamura household we often ate tamagoyaki (Japanese rolled omelette), miso soup or tonjiru (meat and potato soup), rice and/or onigiri (rice balls) for breakfast. In the evening, we'd have things like yakisoba (stir fry), meat, rice and Japanese curry. If you're unsure about how to eat something, watch the others or, when in doubt, ask!

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As for drinks, you might be offered anything from Japanese green tea to beer. Don't be afraid to accept alcohol (if you're over twenty years old) if they offer it to you - it's likely they bought it as a special occasion. If you'd prefer water or a soft drink, that's okay too.

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Seating

In Japan, it's very common to sit on the floor when relaxing or dining. Beds are also usually futons, because they're easy to fold up and put away. Although some families, especially in large cities such as Tokyo, live in small apartments where there isn't much space, the Tamuras lived in a fairly large house in the countryside, and therefore had a western-style sofa and dining table. In some Japanese homes, you may see a kotatsu in winter. A kotatsu is a small table with a heated blanket underneath, perfect for when it's cold. It's quite common for families to use knee-level tables, sitting on a rug or pillows. Don't be shy to sit with them.

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As for your futon, ask Mother first if she would like any help before setting up or putting it away after you get up in the morning. It's likely that she won't need any help, but it's polite to ask anyway.

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Bathing

It's very common in Japan for people to bathe in the evening, sharing the hot water between the family. Baths have a special sort of 'lid', so that when one family member has finished using the water, the lid goes on and keeps the water hot for the next person. If you'd like to try the Japanese way of bathing (I usually asked to just shower in the morning and they were fine with it), please keep these rules in mind:

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  • Wash your body using the shower, body soap, etc before you get into the bath. The bath is just for relaxing, so wash your hair and body before you get in.
  • Don't throw out the hot water when you're done! If you're worried that you might forget this rule, just ask to go last.
  • The entire shower room is a sort of 'wet room', so there will be a drain on the floor. The whole room can be wet, so go ahead and shower next to the bath.
  • See if there's a setting for the fan when you get out. This room fan helps to dry out the wet room much more quickly. If you're not sure about it, ask for help.
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Footwear

Slippers

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In every Japanese home there is a small genkan, where the family keeps their outdoor shoes. The first thing you should do when you enter their home is to take off your shoes and leave them in the genkan. Do not walk around the house in your shoes, and don't let your feet touch the floor of the genkan once you've taken your shoes off. Ideally, take your own indoor slippers. If you don't have any, your family might loan you their guest slippers.

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Bathroom Slippers

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When you go to the toilet, take off your indoor slippers and leave them outside the door. Inside the toilet room is a pair of bathroom slippers which should be worn when you're using the toilet. Don't forget to change back into your indoor slippers once you're finished! Sometimes visitors forget this rule and end up walking around the house wearing the bathroom slippers. It can be embarrassing, so keep this rule in mind.

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General Etiquette

There are many cultural rules in Japan, but there are a lot of things you can do when staying in a Japanese home that applies to your home country, too. For example - be friendly! Take along photos of your family, friends and pets and talk about them. Take a gift to give to the Japanese family as a thank-you for letting you stay; something from your own country would be ideal, but sweets or flowers would be fine as well.

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Useful Japanese Phrases

Learn a few Japanese phrases, even if the family you're staying with speak English well. It shows you're willing to open your arms to their culture and make an effort to communicate their way. Here are a few useful phrases you could use.

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  • Ohayou gozaimasu (o-ha-yo go-zai-mass) "Good morning!"
  • Oyasumi nasai (o-yazu-mi nasai) "Goodnight!"
  • Arigatou gozaimasu (a-ree-gato go-zai-mass) "Thank you very much!"
  • Oishii! (o-ee-shee) "Delicious!"
  • Kore wa nan desu ka? (kor-rey wa nan dess-ka?) "What's this?"
  • Itadakimasu! (ee-ta-da-kee-mass!) "Let's eat!" (said before eating)
  • Gochiso sama deshita! (gochi-so-sama-desh-ta) (said after eating)
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Things to Talk About

You might feel like you're struggling to find things to talk about with your homestay family, especially if there is a big language barrier. Here are some ideas of things to chat with your mother, father or siblings about.

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  • Your family back home. Your homestay parents will definitely be interested in your life at home. What do your parents do? Do you have any siblings? Do you have any children? Talk about them, and compare your family's lifestyle to theirs.
  • Things about Japan you like. Your homestay family would be delighted to hear about how you enjoyed your day seeing Japanese temples, or a restaurant or city you particularly enjoyed. They may even be able to give you advice on what to see or do next.
  • Your hobbies and interests. Do you enjoy swimming, skating or painting? Find out your family's interests, too - one person I knew got on very well with his homestay father because they both loved motorcycles. If your family are from the colder north like Nagano or Hokkaido, they may enjoy winter sports like skiing or snowboarding. If they live in warmer south like Okinawa or Kyushu, they may like surfing or summer sports. Take these things into account.
  • How you became interested in Japan in the first place. Had you been wanting to go to Japan since you were a kid, or did you go spontaneously? Was it the country's history and culture that got you interested, or do you love Japanese comics and cartoons (manga and anime)? Let them know why you appreciate their country.

Be open to your homestay family's culture and don't be shy to share some of your own culture, too. This could include art, music, language and hobbies. Compare languages - for example, ask how to say things in Japanese, and you might be able to teach them some English, too.

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Homestay is exercised all over the world to promote cultural exchange and international friendship. Make an effort to stay in contact with the family you stay with, whether it's over Facebook, Skype, Line or even post or phone. They will most likely want to show you how a real Japanese family lives, giving you an insight into the culture that you wouldn't otherwise experience. Perhaps when you're back in your home country, you could send them a package with things from your country, whether it's tea, snacks, postcards or art, they'll definitely appreciate it. Try everything new and enjoy yourself. Just remember to take off your bathroom slippers and don't stick your chopsticks in your rice! This is an opportunity that will give you an insight into Japanese life and maybe give you a new perspective of the world, so welcome it with open arms, and create friendships that could last a lifetime.

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