Have you ever wondered what the Japanese sense of “private” or “personal information” is? Some foreigners complain that the most common questions they are asked by Japanese are “How old are you?” and “Are you married?”. This does not mean that the Japanese ask each other freely their ages and marital status even among strangers. In fact, they do not. But “How old are you?” is definitely high on their list of well known English expressions, which makes them want to practice the question so as to “break the ice” with a foreigner.
Once you try talking of other things, you might find yourself confused about certain topics the Japanese avoid or give vague answers to. A lot of information is included in the “personal information” realm which the Japanese don’t want to be asked, unless he or she volunteers the information. Different cultures have different ideas about what is taboo in conversations. Take care to avoid saying or asking the following topics in Japan if you don’t want to be greeted with an uncomfortable silence.
” How much do you earn?”
I personally have never been asked this question. One or two times someone has volunteered the information but no one dares to ask this question of anyone. There is a book somewhere that reveals the “secret” general salaries of different types of careers, but most Japanese only know what they themselves earn. A person’s salary reveals too much about that person and he or she may not be comfortable sharing. Because salary in a sense does not necessarily depend on the amount of work being done but rather reflects a person’s status in a company, how much she is trusted, or the amount of responsibility being shouldered. Anyone in your workplace gets word of how much you earn and you might become a target of either jealousy or disdain. Talk of income should be avoided to maintain peace.
“What did you study in college?”
Some foreigners might be surprised at the rate of high school to higher education continuation in Japan. Some Japanese opt to go to Junior college, shorter-term colleges aimed at specializing in a specific career and a few opt to work right after college in jobs that do not require college degrees. Though graduation in one of the top universities provides a special status that separates one from others, most Japanese do not attach any special relevance to a person’s character by their college education.
Criticism of a woman’s makeup is considered rude.
Praising a woman’s outfit, hairstyle or makeup is okay but negative comments about makeup are hardly voiced out. A woman who wears too thin or no makeup might get a sharp reprimand though, because not wearing makeup in Japanese society, especially in conservative circles, is considered unhygienic, which might strike you as odd. Thick makeup is relatively much better than no makeup. Be careful, also, of praising someone for being skilled at makeup for, depending on how the other person may take it, you could be mistaken for veiling an insult that the other person is hiding an ugly face behind her “skilled makeup” .
“Happy Mother’s/Father’s Day!”.
Every Mother’s and Father’s Day people greet each other on the internet but in Japan, it is considered strange to greet someone who is not your own mother or father a “Happy Mother’s/ Father’s Day”. Furthermore, Japanese family situations are getting complex in the last decade with more and more children growing up with only one parent. Talking about Father’s or Mother’s Day might make you turn out to be a sloppy person. Also, “Happy Thanksgiving” or “Happy St. Patrick’s” might similarly induce a puzzled look, as the Japanese do not think such holidays concern them. Christmas, Halloween and recently, Easter, are exceptions as they are also celebrated in Japan.
Talk of politics is not encouraged in Japan.
Politics is a topic that experts and media leaders talk endlessly and tirelessly about on tv before election time but the common folk does not talk among themselves about politics. What you might hear are generalized exasperated complaints like “What is the government DOING?” but you will hardly hear politician’s names from someone. You are entitled to your opinions, but you are expected to keep them to yourself.
Avoid talking about the Japanese royal family. The Japanese may make an ironic comment about their own emperor or how strange they themselves might think of their own politics but no foreigner can make a negative comment about the emperor without possibly earning the ire of a Japanese. Which is fair enough because it is not the position of a foreigner to criticize the foundations of Japanese politics if they do not know enough about the history and organization behind it.
The Japanese may make an ironic comment about their own emperor or how strange they themselves might think of their own politics but no foreigner can make a negative comment about the emperor without possibly earning the ire of a Japanese. Which is fair enough because it is not the position of a foreigner to criticize the foundations of Japanese politics if they do not know enough about the history and organization behind it.
Talk of religion.
Just as politics is an avoided topic, religion is also a topic to be steered clear of. Japan is officially a Buddhist country but not in the strictest sense. The Japanese do not have a Bible or Koran that they devote themselves to reading and putting their faith in. In fact, you might have a hard time finding a Japanese who has satisfactory knowledge of Buddhist deities and religious practices. What the Japanese will wholeheartedly talk about is TRADITION, such as going to temples on the New Year or getting blessings from temple monks for certain celebrations in a person’s life like the 3-5-7 Festival or Coming-of-Age Day. Like politics, religion is something you should keep for yourself. A few Japanese who ascribe to certain faiths do try to invite others into their religious institutes though.
Avoiding the above topics might be hard to do if you are used to talking freely of them at home, but choosing your conversation topics carefully is very important in keeping smooth relationships with Japanese friends. As you stay longer in Japan it’ll be easier to read a Japanese’s face and to know if you brushed a sensitive topic for, it depends on each person and situation what he or she feels about certain topics. If your Japanese friends feel uncomfortable in conversations with you too many times, it is just so easy for them to just to turn to their fellow Japanese friends. Treasure your friendships, as it will take time to earn the label of ‘trusted friend” from a Japanese.