As a Gaijin (foreigner) you are not expected to act according to Japanese etiquette and nobody will be offended from your lack of Japanese social manners, but if you do make an effort it will be very much appreciated. The Japan culture developed under the influence of a basic reality of Japan - it is a very crowded nation. Japanese must take into account other people in everyday life. In order to live peacefully in a crowd, there must be harmony which will make life more tolerable. Harmony is a very central theme in Japanese society. The harmony principle is also responsible for the quest to make things small, by making things tiny you leave more space for your neighbor.
Dependence on others and Harmony are key values in Japanese society. Individualism is viewed negatively and associated with selfishness. Japanese children are taught to act harmoniously and cooperatively with others from the time they go to pre-school. The education puts great emphasis on politeness, personal responsibility and working together and less importance on the individual.
Since the Japan culture strives for harmony, showing emotions is very much limited. Most Japanese maintain a blank expression when speaking.
Japan is an extremely competitive society, but not competition within the group. Wa - the concept of harmony within a group, requires an attitude of cooperation and a recognition of social roles. The price of these interpersonal tensions in Japanese culture is reflected in high rates of alcohol consumption, high level of suicides and psychosomatic medical syndromes. There is a school-refusal syndrome in which youngsters avoid academic or social interaction and retreat to their room for years. Another form of coping is by enjoying the escapism offered by popular Japanese culture.
Hierarchy in Japan Culture
Relative status differences define all social interaction in Japan culture. Age or rank, gender, educational accomplishments, and place of employment guide interaction. Without some knowledge of the other's background some very embarrassing situations can occur. Seating arrangements for a business meeting are a delicate and thoughtful procedure.
Bowing is a very important custom in Japan culture. Bowing has many functions - It expresses respect, thanking, apologizing, greeting, and so on. Don't assume you can learn how to do it right. A simple inclination of the head or a slight bow at the waist is enough for foreigners. The reason is that Bowing is nothing less than an art. The etiquette surrounding bowing is very complex. The depth and length of a bow depends on the social status or age of the person you bow to. If the person is in higher status or older than you are, you should bow deeper and longer.
If the other person maintains his or her bow for longer than expected (generally about two or three seconds) you are supposed to bow again. This often leads to a long exchange of progressively lighter bows. You are not supposed to turn your back to someone in higher status than you, even if you are saying goodbye. This leads to very amusing situations where people part going backwards, and even enter the Taxi with their backside first.
Addressing someone by attaching "san" to their last name is essential. This is not necessary with kids. Staring into another person's eyes is a big no-no, particularly those of a person who is senior to you because of age or status. In crowded situations the Japanese avoid eye contact to give others privacy. Come to think of it - in a city like Tokyo, this really makes life more pleasant (especially on the crowded subway).