The general preconception of Japan is that it is the quintessential "high context" culture. the anthropologically-sensitive traveller or ex-pat in Japan can expect to guard vigilantly against many seemingly natural behaviors to him that are considered offensive or otherwise questionable in his new host culture. He might even invest in a book or two on the topic of Japanese ettiquette so he is sure he'll do a good job and fit in.
Examples of special politeness precautions to take in Japan are splattered all over the internet and popular media, and in prefaces to travel guides everywhere: DON'T cross your chopsticks or leave them sticking up out of a bowl of rice. DON'T point with one finger. DON'T talk loudly or on your cell phone on the train. DON'T ask for a doggy bag. DON'T eat while walking in public or on the train. DO bow. DO take business cards with both hands, etc. etc. etc.
The list goes on and on, though foreigners are generally granted a cultural pass-card for many of these faux pas. Indeed, many Japanese people seem as surprised and taken aback as they are impressed when I do one of these things the right way, or at least show some humility for doing it the wrong way.
However, there are a few things i've noticed that are rude in America but common in Japan. I thought these "rude" Japanese habits might interest you, dear reader.
1. Asking someone's age: I am invariably asked how old I am at some point within my first couple conversations with someone new. For a young guy like me, this is not such a big deal and it's certainly not embarrassing. People are usually a little surprised that I'm so young, but that's not so bad. What's striking is how obsessed everyone seems with the question of age. Furthermore, they are seemingly impressed/surprised by the simple fact that I HAVE an age. They usually react as if it's some kind of accomplishment:
"eeeeeeeeeeeeh!!!!! sugooooi!!" (Woooow! great!)
"he's 22 years old! did you HEAR that??"
"he's 22!?? wow!"
on a related note...
2. Asking if someone has a boy/girlfriend: This one weirds me out a little more. New acquaintences, especially females my age, like to ask if I have a girlfriend as one of their first few questions (and of course by students). Now of course, it's entirely possibly that I am just THAT completely studly that everyone wants to know if I'm available. Maybe asking this kind of question right away is as much of a come-on as it would be in the US, but my ego-regulator tells me that it's probably just another demographical question that Japanese people like to ask when meeting someone new, like "where are you from?" "What sports do you play?" "How old are you?" and "Can you use chopsticks?"
3. Private life, lack of: This may not be true in the big cities of Japan, but i live in a small town where my existence as "the one white guy" is an area of public interest. A few weeks ago, one of my friends, Laura (another ALT, happily attached to a boyfriend) came to visit Amagi and hang out with me. We ended up going to Jusco for grocery shopping (Jusco is an awesome business- exactly like Target PLUS a big supermarket). Anyway, Jusco is one of the only things to do in Amagi after 7:00PM, so a lot of students like to hang out there for fun. It's akin to going to the mall, in a way. While there, we inevitably bumped into a few of my students. The next day at school i was asked no less than 5 times by different students about my trip to Jusco with my girlfriend. Communicating that it's not exactly like that is very difficult. Out here in the countryside, men and women rarely hang out alone together as "just friends."
In fact, I often hear about my own adventures the next day. "I heard you went downtown yesterday" "I heard you went grocery shopping!" "I heard you want to buy a car." It all goes back to courtesy. Foreigners often speak glowingly about how making the slightest mention of a problem or desire in passing to colleagues or higher-ups almost always results in a resolution or solution quickly, without any action really required of them. That same obsessive curiosity about what your contemporaries are really thinking is what makes this possible
4. Slurping food: Well... not all food, but any soup with noodles: ramen, udon, soba should be slurped. The louder the better. Slurping means you are enjoying the meal so, in fact, it's almost considered rude to NOT slurp, thus implying that the food is not great. A lot of Americans have a hard time breaking a lifetime of social conditioning against slurping, but i love to. I always try to out-slurp the old Japanese people sitting near me in restaurants. When they hear me slurping, they usually start slurping louder, as if to assert their superior Japaneseness over me. "NO foreigner is going to enjoy soba more than ME!!1!"
On the other hand, non-noodle soups, like miso, should not be slurped, nor should beverages. Especially tea.
5. Talking with your mouth full: Again, not sure if this is considered completely acceptable or maybe just less rude than we're accustomed to, but i see a lot of Japanese, especially my supervisor carrying on conversation with a mouth full of muffin of noodles or whatever. It drives me CRAZY. Especially because I can barely understand her English as-is, unobstructed. With the addition of a mouth full of food, all hope for comprehension is lost.
6. Grabby hands: No, i'm not referring to kancho nor the fabled Japanese students' curiosity about foreigners genitals... but this happens often enough to get on my nerves. Some people will straight up grab things out of my hands or off of my desk without asking nicely let alone explaining why. I can understand that it might too difficult with communication barriers to explain why she wants to see my passport so she can fill out a section of the form at the bank for me, but I am rarely offered even a "please" and never have a chance to give her permission before she grabs a paper from my desk, or a pen out of my hand, or even my bank book. It's just "give me..." or "can I have...." and then *GRAB.* I'm sure nobody realizes it but that's really offensive by my standards.
7. Eye contact: Japan is not an eye-contact society. Even having an intimate conversation with a well-known friend does not necessitate eye-to-eye gaze. That's fine for me, because as many of you know, eye-contact is not my forte, but still, even though it doesnt bother me that people don't look at me, i do notice.
8. Sneeze acknowledgement, lack of: Most cultures have a post-sneeze follow-up word or phrase like "Bless you." or "Gazunteit," but in Japan sneezes go unacknowledged. This bothered me at first, but i quickly got used to it. Now i'm worried about getting used to not blessing people for when i come back home.
9. Public Drunkenness: Totally socially acceptable to be completely and obviously inebriated in public, on the street, on the bus, anywhere. It's a common sight to see office men still in their suits, stumbling around the Hakata ramen stalls at 10 or 11:00 downtown, barely able to walk, being loud, belligerent, basically defying all the Japanese politeness rules because theyre so eff'd up and drunk. Like being a foreigner, drinking, i guess, gives you a cultural pass-card to act/be expected to act rude and obnoxious. Not so much in the US, where it may be expected, but certainly isnt approved of by the mainstream.
10. Shaving/brushing your teeth/clipping your nails/getting dressed AT WORK: The ideal Japanese worker basically lives at work, so it's generally accepted (and probably smiled upon) for employees to do things generally restricted to the privacy of home in the office, if it means working longer hours. Mind you it doesnt matter if you're actually doing a good job or even working, but if youre AT work, youre a good Japanese worker. clip away! This morning, one gym teacher was even watching anime loudly off of his laptop at work, which struck me as rude and disruptive for any office in the world.
Anyway, that's a good start. And I'm sure there are plenty more where that came from.