As a 5'9", blonde Anglo-Saxon, let's face it, I can't physically fit in living in a country where the average height of men and women are 5'7" and 5'0" respectively, and to get the same beautiful skin color I'd have to buy stock in spray tanners I'm not even going to try; however, there are many many things I can do to fit in culturally.
There are more differences between the U.S and Japan than there are similarities, the first of which is forgiveness. I don't know many Americans (this isn't just an American thing, I know there are other countries with similar feelings) who will forgive a foreigner for just about anything, just for being foreign. The Japanese people don't look down on you for getting something wrong or not know the language, they just let it go because you aren't Japanese and why would you know. But, being who I am, this doesn't give me any excuse not to know. So here are some simple cultural differences that I (as well as my fellow GTFs) will be adjusting to:
#1 It's crowded, get used to it. Gone will be the days of personal space. There isn't room for personal space in a country where 128 million people fit into a country the size of Montana. On the train, if it looks like there isn't room for one more person, I guarantee 15 more will get on, and that's just by your door. The same thing is happening at every door on the train. It's a good thing I'm 2 inches taller than most of the men, it's the only way to breathe.
#2 Unless you are driving in your own car or are on one of the bullet trains, no eating (drinking your beverage is okay) during your commute, it's considered gauche. I found this one out the hard way sitting in the lobby of our super swanky hotel and I was drinking my coffee and eating a pastry. Thank goodness a bell hop nearby didn't want to see me make a fool of myself for too long and came over to inform me. This was also made perfectly clear by the owners of the eating stalls outside Senso ji in Asakusa, Tokyo. If you buy food be prepared to be shown a sign before purchase that says "No eating on the street" and then you'll be herded into a small eating stall just around the corner.
#3 You know how you go get your coffee or you pay for your groceries and as the nice cashier is ringing up your purchase you make small talk? The weather, how are they, what's going on this weekend? In Japan don't do that. It's rude. It's pretty much a hierarchy thing. In the US (and many other places) we all love to believe and act as if we are all on the same level regardless of our job. That's not the case in Japan. There is a hierarchy, if you don't want to be awkward, you need to learn at least the basics. The first of which is don't try and small talk with the cashiers. Now the couple exceptions to this may be in international food/drink chains like Starbucks or McDonald's as well as in the Duty Free shops, but for the most part... just don't, you'll embarrass yourself.
#4 Here is one difference most people like...there is no tipping in Japan. It's not necessary, ever. It's in their DNA to do their best job and provide you with the best service. It's standard and they don't expect to be paid extra for it....I think there are some in the industry who could learn a thing or two from this cultural norm. You will also never be rushed out of your seat, take your time. Enjoy yourself...order another biru.
#5 Another faux pas learned the hard way....When you are out to eat and you meet up with those who are already there. Buy your own food before trying the food someone else bought. It's just a sign of respect for the owner of the establishment.
#6 Don't stick your chopsticks into your food when you aren't eating!!! Place them on rim of your plate or bowl. Also don't touch food with your chop sticks if you don't plan on taking it, don't gesture with them and don't spear your food. Slurping (loudly) is okay (this is something I'm going to have to get used to after having my mother yell at my siblings and I to "chew with our mouths closed, and stop slurping" for years...not sure I'll ever adjust, but I can try!).
#7 Being a tall white person, you probably won't be mistaken for yakuza (organized crime), but tattoos are still considered taboo so be prepared for some stares if you have extensive tattooing on your body. I have a small one on my wrist and can keep it pretty hidden, but there are a lot of onsens where I won't be allowed to go because of it and I've been told some swimming pools also won't allow anyone (ANYONE) in with a tattoo.
#8 Taking shoes off is something you will find in some homes in the U.S, but you'll find yourself taking your shoes off, more often than not in Japan. Be sure to look before entering an establishment to see what the protocol is. I went to a great many places where I never had to take my shoes off, but the more traditional restaurants I went into there were lockers to keep shoes, as well as the one temple we went to. This is a good incentive to be sure you have clean socks and feet at all times. Who wants to see your grimy, dirty socks, or dirt stained feet...not I, but I'll leave that to your discretion.
#9 Business cards are NOT just business cards in Japanese society. They are more like the calling card used by society ladies in the mid to late 1800s. If you've ever read Gone With the Wind or Scarlet, you know exactly what I'm talking about. While you don't walk around to people's houses to leave the cards on doors and let other society ladies know you are there to receive, they are treated with a similar reverence. When you trade business cards with someone, be sure to receive it with two hands and look at it and read it, for several seconds. Do NOT put it in your back pocket or any pocket for that matter, be sure to put it in a business card holder if at all possible, if not a wallet will do in a pinch. This business card will tell you exactly who you are dealing with and what their status is. In Japanese hierarchy it's a life saver, because there is no guessing about how to talk, or not talk to them.
These are just a few I've experienced already. While not cultural I'll also be adjusting to the toilets (so many buttons and functions!) and the size of my apartment and the lack shoes I can buy without traveling to Hokkaido. Apparently, the Japanese have bigger feet up north which is where I'll be heading to buy shoes for my snow shoe size feet (at least I'll sort of fit in somewhere).