Tokyo at night

Japan's radically different culture and societal norms have intrigued Westerners for decades. Many of us, however, do not necessarily get the chance to live there for an extended period and get a chance to truly understand what makes Japan unique. Much information out there concerns travel sites or the most basic of cultural norms - yes, we all know that Japanese people bow to each other and use chopsticks for eating. But what about some practical advice for the expat for navigating this sometimes confusing culture? Where does someone living in Japan go to learn how to deal with occasionally frustrating cultural differences?

Enter Japan's Cultural Codewords: 233 Key Terms That Explain the Attitudes and Behavior of the Japanese by long time Japan resident Boye Lafayette De Mente. De Mente has been involved in Japan in some form or another since 1949 - having worked for such diverse places as Japanese businesses and even the American Intelligence Agency in Japan. He is also the successful author of many other books about East Asia.

As you would expect from the title, the book focuses on many codewords that are an integral part of Japanese life but may confuse those unfamiliar with the culture. In (English) alphabetical order, the author lists Japanese phrases complete with the original Chinese characters, and then a lengthy explanation on the significance of the term in Japanese life. Naturally, things that Westerners may already be familiar with - such as honne, tatemae, and sakura - are explained very well, but the book contains plenty that will surprise even the most knowledgeable of us (unless you've already lived in Japan for several years).


The explanations are detailed yet easy to understand, and often come with colorful anecdotes from De Mente's personal experience and the experiences of his many associates in Japan. The best part of the book is that it has an overall positive view of Japan while still being very practical and realistic about Japanese culture and attitudes - particularly concerning foreigners. De Mente doesn't sugarcoat the fact that the culture is often exclusionary and that an outsider will never completely fit in, but he clearly has a lot of experience and affection for the place. The book is filled with practical advice for navigating these frustrating realities and differences and making the most out of your time in Japan.

For those with an interest in the country but also wanting a pragmatic guide for navigating life there, Japan's Cultural Codewords comes highly recommended.