In terms of the differences between American and Japanese customs, I find the small differences to be the most interesting. In some situations Japanese and American culture is similar in most of its aspects but slightly different in some small ways.
One example of this is punctuality. Americans and Japanese people usually like to be on time for meetings and other events. This is different from some other countries, for example I lived in Togo, Africa. In Togolese culture, punctuality is not important; people are very laid back about the time. If I went to a meeting people might come 30 minutes or an hour late. The people called it “l’heure africaine” which in French means “African time”.
In this case Japanese and American culture is very similar but there is one major exception. Although Americans are usually punctual to meetings we are usually late to large parties. It is expected that a large party won’t really get going until 15 or 30 minutes after the start time. The phrase we sometimes use for this is “fashionably late”. For example, “I always come fashionably late to parties.”
Another small cultural difference is small talk topics. Japanese and American people share many small talk topics but there are some topics that are different. In America a common small talk topic is family. Often if we meet someone new we might talk about our spouses and children. I had one student who visited America and was shocked when a person he met asked to see pictures of his children. In America it is very common for people to have pictures of their family in their wallet and they will show people their pictures.
On the other hand some topics that might be okay in Japan might be a little rude in America. One example is religion; many Japanese people tell me that religion is a normal topic in Japan. In America you have to be careful when talking about religion. I think this may be because American religious thinking can be much more rigid. In Japan, people will participate in both Buddhist and Shinto activities without any problems. In America, the view is that you can only be part of one religious group.
Even within religions there are a lot of divisions. I was raised in a very liberal Jewish family and I consider myself a culturally Jewish atheist. On the other hand there are members of orthodox Jewish groups who would consider me a bad Jew because I don’t follow many Jewish rules: I eat pork, rarely go to temple and don’t cover my head. Another problem is when people try to proselytize. It can be quite annoying when someone is trying to aggressively convince you to change religions. For these reasons people often avoid talking about religion because it can cause problems.
All in all I don’t tend to see Japanese and American culture as hugely different. Certainly there are some differences, but I feel that basic human nature is the same all over the world. Although habits may be different, people are the same.
aspect (n) ? one part of a situation, problem, subject, etc.
punctuality (n) ? the habit of arriving or happening at the time that has been agreed
spouse (n) ? a person's husband or wife
rigid (adj.) ? not able to be changed or persuaded easily
liberal (adj.) ? respecting and allowing many different types of beliefs or behavior
orthodox (adj.) ? having more traditional beliefs than other people in the same religious group
proselytize (v) ? to try to persuade someone to change their religious or political beliefs or way of living to your own