Responsible Travel Guide: Japan

Hello and welcome to my Responsible Travel Guide: Japan edition!

I did a lot of research for my trip to Japan. A lot. Possibly more than for any other trip I’ve planned in my life. Beyond finding things to do and places to stay, I wanted to make sure I was traveling responsibly and aware of any ethical challenges we might encounter in Japan. There are unique ethical issues in every destination and it’s important to be well informed so you can make the right decisions when faced with these challenges.

Here are a few ethical conundrums we encountered during our trip and some information to arm y’all with the knowledge you need to make the best decisions.

Plastic Waste

One of the reasons I was so excited to visit Japan was because everything about their culture is so different from my own. Especially their food! They have so many unique snack and drink products I wanted to try, but the reality of these products came along with an insane amount of plastic packaging. Just take a look inside one of their famed conbinis.

At home, I try so hard to avoid single-use plastics and food packaging. I’ve given up drinking sodas or any beverages from plastic. Instead, I opt for either cans, glass bottles, water in my reusable bottle. I’ve also stopped purchasing prepped food packaged in plastic, like sushi or pre-made salads. But there’s so much I wanted to try in Japan (the unique teas, bento on the shinkansen, etc.) and I knew I’d have to break my anti-plastic habits for them. Japan has a huge plastic problem. Some 60% of Japan’s household waste by volume is made up of food packaging and other plastic containers. Japan is also one of the most successful countries in the world for recycling plastics, so that gave me a bit more peace of mind, but knowing how inefficient the plastic recycling process really is I still prefer to reduce over recycling.

I didn’t want to deny myself the experiences of sampling these Japanese treats, but I made a conscious effort to not go overboard and saved every piece of plastic for recycling. It’s not a perfect solution, but overall I’m glad I got to sample some of the Japanese treats because I know I would have regretted missing out on that part of Japanese culture.

Cetacean Cruelty

Another huge concern I had is over Japan’s horrible treatment of cetaceans. I won’t go into much detail about it, because it is truly upsetting to me, but if you’re up for it and seeking that knowledge, watch The Cove. Basically, they keep dolphins in captivity under cruel conditions. Captive dolphins have increased by 23% in Japan over the past decade. The country has around a hundred dolphinariums, about half of which use dolphins caught in the controversial Taiji hunts.

They are also one of the three countries who still allow whaling despite an almost unanimous international moratorium. I will not consume any whale meat for the sake of getting “the experience” in any country I visit and I definitely embargo the dolphinariums during my trip to Japan.

Disposable Chopsticks and Deforestation

Did you know China alone uses 20 million trees each year to feed the country’s disposable chopstick habit? That’s just one country. This is unsustainable and wasteful. Here at home I carry a resuable bamboo utensil set with a fork, knife, spoon, chopsticks in my purse so I can avoid using disposable cutlery when I’m out and about. You can find the set I have and love here. I carried these in Japan as well. You can also find cute decorated chopsticks in any market. I find that when you have cute reusables (like water bottles, chopsticks, etc.) you’ll be more excited and likely to get in the habit of using them.

Animal Tourism

Before I went all “crunchy” and starting getting really into responsible, ethical living I saw videos of the fox village in Japan and really wanted to visit so badly. I also had owl/hedgehog/cat cafes on my list. But after doing my research, I decided I cannot and will not support these businesses with my tourism money because animal cafes put profit over animal welfare.

I won’t go into too much detail, again because it is so heartbreaking to me and makes me sick to my stomach, but here are some resources so you can make an informed decision.

Read: Ex-Owl Cafe Worker Speaks Out

Read: Owl Cafes in Japan Draw Ire of Animal Safety Activists

Read: Hedgehog Cafe isn’t as Cute as it Looks

Some general rules of thumb to help you make ethical decisions when it comes to animal tourism:

  • Don’t support the use of animals as photo props.
  • Avoid any animal attraction where animals are trained to perform tasks that have humanized behaviors. Such as riding bikes, painting, etc.
  • Culture is not an excuse for cruelty. Even if an activity is considered part of a country’s cultural heritage that doesn’t make it ok. Do not use your money to perpetuate animal cruelty in the form of activities such as bullfighting.
  • Any organization that breeds animals in captivity should be questioned.
  • Avoid all experiences in which you pet animals. All animal encounters should be “hands off”. Animals, even domestic ones, should have the choice to interact with us on their own terms.
  • Appropriate animal encounters should foster an exploration of the natural world. Such as a diving experience where you encounter a dolphin in its own habitat and on their terms. They can come to you if you want, but you don’t touch them or pursue them, you just observe.

Cultural Respect

Japan has a very unique culture of respect and tradition. It’s important to be aware of some of their cultural customs in order to be respectful to the people with whom you’re interacting. A few things to remember on a daily basis:

  • Bowing is big. Check out this post for more info on bowing.
  • When paying for items, place your money on the tray near the register instead of handing it directly to the cashier. It is considered a breach of etiquette to hold the money out for the cashier to take by hand.
  • Begin each meal with the word itadakimasu (いただきます, meaning “I humbly receive”). Similar to saying grace, it expresses gratitude for all who played a role in providing the food and acknowledges the living organisms who have given their lives to humans.
  • Shoes are not worn inside. You will remove your shoes in the entrance foyer and replace them with slippers for inside wear.

For more things to know about Japanese etiquette, Lonely Planet put together a great guide here and one of my favorite YouTubers put this quick video on basic etiquette together.

Respect of Sacred Spaces

While shrines and temples are popular stops for tourists, it’s important to remember that these are places of worship. Before entering the building, normally people wash their hands and mouth with a purification fountain. Below is a video demonstrating the cleansing/purification ritual, but don’t worry about remembering it now since many of the larger shrines and temples will have signs to remind you!

After this, be mindful of your noise level as well as the photos you are taking. Most temples have signs letting you know not to take photos past a certain point in areas of worship, be respectful and don’t break these rules.

Happy ethical, responsible, and sustainable adventuring, friends!

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