Tokyo / Japan: Day 13 – A need for further research; the ‘half-spit’, and more cross-cultural observations

At 10am on Day 13 (May 4) I was met by my guide to Tokyo, Madoka Suganuma. Madoka has a background in social research and works for a private health orientated market research company in Tokyo but also freelances for japanCRUSH an online news trending site:

Japan/Tokyo was always going to represent an interesting case study as it is a city and a culture almost obsessed (comparatively speaking of course) with cleanliness, politeness, hygiene and order and you only need to be here for a few hours before this is patently obvious. An example of the level of concern relating to disease, hygiene and politeness is evidenced by the amount of Japanese people (young, old, men and women, trendy and mainstream) that wear masks in public to either prevent the of catching colds/flu etc. and/or to protect others from catching such things from them. You will see (I would guess about 10-20%) people wearing these masks in parks, in the street, on public transport and so on. The fourth image shows a street vending machine for masks.

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‘Everyday’ public spitting therefore shouldn’t be seen in Japan, not because it has been banned as in Singapore, but because it just shouldn’t ‘fit’ with the Japanese way. Anecdotal views on spitting in Japan (for as with most other places nothing has been written on it) are mixed however. Admittedly, in English, there is little by way of web presence when compared to China , India and South Korea but there do exist a number of postings that suggest spitting is unexpectedly commonplace, for e.g. see: and

Madoka had already informed me that – similar to my experience in Jakarta where a public holiday interfered with data collection, but worse – Tokyo was in the middle of Golden Week, a public holiday period that lasts for one week between April 29 – May 5. This meant that a) the streets were relatively empty in many spaces; b) that where they were busy (such as the park/zoo/train stations) it was with a holiday crowd.

Madoka and I walked for approximately 7.5 hours and visited 7 different areas around Tokyo: Shimbashi, a so-called ‘saleryman’ (white collar business / company man) area that included a state run betting shop, it also included a metro station and outside is a smoking area where we expected to see some ‘contained’ spitting; Ueno, where we walked through the an old black market area, and a very busy park containing a zoo; Sanya, a poor area with street based alcoholics (though by western/European standards the built environment appeared very clean and well maintained); Shibuya, a major shopping area containing a famous mass pedestrian crossing experience.


Shibuya, perhaps something similar to London’s Piccadilly Circus, contains shopping malls, tourist venues, hotels (including the famous ‘Love Hotels’) amusements and so on. After Shibuya we visited Shinokubo (known colloquially as Korean Town), followed by Shinjuku and area also containing Kabukicho, the red-light district. Here are a couple of permitted outdoor smoking areas:

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Overall, throughout the day we saw a number of men spitting here and there (at the park, outside the betting shop) but by and large there was an absence of clear, consistent visible spitting. Madoka (as had a previous Tokyo based source) told me that spitting in Japan is mostly associated with mid-aged, salarymen and/or ‘uncles’ (older men) that are smokers. Madoka believes that the public holiday context confounded data collection and that the outdoor smoking areas around stations (especially before the last train home) and outside bars would yield, with further observation, the expected spitting and its associated demographics. Madoka and I agreed to continue the research together as an on-going project – detailed a little further down.

The ‘half-spit’!

In addition to having observed a minimal amount of street spitting one new ‘spitting’ variety was uncovered – the half-spit. The half spit was discovered quite naturally in the course of our attempted data collection in Tokyo. On at least three occasions we heard the tell-tale signs of a pre-spit, the loud ‘hock’ that brings the spittle/phlegm forcefully up into the mouth. I heard/saw this first but thereafter on this cue, we would turn to or quietly observe the man making this noise in anticipation of the spit that…..incredulously, never came. The half-spit involve bringing up the phlegm and then, it appears, swallowing it back down again. At the moment it isn’t clear why this would be done but it didn’t appear to have anything to do with the person having thought better of the action and stopping themselves half way through. The half-spit seems a genuine behaviour. It is important because it has at least 50% of the attributes of what makes the hock and the spit the more offensive of the different types of public spitting. Noise – as I will suggest in a special post soon – arguably has a meaningful relationship to manners and how they are both perceived and the extent of their visibility.

‘Everything is opposite in Japan’

At one point Madoka commented that everything is opposite in Japan. She was making the point that the relatively new smoking ban was an outdoor smoking ban not an indoor one (the rationale for which appears specious to say the least but not dissimilar to the way that spitting is implicated in disease spread outdoors – I’ll cover the rationale in a later post) . Another example would be the fact the intersections have names but roads do not. The banning or corralling of outdoor smoking/smokers however has had at least two possible interesting unintended consequences relevant to this research: firstly, that by making smokers (and generally they do conform to this in the same way Japanese people will not cross a road until the walk signal lights up even if there is no traffic for thirty miles) smoke in specified public areas (see image) they may have brought spitters together in an easily observable form. Alternatively, late night, last train, male spitters who would once have spread out round the station concourse and spat may now – with some added constraint imposed by the closer proximity of others refrain more than they would have previously. We aim to research this further.

Future research plans

As a resident of Tokyo and a witness to numerous spitting episodes herself, Madoka is sure that there is more to be established about the nature and form of public spitting Tokyo/Japan. Given her willingness to continue as a collaborator we agreed on the following as a plan of action:

1. For the International spitting survey to be translated into Japanese to capture the experiences of many more Japanese people from around Japan on spitting by themselves and others where they live

2. For this to be amended slightly to accommodate some extra questions pertinent to the Japanese context

3. To carry out further observations on/around key locations at varying times

4. To interview / follow-up respondents to the survey that can shed some light on the effect of the outdoor smoking ban on spitting behaviour; on the half-spit and how spitting fits with the Japanese sensibilities around politeness and hygiene

5. Given the absence of information in English to research the online presence of any Japanese language references to spitting – historical and contemporary. This would include references to legal shifts (perhaps around tuberculosis in the early twentieth century) controlling spitting and/or references to manners/politeness/hygiene as well as current anecdotal materials from inside Japan itself.

6. To produce historically/contemporarily informed journal articles (one in English and one in Japanese) on how spitting is situated in Japanese society and culture.


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