Japan is not like any other culture in the world. It is an extremely structured and traditional society. Everything from it’s food (totally yum) to its language and culture is unique. To help make your trip more enjoyable and keep you from making embarrassing cultural faux pas (like putting on the bathroom slippers on a tatami mat in a restaurant and having to deal with the waitresses attempts remain polite despite their shock and revulsion), I have put together a list of some of the key rules of etiquette a tourist is likely to encounter.
- Age equals seniority. Always treat people older than you are with consideration (e.g., offer your seat on a bus, offer to carry bags). Age does not mean elderly; if you can tell someone is older than you, you should show them appropriate deference.
- If you stay in a modern hotel you are likely to have a western type bath/shower.
- Think of a public tub as a leisure activity. There are two types of public baths:
- onsen (hot spring), and
- neighbourhood sento (bath house).
- Bathing routine: you are expected to sit down in a small stall and completely clean yourself (soap, shave, teeth), then enter the bath – no swimsuit. You will get two towels: one large and one small. Do not let a towel touch the water. You can put the small one on your head while in the tub.
- You sit down up to your neck in very hot water and chill out. Do not clean yourself in the tub (this is very disrespectful). Do not drain the tub as it will be reused by many others. Most Onsens are single sex but check before you enter.
- If you are a “traditionally built” westerner you may not be comfortable with the stares you will get in a public bath.
- In Japan people greet each other by bowing; a deeper longer bow indicates respect. They also bow to make a request, apologize and thank.
- As a foreigner, a short bow is usually sufficient (you won’t be expected to know all the nuances).
- On trains, conductors turn around as they leave the car and bow to the passengers before moving to the next car.
- When leaving temples or shrines, you should turn around at the entrance and bow to the altar.
- If you are on business travel, have double-sided English-Japanese cards to show respect.
- Cards are exchanged at the beginning of a meeting. Stand up when exchanging cards, particularly with those of a higher rank.
- Facing your counterpart, bow slightly and hand your card with the Japanese side facing up with both hands and vice versa.
- Read your colleague’s card carefully, saying his/her name and position out loud to be sure of pronunciation. If you are unsure of the position, ask.
- Do not put the card in your pocket or wallet until the meeting is over. Place in on the table in front of you. If there are more than one arrange them all neatly in front of you. Look at it frequently during the meeting to refer correctly to your colleagues name and position.
- Make sure you have enough for everyone.
- Drinking is a group activity.
- Don’t say no when offered a drink.
- Keep your glass full if you don’t want to be offered another.
- Toasting is important.
- When drinking with others, wait for everyone to get their drink and a round of cheers.
- For the first round, people usually have the same drink (e.g., beer, sake).
- When eating with others, you pour their drink and they pour yours. Do not pour your own. If you don’t want more to drink, leave your glass full.
- Rather than a napkin you will get a wet oshibori towel (which is hot in winter, cool in summer) to wash your hands before eating. Do not use it to wipe your face or neck. Do not use the oshibori as a napkin.
- Do not eat directly from a common dish.
- Do not put your fingers in your mouth in front of others.
- Do not mix wasabi in your soya sauce.
- Do not put sugar/cream in tea.
- Do not help yourself. Wait until your host offers you something.
- Never use your hand to catch falling food.
- Avoid using your teeth to bite things in half (a one bite eat).
- Don’t hover or touch food without taking it.
- Pause to eat your rice.
- Never put soya sauce on your rice.
- Do not invert the lid of your bowl (it can damage the finish).
- Never raise your food over your mouth.
- Males can slurp and burp when eating noodles – not so much for females.
- An empty plate means you want more food. Leave a little food on your plate to signal you are finished.
- Do not walk and eat; if eating street food, stand or squat, do not sit on a curb.
- Exceptions when you can eat in public: when you eat ice cream; you are at a festival; discreetly on a train by the exit, making sure you make no noise and keeping your head down; if you are a child; outside a convenience store (at the smokers’ shame corner).
- If you are an older woman and it is hot, you can discretely take small sips of a soft drink held in a towel.
- Hold chopsticks towards their end (not the middle or front).
- When you are not using them/have finished eating, lay them down in front of you with the tips pointing left.
- Do not point, spear food, rub together, wave, play, move items with your chopsticks.
- To separate food, put pressure on the chopsticks while moving them apart to tear the food. With larger pieces of food it is acceptable to pick up the entire piece and take a bite.
- If you are taking food from a communal plate, use the blunt end of your chopsticks to move the food to your plate (not the end you put in your mouth).
- Don’t hold chopsticks before picking up your bowl (of rice, soup).
- Never stick chopsticks into your rice; this is only done at funerals with rice that is placed on the alter.
- Do not pass food from one set of chopsticks to another. This is only done at funerals with cremated human bones.
- The person standing closest to the buttons operates the doors and should be the last to leave when they reach their floor.
- On an escalator, stand on the left, allowing people to walk past on the right.
- Never stand in the walking lane.
- Shoes are for outdoors and slippers for indoors.
- Footwear is changed in the indoor vestibule (genkan) which is at a lower elevation than the indoor space.
- When you take off your shoes point them toward the door.
- Make sure to not step on the genkan after taking off your shoes.
- Slippers are provided by the host.
- They can be worn anywhere indoors except when entering rooms with a tatami floor which should only be stepped on with bare or stocking feet.
- Take off your shoes when entering a private home, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, tea houses, many restaurants, historic places (you will know to remove them because there are boxes at the front to put your shoes in and there are often slippers that you can use).
- In a private home you may also be offered garden balcony shoes (geta) if you are going to an outdoor place within the home. Do not wear your indoor slippers outside.
- Tip: wear slip-on shoes as you may have to take them on and off a number of times a day. Make sure you have nice socks. If you are wearing sandals make sure you have a pair of clean socks that you can put on when you slip your sandals off.
- While there are very few public garbage bins, you can never throw trash on the sidewalk/road. Hold on to garbage until you find a recycling bin, then make sure you put your garbage in the right one.
- Recycling rules are byzantine. Look at the pictures in community garbage drop off points to separate and dispose of your waste properly.
- Keep them to yourself – go to extremes to not share.
- Never blow your nose in public. Hide and use a new tissue every time.
- Wear a face-mask when you have a cold/cough to prevent infecting others.
- In greeting, bow – avoid handshakes and cheek kisses.
- People fall asleep on the shoulder of a complete stranger in subways.
- Polite people always give their seats to the elderly, pregnant and children.
- No noise (talking, cell phones, music) on the metro.
- Do not eat or drink while walking on the metro.
- Do not cross your legs.
- Avoid excessive physical and eye contact and pointing.
- Don’t touch in pubic (e.g, holding hands, hugs, kissing).
- Dress conservatively (female cleavage and niblets be gone), minimal jewelry, hide any tattoos (which are associated with Japanese organized crime and give people the creeps).
- Soft sell whatever you do.
- Don’t talk about yourself and show off.
- Modesty is virtue.
- Always apologize (as in a marriage, if it is your fault apologize; if it is not your fault, apologize anyway).
- Do not stand close to another person.
- Hide your bellybutton (bad luck).
- When paying in a store, put the money on the tray that sits on the counter, do not hand it to the cashier.
- Your change will be placed on the tray for you to pick it up.
- Do not leave a tip in a restaurant / taxi / hairdresser (it may be considered an insult).
- While not expected, you can tip a guide. Put the money in an envelope, hand it to them while thanking them and bowing.
- If you leave a tip in a restaurant it is likely that a restaurateur will chase you down the street to return it to you.
- Don’t overtly count your change.
- On business, the company that wants to sell something pays. The potential customer weakly tries to pay the bill but does not insist (if they do, there is no deal).
- Silence is golden. Be as quite as possible in public.
- Music is not much heard coming from mobile devices or stores.
- Talking on a cell phone on the metro or trains is not allowed (text or email only).
- Even in conversation keep the volume down and the silences long and thoughtful.
- Avoid number 4 (like 13 in western culture and means death).
- Pointing with a finger is considered rude (Walt Disney thought so too).
- People indicate direction with an open hand or gestures.
- Japanese are extremely pleasant, polite, kind people who will do whatever they can to help you.
- Use indirect speech about uncomfortable topics.
- Do not challenge or embarrass people.
- Body language is different (e.g, to point to yourself you point to your nose).
- In business, “hai” does not necessarily mean “yes”, but more like “I hear you”.
- “No” is frequently ambiguous.
- Always be on time for appointments.
Shrines and Temples
- Buddhist Temples
- Temples are shoes-off.
- At most temples, leave your shoes on the shelves at the entrance.
- At some, put them in a plastic bag provided and take them with you.
- Wear nice socks.
- Behave respectfully. Watch what people are doing around you and emulate their behaviors.
- Show respect by making a short prayer in front of a sacred object.
- Put a coin in the offering box followed by a prayer.
- Put the incense into the incense burner and fan some smoke towards yourself, particularly towards a part of your body that is unwell, to help you heal.
- Photography: watch for signs, it is usually permitted on the temple grounds but not indoors at most temples.
- Temples are shoes-off.
- Shinto Shrines
- At the purification fountain take a ladle, fill it with fresh water and rinse both hands, then put some water in your cupped hands and rinse your mouth and spit out the water beside the fountain.
- Put a coin in the offering box, bow deeply twice, clap your hands softly twice, bow deeply once more and say a brief prayer.
- Never jaywalk or cross a street when the light is red even if there is no traffic.
- In major urban areas sidewalks have two lanes: one for pedestrians and one for bicycles
- Bicycles are ridden on the sidewalk. Oddly enough cyclists will weave through pedestrian traffic down the sidewalk, even though they have a designated lane.
- Do not eat or drink while walking on a street.
- Always walk on the left almost as strictly as cars do.
- Separate toilet slippers are provided for use in indoor washrooms. Your indoor slippers are left outside the washroom door. Don’t forget to remove your toilet slippers after use.
- People queue in front of an individual stall, not in one long queue.
- The Japanese version of a western toilet is the proverbial throne with a plethora of options including: a seat warmer, front and back spray with oscillating options, blow dryer, music, a “sound princess” that masks all sounds by replicating the sound of a flushing toilet, and even a scent dispenser.
- A Japanese squat toilet is a porcelain hole in the ground with a hood covering part of it to prevent back splash when you flush. To use it, squat or kneel facing the hood with your legs on either side of the hole. A lever or button near the hood is used to flush.
- Make sure that you carry toilet paper as it is often not available in some areas.
Umbrellas & Raingear
- Left outside or at entrance in plastic bags. Big buildings often have outdoor umbrella racks.
Yukata (hotel pajamas)
- At Ryokan and budget hotels it’s OK to wear Yukata to meals.
- Keep the Yukata tightly wrapped.
- Do not wear it loose around your neck.
- If you are a normal western size the Yukata is unlikely to fit.
- Women are viewed as needing protection and care.
- Due to groping on the metro, there are women-only cars.
If we have missed any important rules of etiquette, please tell us and we will add it to this post.