When visiting Japan, you may find yourself a bit overwhelmed by the Japanese way of living. The difference between the Japanese culture and western culture is drastic and can confuse a lot of visitors. Because of this, EnableJapan.com created this mini-guide on Japanese etiquette for your first trip to Japan. These tips on Japanese etiquette concern the general social norms of daily life. It is obviously not an exhaustive listing, but it will get you through your first interactions with the social norms of the country.
We have organized this list from A-Z. Scroll down and find the topic you need help with!
Japanese Etiquette – Bathing
In the days before indoor plumbing, Japanese people used bath houses. But even in modern times, people enjoy a good, luxurious soak.
Most bathhouses are smaller places, like a neighbor sento. Others are larger and provide more services, such as the Oedo Onsen Monogatari. Larger (and more expensive) places will provide you with all the essentials, while smaller sento usually don’t provide anything but the facility (though they may have soap, shampoo, etc. available for a small fee).
When you enter the onsen, Japanese etiquette says that you must wash yourself in one of the booths before entering the hot spring or bathtub area. Since you will share the space with all the other customers, there are some restrictions on the entrance due to body exposure and public health.
Since tattoos are still a taboo in Japan, some places may not allow you to enter their facility. Depending on the place, they might provide a bandage to cover the tattoo.
Some places may not allow you to enter if you are sick, due to the risk to other customers. So if you are sick, please stay in your hotel or walk around Tokyo using a surgical mask.
Besides these few basic rules of Japanese etiquette, each bath-house has its own set of rules, so watch for signs!
The iconic Japanese greeting. In Japanese etiquette, you usually don’t shake hands or have any other physical contact with another person. Things are changing fast, but the safest form to greet someone would still be by bowing. If someone bows, depending on the person, a simple nod will be fine, but try your best to respond with another bow.
Sometimes people shake hands, depending on how much contact they have with foreigners. Or maybe they just saw it on TV. Either way, bowing is always a good way to go in Japan. Better be safe than sorry!
Bowing in a Business Setting
In a business meeting, be sure to know whom you are speaking with and their position in the company. Be as polite as possible, giving the other part a welcoming environment and space to express themselves. At the beginning and at the end of the meeting formal greetings are required.
Most Japanese executives know that foreigners are not used to bowing and will offer you a hand shake instead. If a hand shake and a bow is offered, just make sure to move slightly to your left, so you don’t bump heads. For men, always bow with your back straight and hand on the side. For women, always bow with your back straight and hands in front of your thighs. These few tips will help you send a more sophisticated and polite image of yourself.
Business cards are really important in Japan, and the exchange of cards has its own ritual. When giving or receiving business cards, you must be standing up and take it with both hands. Most of the time it will be done together with a bow. If you are receiving the card you should bow lower than the other person. Avoid only nodding; it is considered rude and unprofessional. You must always have cards for everyone, so be sure to bring enough to your business meetings!
Beyond using them to eat, chopsticks play a large part in Japanese funeral rituals. Some rules of Japanese etiquette are for avoiding mimicking those rituals at the dinner table, and others are simply good table manners. Either way, be aware of the following rules for chopsticks.
Do not stick your chopsticks into your food and let them stand. This is a funeral ritual in Japan that offers rice to the dead. Use your chopstick holder when you put them down.
Do not hover over food with your chopsticks. It is considered rude, and is sometimes interpreted as greed.
Do not rub your chopsticks together right after you break them apart. It shows that you don’t like the quality of the chopsticks provided, and may be considered rude in front of others. This is one of the more mild points of Japanese etiquette–if you eat in inexpensive restaurants often, you’ll see people do this from time to time. Still, it’s better to avoid a potentially embarrassing situation.
Do not lick your chopsticks. The same way you don’t lick your spoon, you shouldn’t do it with chopsticks.
Do not eat straight from a shared plate. Many Westerners are not accustomed to the shared plate style of dining and miss this finer point. You must first put food on your own plate, and then eat it.
Do not to pass food from one chopstick to another. This is also a funeral ritual and should not be done during dinner.
Do not cross your chopsticks when resting them on the table. Another funeral ritual.
Do not swirl your chopsticks into soups. Bad table manners!
Do not point with your chopsticks. This makes you look arrogant and rude.
Everything has a time and a place in this world, and your outfit should follow the same rules. I have been to many shrines and temples in Japan and I still can’t believe some of the clothes people wear when visiting sacred places. Keep in mind where you are going and the culture of the place. This tip will help you not only in Japan, but anywhere in the world.
If you are going to a sacred place, be modest and try to cover yourself as much as possible. No tank tops or mini dresses. This is not a way to oppress your style, but a way to remind yourself that you must respect the place and everything with it.
Clothes for Business
Always wear a suit or formal clothing for any meetings or interviews. Your first impression is important. In Japan, following a dress code is common and expected in some situations. Other than that, Japan is open to different styles and ways of expressing yourself. Just keep in mind that respecting others cultures is never out of style. Dress smart!
Colds and Respiratory Ailments
With the mindset of being as discreet as possible and not bothering anyone else, please do not blow your nose in public. Loud noises and behaviors are not welcomed by the Japanese society, even when it is about health. Here in Japan you may experience pollen allergies and/or colds. When that happens, please cover your mouth and nose with a surgical mask, which are available at every convenience store.
You will see many people using masks as an act of prevention or respect. If you are sick, please use the mask. If you are afraid of getting sick, you can also use the mask.
When sharing a bottle of sake or wine with your friends, you must remember some points of Japanese etiquette. First, never start drinking before everyone have raised their glasses and said, “kampai” (“cheers”). Second, you never pour your own drink, let someone else do it for you. Third, you pour your friends drinks. If you are drinking with co-workers, start pouring the drink according with their positions in the company.
The glasses must always to be full. So if you are the one ordering the drinks, you have to keep an eye on the table and see if anyone else needs a refill. This habit leads to a quick intoxication. If you are not a drinker, just leave your glass almost full during the night.
The drinking culture in Japan may be difficult to follow if you are not used to drinking, but it is an important step for your career here in Japan. The real talk happens at an izakaya, where you are free to state your mind, even to your boss. It is when co-workers build a stronger connection and may lead to a promotion at the end of the day.
We’ve already talked about chopsticks, but there are other parts of Japanese etiquette to observe when dining.
When you enter the restaurant, the first thing you will get is a friendly greeting and the oshibori, a wet towel for you to clean your hands. After everyone is seated, you choose your meal. It is polite, not only here in Japan but anywhere, to wait for everyone’s orders to get to the table before start eating. Here in Japan we say “itadakimasu” (I’m grateful for this food) before tasting our food, which shows gratitude to the chef and for the act of eating. If your food is better eaten right away, just say “osaki ni itadakimasu” ( I will start early).
In traditional restaurants, you will be given a small bowl together with your dish. It is a custom to share food here in Japan, so when you are eating out, please use the small bowl to eat, not the big dish plate. Just a small portion of food goes into the bowl, which you have to pick it up and bring to your mouth. Do not pick up bigger bowls! When picking up food from the shared plate, you must use the designated chopstick or use the other end of your chopstick to move the food.
After finishing your meal, say “gochisōsama deshita” (thank you for the feast).
There are several points of Japanese etiquette concerning omiyage, or souvenirs. Whenever you travel, you must bring something to friends and family. Something as simple as key chains and chocolate, nothing too expensive.
The same thing happens when you go to a new country. You must bring with you something from your country to give it to your host family or friends as a form of thanking them for their help. If you want to make friends in Japan, try to bring something from your country and distribute them to people you like. It will give you a head start in the relationship, and will warm up their feelings about you.
The order of the names in Japan is last name and then first name. Always call the other person by their last name adding one of the honorific suffixes in Japan such as -san and -sama. It is a sign of respect and also shows that you know a little bit about the Japanese culture. Only call the other person by their first name if they allow you to do so. When nothing is said, follow the rule of the last name and honorific suffix.
In Japan, it is really common to see pictures on social media where people cover the faces of their friends with emojis and drawings. This happens because people avoid posting pictures of others without their consent, especially if there are children in the photo. So be careful when you take photos in public places and try to blur the images before posting on social media. Avoid taking photos of random people, and also always watch for signs. Some places allow you to take photos only outside of the building, but not inside, so watch out for that before getting called out.
Be on time – always. Here in Japan, 10 min to 5 min prior the actual meeting time is considered on time. So if the meeting is at 12, be there at 11:50. Don’t be too early as well. If you are too early, it is considered rude and inconvenient, especially if it is a job interview. Most of the places in Tokyo are small and they might not have enough space for you to wait, turning you a burden for the company. If it is the opposite and you think you will be late, immediately call the other person to let them know. It is always better to also give an estimate time of arrival. If you think you will be 15 min late, please call the person and say that, avoid being vague.
Another thing that may surprise you when you get in Japan is the respect for queues. Anywhere you go, there will always be a queue and NO ONE trying to cut in. The most common place you will see this is the train station. You will see people forming queues on each side of the door, leaving the middle space for the passenger getting out of the train. This way the flux of people is free to come and go. The Japanese society is known for their respect for the rules and having a culture of being mindful about others, which leads us to the next tip.
In western countries, it is common to see people going in and out of places with their umbrellas on their hands. This is poor Japanese etiquette.
In front of every store, commercial building or office, you will find an umbrella hanger. The umbrella must stay outside or in a plastic bag to prevent dripping. It helps to keep the place clean and safe to walk around, but at the same time it also becomes a frustration due to the risk of having someone else taking you umbrella.
You will rarely see trash on the ground, even though there are few trash cans on the street. Why? Japanese people keep their trash with them until they get home or until they find a trash can. If you come to Japan, you will have to do the same.
A tip would be to always carry a tiny plastic bag with you to gather all the trash you produce during the day. Remember to always throw the trash in the right trash can! Separate into burnables, cans, glass, and plastic. If you are moving to Japan, be aware of the right days to put out your trash. Every type of trash has an specific day, and you must follow it. The rules change from place to place, so make sure you got all the information you need from your landlord or city hall.
When visiting a friend’s house, some hotels, or even a Japanese-style restaurant, you will have to take off your shoes and put on a pair of slippers. They do this to prevent the dirt from the street from entering.
At the entrance, you will find the genkan, a small space for you to take off your shoes. In the genkan, you take off your shoes and position your shoes pointing to the door. Once you take off your shoes, you are not allowed to step in the genkan anymore. The host will likely give you a pair of indoor shoes for you to use, but remember to take them off when entering a tatami room. In tatami rooms you will have to walk around with your socks, so use socks that you will not regret wearing later on.
Please be quiet in public places such as trains, buses, shrines and cafes. If you get in a train, you will notice that everyone is on their phones or reading a book, always quiet and calm.
You will rarely see anyone talking on the phone in public. To make or receive phone-calls in public places is considered rude in Japan. You will see signs all over the train and train stations, asking you to set your phone to silent mode and to refrain from talking on the phone. If you need to make a call, excuse yourself and return after you finish the call. If you are walking around with your friends, also remind yourself to speak in a volume that will not bother others on the way.
If you are a smoker, you will find that the Japanese government is trying to help you quit your vice. Japan has prohibited smoking in all public areas and streets. You will not get arrested for it, but the police officers will confiscate your cigarettes and warn you about the rules.
There are many smoking areas around stations and public spaces. You will also find smoking areas in restaurants and cafes, so don’t worry! Just be careful where you disposal your cigarette butts.
Tattoos in Japan are still controversial, depending on the generation of people you talk to and the places you visit. The older generation associates tattoos with the Japanese mafia, and they have a bad image. People who have had more contact with foreign cultures are not as put off by tattoos, but still may find them startling.
If you have a tattoo and are coming to Japan, you might not be able to enter public pools, gyms, bath-houses, or a hotel’s shared bath area. Some hotels and bath-houses offer bandages to cover small tattoos, but big tattoos are still hard to pass.
In Japan, a good service is part of the job of the waiter or waitress, so tips are not common in the country. The person is already getting paid to serve you and should not need more money to give the customer a good service. If you leave extra money on the table, the only thing you will give to the server is a headache, since the server will then have chase you down to return your money.
Please remember this rule in Japan. It is a common mistake, but still a uncomfortable situation to the staff who can’t explain the “no tipping” rule to you.
The famous over-complicated Japanese toilets, gotta love them! The Japanese etiquette of the bathroom is quite simple. Inside the bathroom are another pair of slippers, to be used only in the toilet room. Always use these designated slippers inside the bathroom, and change back to your house slippers after finishing. Some houses and public places will also have a separate pair of shoes to use inside the bathroom. If present, please use them.
The next rule in the bathroom is the trash. In Japan you must throw away the toilet paper inside the toilet and nothing else! In your stall you will find a tiny trash can, and everything besides the toilet paper must go there. Also, remember to always flush and wash your hands. And don’t try to push all the buttons! It will be embarrassing for you and troublesome for the cleaning crew.
I hope you have an awesome trip! If you want to learn more about Japan!