Japan places high importance on proper etiquette, especially when you are in public. They have rules from the way you bow to the way you drink your alcohol. As a foreigner, you’re probably anxious about following these rules. The sheer number of rules, however, can sometimes be overwhelming.
So, to help you avoid awkward situations, glares of disapproval, or sighs of disappointment, here are some public situations you will most likely encounter during your stay here in Japan, and how to handle them properly with adherence to the art and form of public etiquette.
Japanese are rarely the touchy-feely type. Try to keep physical contact to a minimum. Shaking hands is okay for some, but back-slapping, high-fives, or (Buddha-forbid) hugs are very rarely done.
If you want to greet someone, bow. It’s still the most common method of greeting someone. Bowing also doubles as a way to apologize, thank, or request something from someone. If you are in an informal setting like hanging out, or meeting friends of friends, bowing isn’t necessary, but it definitely is during formal settings that involve business or more serious matters.
To be safe, let your Japanese friend, partner, or client make the initial move. If the other person extends a hand, then there’s no problem. If the other person stops a few steps away, be ready to bow.
The way you address people is also important. Generally, Japanese people call each other by their last names and attach the suffix “-san” in their greetings. Only close friends and family call each other by their first names. Wait for your Japanese friend to permit you to call her or him by the first name.
Want to know what some of the other suffixes mean?
Kun – informal, usually for males
Chan – informal and used mainly for very young children or females
Sama – indicates extreme respect; think Buddha or feudal lords
Senpai – a person who enters a club, school, or company before you
Kouhai – a person who enters a club, school, or company after you
Sensei – not just used for teachers but also doctors, politicians, and other figures of authority
The number one rule for business in Japan is never to be late. Japanese are very, very punctual. Even just a one-second delay upsets some people.
The second rule is to have your business card (meishi) and business card holder
The Japanese place a high value on exchanging business cards (meishi koukan). Some have international business cards printed out with information in Japanese on one side and in English on the other. This shows how important it is for them that the other person understands what’s written on that small piece of paper.
The basic steps of this sacred ritual are:
- Offer and receive a business card with both hands.
- When offering one, make sure that it is turned properly to the receiver.
- After receiving one, study it for a moment before storing it in your business card holder. Do not fold it or carelessly stuff it in your pocket. This would seem as if you care little for that person, showing a great deal of disrespect.
While in meetings, remember that talking in a loud voice is generally not acceptable—whatever country you’re in.
After the meeting, you’ll probably use one of Japan’s very efficient public modes of transportation to go to a restaurant. If talking loudly in open spaces is not acceptable, talking in a loud voice in an enclosed space is twice as bad. It’s like someone shouting in your ear. This is literally true in the jam-packed trains of Tokyo.
This rule also covers cell phone conversations. When on a train, put your cell phone on silent mode, and ignore incoming calls. Never try to call someone on the train either. There are signs posted in each train cart reminding people to do this, as well as an announcement after every stop. If you’re on a bullet train, go to the small cubicle between cars and take the call there.
Since Japan can be packed wall-to-wall with people, wear a face mask if you have a cough or cold. This is why Japanese wear face masks so that they don’t get the people around them sick. Don’t blow your runny nose in public. Just keep sniffing until you find a private nook or public restroom where you can do so in privacy.
Also, try to be on the lookout for Japanese women exhibiting maternity badges. If you see one, it’s only polite to offer your seat to her. If you’re a guy, be aware that there are also trains that have cars exclusively for women during the morning rush hours. These special cars indicated by the pink sticker across the windows of the cars and floors of the station platform.
Eating and drinking
We’ll divide this into several sections because eating and drinking is life in Japan.
Chopsticks are the primary tools you will use when eating in Japan. Remember that the following are considered RUDE in Japan:
- Pointing your chopsticks or gesturing at someone with them.
- Stabbing food with them.
- Sticking them upright into a bowl of rice (traditionally, chopsticks are placed vertically in a bowl of rice to honor the dead during funerals).
- Passing food from one pair of chopsticks to another (traditionally, people pass the cremated bones of dead relatives from one person to another using chopsticks before they are placed in the urn).
- Using the end you put in your mouth to help yourself from a communal plate of food (use the other end of your chopsticks to pick food and transfer it onto your plate, then switch back your chopsticks to the usual position to continue eating).
- Rubbing your restaurant-given chopsticks right after splitting them (they may be cheap but you don’t want to rub it in the restaurant owner’s face).
Food on the Go
Avoid eating and drinking while walking. Usually, people finish their food or drink where they buy them. If you’re in a hurry, eat or drink at your destination. You can also just sit on a bench or stand in a corner and finish what you have before restarting your walk.
This social rule is based on Japan’s love for cleanliness and the consideration of others. Walking might make you spill your drink or leave crumbs on the street, making the area dirty. Other people might step on the mess and make it worse.
Speaking of cleanliness, Tokyo does not have a lot of garbage bins so just keep your trash in your bag until you find a bin. You might have to go all day with your trash in your backpack until you get home to toss it out.
Garbage bins became scarce in public places in Tokyo after a major terrorist attack in 1995. Five members of a cult placed an extremely lethal gas called Sarin in trash bins along a subway line in Tokyo injuring 5,000 people. The government decided to take away public trash bins to lessen the possibility of similar events occurring again.
Nowadays, you can still find some trash bins in train stations (keep walking you’ll eventually find one), beside vending machines, convenience stores, and at parks. Keep in mind that trash cans are typically organized by pet bottles, cans, and general trash, so be sure you are putting your trash in the right bin!
To continue the topic of cleanliness, many restaurants provide warm or cold moist towels for their customers. Use this to wipe your hands before your meal. When you are through, fold it neatly and place it on the little dish it came from or put it on the table in front of you. Don’t use it to wipe sweat from your face or to clean your hands while you are eating.
Before starting a meal, say “Itadakimasu.” This literally translates to “I receive.” In the context of food, it can be roughly translated to “Let’s eat” or the Japanese equivalent of the French “Bon appétit.”
Historically, the Japanese say Itadakimasu to honor the ingredients that gave their life to become food and the persons responsible for making the meal. Some Japanese don’t believe in this spiritual meaning anymore, but they still follow tradition even when eating snacks.
If you’re in the mood for some ramen or some other type of noodle, slurp loudly when you’re eating. Don’t worry, this is probably the only time you will not be reprimanded for making a lot of noise while eating. Generally, people believe that slurping shows how much you like the food.
Speaking of noodle shops, if you’re in one put your bowl and utensils on the Countertop above when you’re finished. You should also put away your tray, utensils, and trash in the proper bins when you’re in fast-food restaurants. No one is going to clean up after you so it’s only common courtesy to buss after you eat so that the people who will use your table next won’t have to do it.
During drinking sessions, don’t pour a drink for yourself. Pour a glass for others. Wait for someone to pour a drink for you. It’s considered rude to deny a drink, so if you don’t want to drink anymore, leave some left in your glass so that someone doesn’t fill it up again. Japanese are always conscientious about this unwritten rule so you have nothing to worry about. You will be able to say “Kampai!” along with the others.
As mentioned above, cleanliness is a big thing with the Japanese. You cannot enter a house and bring the dirt of the street inside. You need to take off your shoes near the entrance and slip your feet into slippers provided for you.
This etiquette is used not just for homes but for some public places like ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel/inn) or public bathhouses. Because of this custom, you might want to use shoes that you can take off easily when you travel to Japan. Because of this rule, I always buy slip-on shoes now, making my life a lot easier!
Also, ryokan and certain restaurants have special slippers just for toilets. These slippers are usually made of rubber. Remember to change your footwear when you enter or leave one. You don’t want to go back to your room or table wearing bathroom slippers!
After eating, it’s now time to pay. But wait. Before you leave some change as a tip for your hardworking server, read this part first.
Tipping is not part of Japan’s service culture. The tradition of taking pride in work, no matter how humble it is, is deeply ingrained in Japanese culture. Avoid some awkward, confusing, and embarrassing (on your server’s part) moments, don’t leave a tip.
Also, when paying in restaurants, convenience stores, or shops, it is rare for the cashiers to directly receive your money or credit card. Again, it has something to do with physical contact. There are small trays at cashier stations where you drop your money and receive your change. This is very efficient especially if you get coins as change.
After eating, it’s now time to relax. Japan offers two types of communal or public bathhouses: sento (uses regular heated tap water) and onsen (uses natural spring water). Despite the difference in water, the rules of etiquette are the same.
At the entrance, remember to change your footwear from shoes to slippers. Coordinate with the front desk for the fees, especially if you didn’t bring your own bathing supplies. Usually, you need soap/body wash, shampoo/conditioner, and two towels (one small and one big). In high-end onsen, the soap and shampoo are free, but small local sento sell them.
You need two towels because one is to dry you off while the other one is for showering. Remember, even though you can bring it into the bathing area, the small towel should not touch the bathwater. People usually put them on their heads or place them on the ledge of the bathtub to keep them out of the water.
When you enter the bathing area, take a shower and clean your body first. Do not enter the bathtub without scrubbing down thoroughly. Remember, the bathtub is communal. Do you want other people’s dirt to float around you in the tub?
Furthermore, the Japanese consider the bathwater, especially in an onsen, to be medicinal. It serves as a means to relax, heal, and detoxify the body. A dirty body polluting the water will be counterproductive.
Go all natural when you shower and soak in the bathtub. No swimsuits are allowed (although some modern onsens are starting to allow it). The baths have been segregated by gender since the Meiji era, so women don’t have to worry about prying eyes of men and vice-versa.
Since you’ll be naked, you might want to be careful if you have tattoos. Historically, only yakuza (Japanese mobsters) have tattoos in Japan. Some sento and onsens even forbid people with tattoos from entering their establishments. Some onsens can offer skin-colored bandages to cover the tattooes, but if your tattoo is bigger than a standard patch, you might as well skip going to an onsen all-together, because you won’t be permitted whether you are a foreigner or not. You may be able to find some tattoo-friendly onsens, but keep in mind that these are very rare to find, old, and that most people you will find there will be yakuza.
These are just some of the many social situations you might encounter in Japan.
A final tip: Don’t worry if you make a faux pas. Japanese people understand that you’re a gaijin (foreigner) who might not know all the intricate customs of the country, and they will make allowances for you. Also, there will always be exceptions to the rules, especially if you make friends and hang out with them often. Just use common sense when traveling across Japan, and do as the Japanese do!
Just do your best to be polite and considerate. Doing so will already be a huge step towards following Japanese etiquette and get you into the habits will that leave good impressions of yourself on people during your stay in Japan.
Did I miss anything? Share it in the comments section below!