The Top 6 Things Foreigners Should Not Do in Japan

by Azra Syakirah

Those of us who have been to Japan have been there — unintentionally breaking an unspoken yet mutual rule of Japan. Whispers and discussions on how things work in this culturally rich country are bound to pop up at some point. 

Here’s the thing: if you’re not born in Japan or have lived long enough in the country, you wouldn’t necessarily know the ins and outs of it. The Japanese etiquette is one that’s profound and sometimes confusing. The unique customs, social norms and rules that regulate the society and relations can be pretty far off compared to what some of us are used to, including the tons of “don’ts” that we are obliged to follow. Even if foreigners tend to get a “free pass” in most situations, it’s best to not take advantage of that.

This ultimate list is a compilation of everything from the first-hand experiences to word-of-mouth to make your travel or living experience in this great country a more delightful one. Discover the top 6 things foreigners should definitely not do in Japan!

6 Things You Shouldn’t Do In Japan While Visiting

1. Avoid noise and being too loud on the train

Japan is one of the most densely populated countries in the entire world! With such a title, you’d expect every corner of the country to be full of chit chat and occasional shouts and loud chatter — especially on common spaces like public transportation. 

Public transportation like buses and trains are undoubtedly packed with people, naturally generating a level of uncontrollable noise. The trains in Japan are extremely known to be jam-packed with commuters day in and night out, yet surprisingly there is zero noise in every cabin on the train. One could even say it’s pin-drop silent.

A common sight on any train in Japan is seeing all the heads tilted downwards, facing the screens on their phones. Everyone is either intently watching a movie or drama or casually scrolling through the news and social media. Phones are set to silent — you’ll even hear the train woman announcement requesting passengers to switch their phones to silent mode.

Don’t even expect to see a person on a phone call — in fact, this is a strict no-no. If a Japanese person needs to answer a call, they will get off the train at the next stop to do so. 

Even groups of people lower down their voices as they step on the train. Some even end their conversations to abide by this unspoken rule of absolute silence.  If you can’t resist talking then I’d recommend diving into your favorite music genre or podcast series with a pair of noise cancelling headphones.

Why can’t you do this?

Being on a train that’s so silent might be extremely unusual for most people, but not for the Japanese. In Japan, it is more of an act of respect for other commuters sharing the common space.

Imagine this situation: you had a late night at the office the night before and only got home at the stroke of midnight. After washing up and settling in, you’ve only managed to fall asleep at two in the morning, only to be forced awake by your alarm at six in the morning to get ready for work. You rush out of your home to catch the morning train — exhausted and definitely not in the mood for another full day of work and potentially overtime. Being surrounded by loud chats and constant noises on the early train is probably the last thing you want.

The unnecessary noise on the train is being treated as rude and disrespectful to the Japanese. Because it is such a public space with tons of people using it at the same time, it’s only right to the Japanese that everyone should be mindful of the noise they’re making so as to not disrupt the other people around you.

What you should do instead

If you’re hopping on the train with friends, it might be rather odd to abruptly end the conversation all of you were having. Be mindful and respectful by lowering your voices as you continue your chitchats — loud enough for your other friends to hear you but soft enough to not disturb the other passengers.

If you’re on your own and received a phone call, try your best to not answer it — send a text to your friend, they’ll understand. Alternatively, you can stop at the following stop to pick it up. This strict no-phonecall rule is one that the Japanese cannot overlook, so if you don’t stick to it, you might even be approached by some locals who will gesture you to put down the phone!

2. Do not wear shoes indoors

Some cultures in various parts of the world have the habit of wearing shoes in the house. For those people, the idea of not wearing your outdoor shoes indoors may come as a huge shock. In Japan, never, ever wear your shoes into someone’s home regardless of whose home it is. 

Almost all home entryways in Japanese homes have a specific space where outdoor shoes can be placed. At this special hallway, the shoes are lined up neatly — so if you see a situation like this, which you’re more likely to than not, be sure to take off your shoes before entering the house.

This no-shoe rule does not just apply to homes. It extends to most ryokans which are traditional Japanese-style hotels, some temples and shrines, schools and hospitals. Don’t be surprised if restaurants request you to take off your shoes before entering, especially traditional ones. It’s just the norm in Japan. If you’re paranoid about leaving your shoes out in public places for anyone to take, I recommend getting a large travel backpack to take with your while traveling in Japan.

Sometimes, house slippers are provided for you to switch to. However, there are also rules for the house slippers. A significant one is that you’re expected to leave them outside the bathroom to switch to the bathroom slipper when entering the room. The bathroom slippers are only allowed to be used in the bathroom though, so make sure you switch out of them again when you leave.

How can a topic such as slippers and shoes be such a huge thing in Japan? Apparently, it is, and the Japanese are not known to be lenient when it comes to this.

Why can’t you do this?

Why is wearing outdoor shoes in the house such a big prohibition, you ask? Well, the Japanese regard outdoor shoes as unclean and dirty, and for this reason, they are not to be brought into the house and to only be used outdoors. Everyone wants their home to be clean and tidy — for the Japanese people, having their indoor and outdoor shoes separate is one way to go about that.

Shoes are also prohibited on traditional tatami mat floors, regardless of whether they are indoor or outdoor shoes. The straw matting of these tatami mats are extremely delicate, so the rough surface of shoes might damage them.

What you should do instead

Most Japanese homes and facilities that require guests to take off their shoes will provide indoor slippers to wear instead. You’re often required to wear them rather than just going around barefoot as they not only keep the floors clean but also your feet! However, there’s a chance you might not be offered slippers at all and have to endure walking around a public floor in your bare feet. I strongly suggest bringing a pair of extra socks with you. You can get some pretty awesome socks here that you can take with you on your trip.

In traditional homes where there are tatami mat flooring, don’t expect to be offered indoor slippers. Better yet, come prepared with clean, fresh socks to wear indoors. Having socks on will protect these delicate tatami straw matting — you wouldn’t want to unintentionally damage someone else’s flooring, do you? 

3. Do not jump the queue

In almost all countries in the world, the queuing system is implemented. You’ll see people queuing to go into a restaurant or waiting in line behind the cashier of a supermarket. These queues all around the world are arguably not as straight and uniform as the ones in Japan, though. 

It may come off as odd at first but then you’ll end up being more grateful than weirded out by the Japanese’s obedience for the queuing system. They love queuing — everywhere from the typical restaurant line to queue to get on the train and escalators! Brace yourself to see neat rows of citizens in queues for public transportation and even lifts. 

For some of us, it might sound ridiculous to stand in a queue for something as mere as an escalator or lift, but try your very best to not jump the queue. The Japanese might be too polite to tap you on the shoulder to signal that you’ve gone against a mutually implemented cultural rule, but it wouldn’t be a pleasant experience to get some stares and glares.

Why can’t you do this?

Isn’t it obvious why one shouldn’t be jumping queues? In other countries, the people might just shrug this minor incident off, but the Japanese take their queuing system quite seriously. This form of obeyance to the order stems from the mentality of the group harmony that the Japanese find pleasant. 

Skipping the line and going directly to the front (or even just cutting it a few people) is equivalent to rebelling against the peaceful harmony of the Japanese culture. On top of that, the jumping of queues disrupts the natural flow of things. Not to mention the awkwardness of leaving the place with at least a hundred glares.

What you should do instead

This unspoken rule is one that is arguably the easiest to follow as it is what’s generally expected of everyone. Even though it may be okay in some countries, it’s not as flexible in Japan.  While it is not your culture specifically, there’s a saying that goes somewhat like, “when in Japan, do what the Japanese do.”

On the platforms of trains, look out for markings on the floor. These markings indicate where one should stand to queue for specific train types — some platforms are stops for all of the train types, from local to rapid express, so be mindful of which you queue for. It should go without saying but do wait for passengers to get off the train before getting on it yourself.

In a way or the other, us foreigners — regardless of whether we’re merely traveling to this great country or living in it — represent the people outside of Japan. Let’s all do our part in preserving the good image of the whole foreigner category by patiently waiting in line for our turn.

4. Do not break chopstick etiquette

Japan is one of the countries that use the chopsticks and not the fork. You shouldn’t expect to be served a fork in a restaurant in Japan — unless you’re in a Western-style one where they have both chopsticks and forks as options. 

The chopsticks are so significant that there is a whole etiquette specifically for it. Everything from how to hold it and how to treat it to what not to do with it is clear and understood by the locals. There are tons in this chopstick etiquette handbook, and listing them all would require a whole write-up on its own. 

The Japanese really adhere to the manners and customs of the chopstick etiquette, so it’s best to know a few to prevent uncomfortable confrontation as well as to impress some of the locals you know! I recommend getting yourself a pair of practice chopsticks here to practice with before going to Japan.

Why can’t you do this?

Most of the “don’ts” in Japanese chopstick etiquette have proper reasons as to why it shouldn’t be done. For example, sticking a chopstick upright in a bowl resembles a funeral ritual, which is why it’s prohibited to place the chopsticks in that way. Placing chopsticks across the bowl signifies that you don’t want to eat anymore — if there’s still food left or you’re not done eating, it may come across as rude to the chef.

There are some that are easier to get, like how it’s considered unclean and dirty to use your chopsticks to pass food to someone else or use it to pick up food from a sharing platter. That’s because you’ve already used the chopsticks and place it in your mouth — it’s considered slightly unhygienic then to use them in situations where others are involved. 

What you should do instead

Sometimes, you might not know what to do with your chopsticks. There are so many rules in the chopstick etiquette that you wouldn’t know what you’re doing right and wrong. The simplest and safest thing to do is to not play with chopsticks. If you’re not using it, place it down next to the table at the appropriate chopstick holder or paper sleeve (if it came with one). 

The Japanese chopstick etiquette might be a tad bit overwhelming for some and confusing for all, so if you don’t know a specific thing, it’s always best to ask! Be it the staff that serves you at a restaurant or your Japanese friend, they’re always more than happy to assist you with adjusting to the local chopstick culture.

5. Do not eat or drink on-the-go

Japan has an abundant amount of konbini (convenient stores) scattered throughout the country, providing quick and convenient products including food, snacks and drinks. These konbinis are not limited to just consumable products, though — they even sell daily necessities.

Konbinis are extremely popular in Japan, so you’d expect tons of people grabbing a wrapped onigiri and munching on them as they walk towards their next destination, or sipping a cup of coffee as they make their way to the station. After all, it is killing two birds with one stone that we’re all guilty of.

However, such a sight is rare. You won’t catch a local Japanese munching away leisurely as they take a stroll down the pavements. Instead, you’ll see them standing right outside of these konbinis to finish up their quick snack or lunch. This rule applies to the vending machines as well. Don’t be surprised to see a bunch of people loitering around them — they’re just finishing up their drinks to bin the can or bottle in the respective bins next to the vending machines. 

Why can’t you do this?

Don’t you think it’s rather odd to have quite a number of these takeaway outlets like konbinis and vending machines but you’re not allowed to have them on-the-go? Not to the Japanese, though. This uncommon act is considered extremely rude.

To the locals, the streets are considered dirty. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people walk on the same streets daily, leaving trails of dirt behind. Why consume food on these unclean surfaces? 

If one is eating on-the-go, the chances of dropping bits of your snack or spilling an amount are rather high, and you’ll be dirtying the walkways even more. Someone else can thread on them, dragging these chunks of food for who knows how long or far. Streets and walkways are public spaces, and the Japanese are very conscious when it comes to respecting the common areas for others to use.

What you should do instead

The best thing to do so as to not break this rule is to not eat on-the-go — it’s that simple! Do what the Japanese do if you really need a quick bite or drink: step outside of the konbini or linger around the vending machine and finish up your food or drink before walking about again.

Alternatively, you can go to a nearby bench or park to have a leisurely sit as you finish up your delicious quick treat. It’s not that it’s not okay to eat outside in Japan, but rather it’s more of respecting the common space as well as yourself. 

6. Do not leave a tip

Tipping is a huge part of the culture in some countries around the world. It is even mandatory for countries like the United States. There are even employees that rely on tips to make it through the month. 

In Japan, however, tipping is strictly not part of the culture. There is no such thing as a gratuity as reward of good service in Japan. That’s because the service charge is already included in the bill at restaurants. Most of the time I always find myself with too much spare change on hand because of this cultural rule. Instead of giving it away, I have to hoard it. This is why I suggest getting a small coin purse for your trip here.

The Japanese believe that there should always be a level of quality service in all aspects of their work — be it serving at a restaurant, working behind the counter or even taxi drivers. They don’t see the need to be praised in monetary terms because that kind of service is the bare minimum in Japan.

Why can’t you do this?

There’s a high level of courtesy and politeness deeply ingrained in the Japanese culture. Good customer service is part of that. Tipping can come across as rude for two reasons: the first is that staff are only providing good quality service for monetary rewards, and the second one is that it may imply that the staff isn’t paid well by the employer.

This doesn’t imply just tipping, though. Leaving change is just the same. If you accidentally left change, expect the staff to go after you to hand them back to you as they assumed you’ve forgotten to take your change.

What you should do instead

There’s only one thing you can do to not break this Japanese culture rule, and that is simply to not tip. It’s just not part of their culture, and their ways should be respected no matter what other cultures are like.

If you really insist on praising the staff that served you, the best way to reward them is by complimenting them in-person or even review the restaurant online. Praising a Japanese staff might be difficult when they might not be able to understand our language, so pick up a few basic Japanese words to convey your heartfelt appreciation.

I found out that reviewing a restaurant for their exceptional service significantly helps them in terms of their ratings and getting more customers — mentioning the individual staff in your review might even get them a raise (who knows)!

At The End of The Day…

We’re all unfamiliar with the exact ins and outs of the Japanese culture, and who knows if we’ll ever be. But, at the end of the day, the Japanese are extremely polite and understanding of foreigners — they are aware that their culture is unique, and every effort is greatly appreciated. If we show that we’re trying our best to not break these unspoken rules of Japan, the locals will definitely notice and be grateful for our thoughtful efforts.

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