You might have heard it said before that Japan is one of the politest places on the planet. As somebody who has been there, I can tell you that this statement is probably true.
Manners are incredibly important in Japan. When it comes to being polite and courteous Japan leads the way – young or old, city or countryside – Japanese people are some of the most hospitable around. In a country where respect is king, one might wonder what tourists, or even locals, could do that would be considered disrespectful. There are common mistakes that people make that Japanese people find very disrespectful – what are they, and how can you avoid making them?
What are some of the most disrespectful things that foreigners do in Japan, and how can you avoid them during your trip? Before we answer that question, let’s look at why Japanese people are so polite in the first place.
Why are respect and manners so important in Japan?
There are varying theories as to why Japanese people value manners so highly, but it’s clear that respect and manners have been directly linked with honour in Japan for many centuries. Some scholars hypothesise that such attitudes derive from samurai culture, in which honour was of the highest importance. Samurai were expected to lead their lives by a strict moral code – “the way of the warrior”, which placed focus on loyalty, self-discipline, ethical behaviour, and consideration of others. Sound familiar?
During the Edo period, a social caste system put samurai at the very top of society, above farmers, artisans, and merchants. As the Edo period came to an end, and the relative peace of the time meant that martial skills were not quite as important, many samurai chose to pursue careers as bureaucrats and teachers. Having former samurai in positions of power and education no doubt had a large effect on the mindset of the population. The way of the warrior likely took on a different meaning.
But of course, many societies have similar backgrounds, and yet their modern-day population does not value respect quite so highly. Why? There are a few possible reasons why Japanese people are so strict and disciplined when it comes to respecting others and having good manners.
Teamwork makes the dreamwork
In Japan, a large amount of focus is placed on the group, and not on the individual. While private lives tend to be more individualistic, public activities, such as work and school, for example, tend to be group focused. Employees work in teams; entire departments work together to complete tasks; schoolchildren are taught to think about others in their class from a very early age. This mindset means that in group situations, Japanese people are very aware and conscious of the people around them, and of their own personal impact on the people around them. If you’ve ever worked on a group project with somebody who has bad manners, then no doubt you’ll appreciate that polite and courteous teammates make for a much more pleasant experience.
They learn to be respectful at a very early age
If somebody were to do a survey of first words in Japan, it wouldn’t surprise me if an overwhelming number of children said onegaishimasu or arigatou gozaimasu the first time they spoke. From infancy children in Japan are taught about manners and respect, and how vitally important they are. You might even be surprised to learn that most (if not all) Japanese schools do not need to hire janitors because the children are taught to clean up together while at school. This teaches them to be respectful of their environment and to take responsibility for their actions. It also instills in them a need to be clean themselves, since the tidier they are the less they’ll have to clean up (suddenly, the fact that the streets of Tokyo are free of litter makes much more sense)! Some schools even teach the children to cook the lunches that will then be served to their classmates.
Discipline is another important lesson that children in Japan are taught from a very early age. More importantly, they are taught that it is each person’s duty and responsibility to be disciplined in all that they do. While this can unfortunately put too much pressure on some students in Japan, it certainly goes a long way to explaining why the country’s residents are so respectful.
They’re proud of their country
On multiple occasions during my first time in Japan, complete strangers asked us if we were enjoying our stay, and when we replied “YES!” enthusiastically we were met with big smiles. On two occasions we received small gifts from total strangers, who stated that they hoped we had a lovely time in their country. In short, Japanese people are very proud of their country.
They have good reason to feel that way – Japan is a beautiful place that is very clearly well looked after, and very safe. Japanese people want anyone visiting their country to think it is a very pleasant place to be (spoiler alert – it is), and a huge part of that is how polite the people are to foreigners.
The cities are very crowded
During my research for this article, I saw an interesting comment by a foreigner who had lived in Japan: manners are important in the countryside, but when you reach the densely populated city centre, you realize just how important it is to show respect and consideration. Over 9 million people live in Tokyo alone; can you imagine how unpleasant it would be to live there if people showed complete disregard for anyone other than themselves?
The etiquette that Japan’s residents live by taking on new meaning in the busy city centres, and any foreigner who travels through Tokyo will tell you how surprising the calm organisation of the city is. It wouldn’t be that way if people didn’t play by the rules, which is why you should try and stick to them while you’re there too.
So now we’ve touched on why it’s so important to show respect in Japan, it’s time to look at some of the most common things you might do that are disrespectful in Japan.
Leaving a tip
This comes as a surprise to many people who travel to Japan. In most western countries, it is an expectation that you will leave a tip for your waiter or waitress after you’ve enjoyed a meal, and in some countries, it’s mandatory because it makes up some of the server’s wages (I’m looking at you America). When traveling to another country, most foreigners are eager to show appreciation for their meals and even try to tip more than they normally would at home.
But if you tip in Japan, you’ll cause embarrassment to the host or waiters, the chef, and yourself. Tipping is not a thing in Japan, full stop. It’s going to be even harder to remember this one when you visit any city in Japan and experience some of the best services in the world, but if you leave a tip it could even be seen as an insult to the server. You might be tempted to leave a little extra money on the table and run, but don’t be surprised if your server comes running after you to give you the money back.
There are some exceptions to this rule – perhaps if you’ve had a long tour or a special service, but even on these occasions, tipping is not expected. If you simply must show your appreciation with money, don’t take the money from your purse or wallet in front of the person you’re tipping. Place your tip inside a decorative envelope, and hand it to them with two hands to show respect and gratitude (we’ll explain that one in a moment).
Using one hand
In Japan, it’s considered disrespectful to give or receive items with one hand. This applies to many different situations: paying for things in shops or restaurants, giving gifts, pouring your friend’s drink for them, giving somebody your business card, or even when accepting theirs! This can be a tricky one to remember when paying for things – in many western countries (like mine), you wouldn’t think twice about reaching into your purse with one hand and passing somebody some money. It can be helpful to keep an eye out for small metal trays near the counter, which are there for the exchange of money. If you’re in doubt of whether one hand would be rude in any given situation, play it safe and use two.
Japan is a little “behind the times” when it comes to tattoos, and it’s still considered very disrespectful to openly show your tattoos, especially in onsen, pools, or public baths. This is mostly because of their affiliation with the Yakuza, or Japanese mafia. If you are unfamiliar with Japanese tattoos, go check out our article on the topic here. Some of the younger generations in Japan might be more understanding of your body art, but unless you want people thinking you’re a member of the Yakuza, it’s best to cover up your tattoos with your clothes if possible.
This can be a point of contention since most people who have tattoos are proud of them and want to show them off. Whether you’re willing to make that compromise is entirely up to you, but even if you’re not willing to cover your tattoos while exploring the cities, you should absolutely consider covering them when visiting temples so as not to be disrespectful of this country’s ancient culture. You probably won’t be given a choice at most temples, and especially not if you want to visit an onsen, as most Japanese onsens prohibit people with tattoos from even entering. Some will allow you to book a private session, and fewer still might allow you to wear a wetsuit t-shirt of some sort, but it’s best to enquire ahead of time to avoid disappointment. You can find out more about what to expect if you’re traveling to Japan with a tattoo or two here.
Pouring soy sauce on your rice
This is a relatively simple act that carries pretty big accusations. The rice is Japan is delicious, slightly sweet, and served on the side as a mild pallet cleanser as you eat the other dishes you have ordered. While you might think that pouring a little soy sauce on the rice adds taste, what you’re effectively implying at the chef is bad at his job. Japanese people take great pride in doing their work well, whether it’s building something or preparing a meal. The food will all be cooked to perfection (trust me on this), so by pouring soy sauce on your meal you’re insinuating that you don’t respect the chef’s judgment, and you don’t trust his cooking ability. Yikes.
Blowing your nose in public
Blowing your nose in public is seen as uncouth and disrespectful (I think it’s pretty gross in any country but that’s just me). Most Japanese people choose to wear face masks if they have a sniffle, particularly in winter, as it slows the spread of germs and shows consideration and respect for the people around them. You won’t look out of place if you wear one, and you can actually find some pretty cool ones throughout Japan’s cities since they’re so popular.
Eating on the go
Japanese people do not tend to eat on the go, which can be very confusing when you see an abundance of convenience stores, street food vendors, and vending machines. Anywhere that food is sold outside of restaurants usually has a designated area for eating nearby. Fast food stands often have lines marked on the pavement where you can eat standing up, and food bought from vending machines is usually eaten immediately so that the rubbish can be placed in the bin next to the machine.
It’s even considered rude to eat on public transport, unless you’re on a long-distance train. If you’re unsure as to whether your train is considered long-distance in Japan, maybe wait until you see the little food cart before busting out your sandwiches and flask. While we’re on the subject of trains. . .
Being loud on the train, or anywhere in fact
You should notice immediately that Japanese people are pretty quiet, and their smartphones are too. When on any form of public transport, it’s considered disrespectful to have phone conversations anywhere other than the designated carriages. Even out in the city, most people will find somewhere discreet to have a phone conversation if they truly can’t avoid it, and even then, they’ll keep it brief.
If you can’t sit on the train without playing your favorite game, or listening to music, you must remember to bring some earphones for your trip. It’s not considered rude to do those things unless the whole carriage can hear it too.
Pointing at things
To point at someone or something in Japan is considered disrespectful, even if the thing you’re pointing at is yourself. If you’d like to gesture towards something, wave your hand in its direction. If you’d like to refer to yourself, the Japanese use their forefinger to touch their nose so you could do the same. And never, ever use your chopsticks to point at something.
Wearing shoes indoors
There are many places in Japan in which it’s considered rude to wear your shoes: homes, your accommodation, ryokan hotels, some temples, schools, hospitals, and more. To stride in from the streets in your dirty shoes would be considered extremely disrespectful to the owner of that place, so make sure your socks match and are hole-free (a mistake my husband only had to make once before checking every pair thoroughly – trust me, it’s embarrassing) because you’ll be exchanging your shoes for slippers several times a day in Japan.
Chopsticks are the utensil of choice for Japanese people, so they take their chopstick etiquette pretty seriously. Since there’s quite a few faux pas involving chopsticks, here’s a helpful list you can refer to:
- Don’t rub your chopsticks together – it suggests that you think they are cheap, which is pretty insulting.
- Don’t stick your chopsticks upright in your bowl of rice while you’re not using them (use the hashioki (chopstick rest), the plate, or the paper wrapper they came in) – this actually resembles an important funeral ritual in Japan. It symbolizes death, which isn’t something you want to remind everyone of while out for dinner.
- Don’t stick your chopsticks through the middle of your food – Japanese people just don’t so this at all, and they think of it as impolite. Maybe have a practice at home before your trip you’re not confident of your chopstick abilities?
- Don’t lick your chopsticks to get at the food that’s stuck to them – yes, it’s delicious, but this is the equivalent of licking your knife in most western countries.
Don’t worry – you have a little wiggle room
While most western countries see Japan as one of the politest places on Earth, Japanese people think there’s a LOT of room for improvement. In fact, when surveyed by TGMP (The Tokyo Good Manners Project) only 24.6% of Japanese people thought that Tokyo residents had good manners, even though 64.9% of foreigners answered that yes, of course, Tokyo residents have good manners. So, while you’re considering how many of these rules you must adhere to be respectful, keep in mind that even the “politest” people on the planet don’t think they’re being that polite. How will they feel about you if you choose to ignore these markers of respect?
As a foreigner visiting Japan you have a tiny bit of wiggle room. Most reasonable people (especially in the tourist-ridden cities) won’t publicly chastise you for being a little impolite. It will take a while for you to become accustomed to some of the more intricate ways that Japanese people choose to show their respect. But try not to take too long, because as you can see from the TGMP, Japan’s residents take the things on this list pretty seriously.