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Etiquette in Japan: What Every Visitor Should Know

Etiquette in Japan: What Every Visitor Should Know

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Etiquette in Japan is often far different from what we’re used to in the West. So before you plan your next trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, it’s best to learn a few customs and proper etiquette so you don’t offend anyone.

Here are 15 customs that every visitor should know before traveling to Japan.

Besudesu Abroad

1. Don’t eat food while walking

Next to Singapore, Japan is one of the cleanest countries I’ve ever been to and it’s not because they have trash cans lining the streets. In fact, it’s almost a challenge to find a trash can on the streets of Japan.

So how does Japan stay so clean with the lack of trash cans? Simple. No one eats or drinks while on the go.

Food is a huge part of Japanese culture and thus they believe it deserves proper respect; i.e. sitting down to properly enjoy the taste and texture of the meal, and not just shoving it quickly in your face as you run errands.

Nowadays you can find people who may bend this rule, but it is still highly uncommon. And I don’t recommend doing it as a tourist as it will only draw more attention to yourself– and trust me, you’ll already be attracting plenty of attention.

Besudesu Abroad

Even Tokyo was clean

2. On using chopsticks

More than likely if you’re visiting Japan will you be required to use chopsticks.

Now, chopsticks have a whole etiquette of their own (more on that later), but I think the most important things to remember are to never stab food with your chopsticks and don’t leave your chopsticks in your food–especially upright in a bowl of rice (this is given to people on their deathbeds or in funerals).

3. Never Hungry

In Japan you’ll probably be served more food than you could ever eat. Even when you’re full, instead of refusing the food say “thank you” and force yourself to eat one last bite.

On the opposite end, any food you take yourself must be finished, down to the last grain of rice. And never add anything to enhance the taste of your food except with what is given to you (i.e. if given soy sauce it’s okay to use a little), this is a major offense to the chef.

Besudesu Abroad

So much food just for me

4. Be careful what you gift

Gift giving is another subject that is long enough to warrant it’s own article.

The main points to remember here is that for any gift received, it is important to give something of equal or greater value. Japanese people will often keep a drawer filled with gifts in their home–ready incase they receive a gift.

It is normal to refuse a gift on first offer. However, if they offer a second time, you can gladly accept. If someone offers you a gift, thank them and take it home to open later, unless they request you open it then.

Always bring a gift when going to someone’s home and remember: the wrapping is just as important as the gift itself. All stores offer professional wrapping services– use it.

5. Don’t use your phone on trains

The Japanese generally refrain from having loud conversations on their phones, especially in public areas. You may notice that everyone is on the phone in trains; however, you will also notice they are texting rather than calling.

You’ll rarely ever see people answering calls while riding the train or when shopping in stores. People normally keep their phone on “manner mode” (similar to vibrate only).

Besudesu Abroad

Enjoying peace and quiet on the train

6. Wear a mask when sick

Sterilized masks, similar to what is worn in hospitals, are commonly worn in Japan. It’s more of a courtesy to protect others from your germs, rather than protecting yourself. So if you find yourself coughing or sneezing, pick up an inexpensive mask from any convenience store.

There were times I found myself getting bad looks when I unexpectedly had a coughing fit on the train during my ride to school. One lady even offered me a mask from her purse, so it might be a good idea to carry one with you just in case!

7. Remove your shoes

It’s important to take off your shoes when entering all homes, as well as many businesses and hotels. In the entrance there will usually be a shoe rack for you to leave your shoes, as well as guest slippers for you to put on.

When entering bathrooms in Japan, it is common for a different set of slippers to be waiting for you. Make sure to never wear your house slippers in the bathroom and don’t let the bathroom slippers wander into the rest of the house!

If entering a room with tatami, be sure to wear only socks and never slippers or shoes.

Besudesu Abroad

Shoes would ruin this beautiful tatami

8. Don’t open taxi doors

Taxi doors open and close automatically with the push of a button from the driver. Save yourself the embarrassment and do not try to open them yourself. Tourists getting hit by taxi doors is fairly common because they stand there, tugging on the door when the driver pushes the auto-open.

The same applies for exiting a taxi, wait for the driver to open your door. Otherwise you’ll be sitting there trying to open the door manually with no luck.

9. Get ready to drink

Drinking is somewhat of a national pastime in Japan. Never refuse a drink, simply smile and accept it. As long as your glass is kept half full they won’t be refilling it. So if you don’t feel like drinking, don’t try to quick down your drink to get rid of it or else you’ll find your glass promptly refilled.

When drinking it is important to never refill your own glass. Traditionally, drinks are poured by others, and if you pour your own it is saying that whomever you are with is not being attentive. However, this works both ways– if you see that someone’s drink is below half full, make sure to fill it for them! And don’t forget to yell “kampai” (cheers) before drinking.

Besudesu Abroad

Kampai! At a Suntory whiskey tour

10. Do Bow

The duration and angle of the bow is proportionate to the amount of respect you are conveying. The slower and lower the bow, the more respect you are showing. However, bowing is not only used to show respect, but also as a greeting.

Although it might feel weird at first, as a tourist a simple lowering of your head (almost like you’re nodding with your whole neck) when greeting others or making requests will go a long way.

11. Bathing before baths

When visiting an onsen or taking a bath in a Japanese home, it is important to bathe before getting in the bathtub. Sounds counterintuitive right?

There will be a separate shower that you must use to rinse off and clean your body. Never bring soap or shampoo into the bath!

Unlike in the West, the bath in Japan is used for relaxation. Often families will run one bath that everyone will use before emptying the water. Therefore, it is very important not to dirty the water. It is very rude and shows that you have no consideration for the sanctity of the bath and for those who will use it after you.

Besudesu Abroad

Never enter a bath without bathing first

12. Business Cards

When receiving someones meishi, be sure to receive it using both hands and read the card before putting it away.

It is considered very rude to grab someone’s card without looking it over and to shove it in your pocket. Even after you’ve thoroughly read over the card, make sure to put it somewhere nicer than your pants pocket!

After receiving their card, always follow up by giving them yours. Don’t have business cards? Get some awesome one’s from MOO.com!

13. Escalators etiquette

Escalators are strictly stand on the right, and pass on the left in Osaka. If you head to Tokyo you’ll find that it’s exactly the opposite– stand left and pass right.

There is nothing more frustrating than being late for school and trying to rush up an escalator to catch your train while being blocked by tourists. Even if you forget what the proper side is for your location, just be observant. If you notice that everyone is standing on the right side of the escalator, there is probably a reason for it. (This also goes for moving sidewalks.)

Besudesu Abroad

Make sure you’re on the correct side

14. Pay Nicely

At all registers are small trays. Sometimes they are more decorative using leather or wood and sometimes they are plastic with rubber bumps. This tray is for placing your money when paying. Do not hand your money directly to the cashier.

Likewise, the cashiers will lay your change out on the tray with your receipt, so do not try to grab it from their hands.

15. Don’t tip

I had a waitress chase us down the block because we had forgotten money on the table and it was only worth about 50 cents.

A price is a price in Japan, and leaving extra money is often considered rude. Tipping is widely unheard of in Japan, and for first-rate restaurants, gratuity is already included in the bill.

Besudesu Abroad

Glad I didn’t need to tip after this bill!

While all of this might seem overwhelming, remember that the Japanese are indeed people too. They will be understanding and patient of people different from themselves. And if you ever find yourself in a situation where you don’t know how to act, just look around. Watch what others are doing and try to follow suite– that way, you can’t go wrong.

Which Japanese custom do you think would be the hardest to adjust to?

10 comments

  1. so helpful! this is awesome! loving the Japan posts!
    rebecca recently posted…Little Becky smokes her first Joint In AmsterdamMy Profile

  2. Fantastic post! I used to live in Tokyo so I can relate to ALL of this. The self-opening taxi doors have to be one of my favorites aspects though — why haven’t more countries adopted this? BTW (and total random note, so please forgive me in advance) but as I already mentioned on Twitter you’re on the HoliDaze best new travel blogs March 2014 edition….however in browsing your site I couldn’t help but notice that you don’t respond to many comments. Can I ask why?

    That is one of the most fundamental issues for a new blog — relating/responding to your readers. Same thing as with Twitter. You don’t respond to anyone and more often than not appear to treat it is a “one-way street.” I’m not trying to be a dick, just trying to 1) ask why; and 2) urge you to change your ways. Succeeding in the travel blogging world does require a bit of response from you otherwise readers/followers will quickly loose interest. Sorry, just trying to help…
    Derek Freal recently posted…Batanes: A Photographer’s Dream DestinationMy Profile

    • How long did you live in Tokyo Derek? I lived in Osaka, but absolutely loved both cities, and will hopefully be moving back next year!

      Thanks for your comment, and I appreciate the advice. However, I actually do try to comment to every single comment left by others.
      I usually go through and do it every 2-3 days though because my teaching job has me working 10-hour days, which makes for ridiculous hours by the time I add in blogging! :) So right now the only comments that haven’t been answered are the one’s I’ve gotten in the past 2 days, which I’m working my way through now. So don’t worry, I completely agree with you that replying and connecting with people is essential.

      Thanks again for including me in your March feature! Has that gone live already? I couldn’t find it on your blog and would love to see it! :)

      • Sorry for my late response…I forgot that the “subscribe to new comments” option only applies to new comments, and not to responses on my own comment(s). I had to manually re-check your post to see if you’d replied :/ Speaking of, you might consider adding a comment response notification option―for example here is my post on WP plugins every travel blogger needs: http://blog.theholidaze.com/2014/01/top-travel-blogger-wordpress-plugins/

        Also, I only read a couple of your posts before I knew that I wanted to include you in the March edition of “best new travel blogs.” As such, I’m sorry if I missed any of your new replies or came across as harsh/judgmental in my prior comment. I assure you that was not my intention. It was just a combination of what I read here and your Twitter feed.

        Not to ramble on too much (which if you know anything about me I tend to do that….I cannot leave a one sentence comment/email) but Twitter is amazing…especially when properly utilized. I tweeted you before the best new blogs article aired and even after, neither of which resulted in a response. Even looking at your stream now, it is comprised mostly of posts and very few responses. Everyone loves replies/interactions, regardless of whether the people have 50 followers or 500k — that’s what Twitter is about. Embrace it. It will help tremendously in your career as a travel blogger. It’s also a large part of why I have such a decent following…b/c I reply to people, engage and stimulate them, and let them know their voice/opinion has been heard. Again, I understand, you’re traveling and might not have the time for it. But get a data plan wherever you are, or at the very least use the free wifi. Tweet when you’re sitting at bus terminals, on trains, waiting for a menu at restaurants…that is the beauty of Twitter — you only need a few seconds, versus all the time and work required with FB.

        I understand you’re traveling, hell we all are, but all I’m trying to say is don’t forget to engage with your audience. You have to balance work and play, at least if you want to pursue travel blogging in the long-term. Again, I don’t want to come off as a dick and really hope that’s not how you perceive my responses — I am only trying to help you. Otherwise I would not have even included you in the list or be commenting here. Speaking of, you are the only one that hasn’t yet commented on the list, or emailed me a thank you, or tweeted about it. Engagement! Never forget to do that.

        Okay I’ve rambled on (more than) enough….sorry for the rant but hope it makes sense
        Derek Freal recently posted…The Amazing, Weird And Exotic Fruits Of Southeast AsiaMy Profile

        • Sorry you had to check back to see my reply. I do have a plug-in installed, but that lets me know it stopped working, so I’ll certainly look into that.

          Also, I finally just got a smart phone, so I’ve certainly been trying to use social media more in general, although I’m still pretty limited to only using it outside working hours (which is hard when you work 10 hours a day! haha).

          Again, no hard feelings or anything. I always appreciate any constructive criticism.

          • Well for one thing the email response works now, I received it this time. Secondly, this is why I usually never leave inebriated comments.

            To answer your earlier question I lived in Tokyo during the last half of 2008. I had a flat in Shibuya Ward, Ebisu district. Amazing place. I still miss it on a daily basis and have always planned to move back there when I decide to settle down. (And when my online income is high enough to justify living there lol.)

            Anyway I think I’ve elaborated enough above, even if it may have come across the wrong way. Feel free to harass me or ask me questions anytime via Twitter, email, WhatsApp or whatever — I’m always here to help. Plus since I do web design on the side I’m tech savvy and always assisting other bloggers with minor (and major) issues they encounter. But above all, keep up the good work and keep in touch Beth :)
            Derek Freal recently posted…5 Years Ago Today I Quit My Job To Travel The WorldMy Profile

          • Glad to know it’s working again!

            Shibuya would be an amazing place to live. A lot of my friends live nearby in Shinjuku or Harajuku, so that’s where I’d love to move to as well.

            Thanks again for offering to help, I’ll definitely shoot any questions your way as I have them! :D

  3. Amazing job on this article. I think it’s important to pay attention to a country’s etiquette, especially in a place more reserved like Japan!

  4. Wow, this post is nice, my younger sister is planning a trip to Japan, so I think this could be helpful!.

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