When planning to visit Japan you should familiarise yourself with the basic Japanese manners and etiquette. Manners and customs are important in Japan, and even though you are a tourist in the country, you are still expected to follow a few common rules.
In this article, I will tell you everything you need to know in order to gain respect in Japan and not insult any of the locals. It is imperative that you follow some basic rules and try to fit in as much as possible. Here is your guide to Japanese manners and etiquette.
Table of Contents
Learn a few basic words in Japanese
Hello - Kon'nichiwa
Thank you - Arigatō
Please - Kudasai
Goodbye - Sayōnara
Excuse me - Sumimasen
Tea - Ocha
Yes - Hai
No - Īe
Cheers - Kanpai
It is impolite to drink or eat on the street
This might sound a bit baffling. What if you are hungry or thirsty? Well in Japan, you will find plenty of vending machines, eateries, bars and pubs all around you. You should buy your drink and food and consume it then and there. All vending machines have a bin next to them so you can discard any packaging and empty cans. All street food vendors usually offer a small area for you to eat your food right away. Please don't eat in the subway. When you are on a train, use the foldable tray in front of you. Some night trains will have a dedicated area for eating and drinking.
Streets are considered dirty so there are special areas for eating and drinking. This way nobody needs to eat in a public space.
Do not leave your rubbish behind
Why are there no bins in Japan? Usually, you won't find bins dotted along the streets of Japan. This is not because Japan is dirty, on the contrary: it is the cleanest country I have ever visited. It is common courtesy to simply hold on to your rubbish. I recommend having a plastic bag on you to store your rubbish until you get back to your hotel room. DO NOT litter in Japan. You might come across some bins next to the vending machines as mentioned above. These bins are provided for vending machine users only and not for general use. The housekeeper will empty your bins in your hotel room on a daily basis.
Don't pour your own drink if you are out with others
This is a quid pro quo, you pour drinks to your friends and they return the favour. In Japan, this is usually done depending on the social status, work relation and so on. The social and corporate hierarchy is difficult to understand by an outsider, hence don't worry too much about it, as you are a honoured guest. However, when I was out with my husband, it was fun to pour each other's drinks.
Sharing food with chopsticks
This may sound weird, especially if you want to offer your partner a bit of your amazingly delicious Japanese food but please resist and don't pick a piece of sushi from your plate and transfer it to another by using your used chopsticks. Simply use the end of the chopsticks which hasn't touched your mouth. The Japanese are extremely clean and conscious of personal hygiene, hence using the same chopsticks to share food is frown upon.
Don't point at someone with your chopsticks and do not leave your chopsticks standing upright in your food
There is, of course, an etiquette to follow when you eat out in Japan. If you haven't read this article yet, now it's a good time to learn how to behave in a Japanese restaurant.
Don't point with your chopsticks. The same way as you wouldn't point at someone with your steak knife. It would be weird, right?
Don't leave your chopsticks upright in your food (especially in your rice) because this symbolises death in Japan.
Don't play with your chopsticks. I see people use the chopsticks as drumsticks. This is extremely rude in Japan, please refrain from doing so.
Don't move plates around with your chopsticks (you wouldn't do that with your fork or spoon would you?). When picking food from a shared plate, make sure you offer people space as it is not nice for two people to grab from the same dish at the same time.
Pointing is considered threatening in Japan and it should be avoided. If you ask for directions, people tend to indicate directions with an open hand. They sometimes offer verbal directions without gestures.
No sugar or cream
The Japanese green tea is meant to be enjoyed as it is offered to you. Do not add sugar or cream to it. If you do not like such type of tea, simply order water or beer instead. Most establishments offer complimentary green tea and water anyway. You can also come across Hōjicha, a type of Japanese green tea which is roasted in a porcelain pot over charcoal. It tastes delicious and is usually complimentary with your meal.
Feel free to slurp your noodles, this tells the chef you are enjoying your food. In fact, as part of the Japanese manners and etiquette, it is actually not customary to bite your noodles in half. Slurp, slurp, slurp.
Don't blow your nose
This one is a bummer if you have a cold. I visited Japan in December and I was unlucky enough to catch a cold during the first few days of my stay.
It is against Japanese manners and etiquette to blow your nose in public. Go to the restroom if you need to blow your nose. It can get a little irritating but you get used to it eventually.
The best Japanese etiquette: No tipping
It is normal to pay at the counter when you finish eating. There is no tipping expected. EVER. Of course, if you really enjoyed your meal, you can buy your chef a glass of sake but leaving money behind is a NO-NO. Read more about how to behave in a Japanese restaurant. If you leave money behind, someone will very likely run after you to give you your money back as they would imagine you forgot them on the table.
Don't count the change
It's normal in Western countries to check if someone gave us the right change, but not in Japan. Japanese people trust one another (no surprise they have some of the lowest levels of crime in the world). Thus, it is considered rude to count your change. It's a form of distrust and it is not appreciated.
Don't be late
Precision is key in Japan and one must not be late for an appointment. Be it dinner, seeing a doctor, going for an interview or meeting a friend, arriving on time is very important. In fact, in the unlikely event of the train or subway arriving late at its destination, the conductor offers this in writing for the passengers so they have evidence for why they are late for work or school. Pretty amazing, right? You should definitely respect this Japanese manner.
Respect other peoples' space and try to avoid physical contact. For example, don't pat a Japanese mate on his/her back. Don't stare at people and avoid long eye contact. Japanese people are quite shy.
No phone calls, please
Although it is fine to be online, send texts and Instagram, it is impolite to talk on the phone whilst on the public transport. If someone rings you, reject the call, send them a text saying you will call them back as soon as possible. This is one of my favourite things about Japan because I can actually rest on public transport and not listen to Mery's failed work day or David's gossip. Yay for the awesome Japanese right of silence.
I know you are probably excited about everything you see around you, but try to talk softly and quietly. When we were on our way to Kyoto on the Shinkansen, there was a group of foreign tourists talking very loudly. You could see how uncomfortable and stressed the locals became because of this situation. Please make an effort and be as quiet as you can in Japan. You will notice many neighbourhoods, even downtown Tokyo, whereby you can't hear a thing during the evening. Remember to blend in and keep the conversation to a low volume.
Respect, Respect, Respect
Don't ever get annoyed if a Japanese person doesn't speak English. Remember, you are in Japan, you should speak Japanese and not expect others to speak your language. Make an effort, gesticulate (nicely), use google translate, and most importantly, be kind and patient. Don't make people feel bad in their own country.
If you need to grab someone's attention, either wave at them or walk to them. You shouldn't shout their name on the street. Silence, quiet and respect in Japan are crucial.
Always stick to your side of the road
When you walk on the street always stick to your side and allow others to pass. I know you are on holiday, wanting to marvel at everything, but others must rush to get to work and cannot be late... remember, the Japanese are never late. Don't be the cause of it. Most pavements, escalators, subway platforms will have signs indicating which side to stick to. Respect this. Ensure you are not walking in the bike lane. Please queue properly for the Shinkansen or subway. You will notice people already queueing so get behind them, but respect personal space. Surely you wouldn't want someone breathing down your neck either. For the Shinkansen, you will notice circles, squares or triangles on the board, alongside numbers. These indicate the positions where you can start queuing.
Don't wear any shoes or slippers when walking on a tatami. There are restaurants and museums which will ask you to remove your shoes before entering their establishment. Wear nice and clean socks during your travels to Japan and make sure you adhere to this Japanese etiquette.
Most hotels, guesthouses and even homes will have toilet slippers. Yes, this is a real thing in Japan. Toilet slippers MUST be used when entering the bathroom. You should NEVER wear the toilet slippers outside of the bathroom. The place where the toilet is considered dirty in Japan. When we were in pursuit of the cherry blossom season last year, we went to a restaurant where I had to take my shoes off, leave them outside and put the toilet slippers on before entering the bathroom. Perfectly common.
Visiting a Japanese person
It is customary that when you visit a Japanese person you bring some nicely wrapped drink or food to the host.
People of Japan consider gift giving very important. Gifts usually require an equal or even higher priced item in return. Make sure you don't spend a fortune on a gift just to impress someone as they will have to pay just as much or more to offer you a gift back.
Have a tattoo?
If you are planning on experiencing an onsen, you must inform the staff of any tattoos you have. Don't be offended if you are refused entry as tattoos in Japan are usually associated with the Yakuza. Yes, this rule applies even to the smallest, delicate tattoos. Buy a tattoo cover sheet prior to your stay. Alternatively, you can opt-in for a private onsen session, just enquire at the ryokan about this prior to booking your stay.
When visiting an onsen you must enter the water naked. It is customary to keep your towel on your head and not allow your hair to touch the water. Most onsens are separated by gender. People sometimes go to public baths to socialise, it's a bit like an English pub without the clothes and the beer. Before entering the hot springs, take your time and clean your whole body in the showers provided. You should absolutely not skip this step as it is rude (and unhygienic) to enter the onsen dirty with outside germs.
How to bathe
The Japanese manners and etiquette dictate that you must clean your body before entering a bathtub. Only then you can soak and relax. You exit the bathtub, soap up and rinse. You must make sure no soap touches the water in the bath as it must be kept absolutely crystal clear. After washing, you return to the bathtub and soak once more. At the end, you shouldn't drain the water, but allow the rest of your family members to do exactly the same. If you are the honoured guest, you usually have priority to enter the bath first.
Bow or Nod
Japanese people greet each other by bowing. You will see that some bow a little whilst others offer a deep bend to the waist. Long and deep bows indicate respect, whilst a shorter bow is informal. Don't bring your hands to the chest when you bow, as this is not a yoga exercise. You are not expected to know the rules of bowing in Japan, however, you will be greeted by a bow when entering a restaurant or shop. It is nice to offer a small nod back to reciprocate the greeting. Shaking hands is very common for business introduction in Japan. Don't bow and shake hands at the same time. It's awkward and weird.
Paying the check
It is common for friends to split the check. This is common even on a date. If you take clients out for dinner, make sure you cover the check. It is common that people fight to pay the check, but the person who has something to sell should cover the bill. It is unlikely you will get the custom if the customer ends up paying the bill.
Use the wet towel properly
When seating down for a meal, you will receive a warm hot towel to clean your hands with. Do not use it to clean your face. You might see middle age Japanese men doing this, but it is considered mildly rude and inappropriate. Clean your hands, then fold it back nicely and leave it on the side.
Put your chopsticks back in their place
Did you receive your chopsticks in a paper cover? Once you finished eating, put them back in their paper cover as you found them. This is because the waiter shouldn't have to touch the chopsticks once they've been used. Remember, hygiene first.
Don't drink before saying kanpai
Kanpai means cheers and drinking before saying cheers is considered undisciplined. When drinking in a group, everyone waits for their drink first, then say kanpai, then drink. It's usually done for the first round, then things are allowed to get a little messier.
Elevator manners and etiquette
The person closest to the buttons should operate the elevator doors (selecting floors etc). The person closest to the elevator doors should be the last to get off when they reach their floor.
Business cards with both hands
Business cards are super important in Japanese culture. When exchanging business cards make sure you receive it with both hands. Inspect it carefully and look appreciative. If you are in a meeting, lay out the business card you receive in front of you.
Take the backpack off
When boarding a train or subway, you should take the backpack off your shoulders and carry it in your hands instead.
Most taxi doors in Japan are automatic. This means it opens and closes for you. Please don't attempt to operate the doors yourself as this might make taxi driver upset.
Keep smoking at bay
It is illegal to walk and smoke in some areas, which I think is excellent. Walking and smoking can be viewed as totally irresponsible as you can burn someone by mistake, especially in a crowded area. Thus, you can only smoke at designated outdoor smoking areas. Streets where it is illegal to walk and smoke are clearly marked.
Going to the restaurant? Do you have a meeting at the office? Attending a tea ceremony? People in Japan like to dress for success, thus you will see many black suits and formal wear everywhere. In Japan, it is expected that you blend in and not stand out. It's the way the Japanese society works.
Don't interrupt people
Avoid interrupting people when they are speaking or thinking about an answer. Japanese don't mind short periods of silence in the middle of the discussion so please be patience.
No soy for the rice
You know that amazingly delicious sushi called nigiri? The rice part should not be dipped in soy sauce. The correct way of eating the sushi is to dip the fishy side in soy and put the whole nigiri in your mouth. You shouldn't bite it off either.
Stick your umbrella in a sleeve
Don't make people wet with your umbrella, so be careful when entering a subway, train or crowded space. Restaurants and department stores provide a plastic sleeve for your umbrella at the entrance. These are not optional as owners are seriously concerned about making the floor wet and slippery.
Hello miso soup
Soup in Japan is not eaten with a spoon. Pick up the small bowl, and drink.
Cory-san from Japan
When talking to a Japanese person it is best to be polite and add "-san" to the end of their name. This is an essential Japanese manner and etiquette when addressing someone new or in a business environment. When you have friends, it's ok to address them as they are called.
Great! You now know the most important Japanese manners and etiquette. You are ready to visit one of the coolest countries in the world. To make the most out of your trip, read the best 50 things to do in Tokyo.
Do you know any other Japanese customs? Let me know by leaving a comment below.