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How to behave in Japan: Essential Japanese manners and etiquette

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 simple rules and try to fit in as much as possible. Here is your guide to Japanese manners and etiquette.

Sunset Reflection Japan

1. Learn a few basic words in Japanese

Hello - Kon'nichiwa
Thank you - Arigatō
Please - Kudasai
GoodbyeSayōnara
Excuse meSumimasen
TeaOcha
YesHai
NoĪe
CheersKanpai

2. 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. No, you won't be able to eat in the subway or train either. 

Sushi Shinjuku

3. Do not leave your rubbish behind

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 keep hold of your rubbish and take it home with you. That's why I recommend going around with a bag so you can keep your rubbish until you get back to your hotel room. DO NOT litter in Japan!!!

4. 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 are difficult to understand by an outsider, hence don't worry too much about it, as you are an honoured guest. However, when I was out with my husband, it was fun to pour each other's drinks. 

Waterfall Kyoto Japan

5. Sharing food with chopsticks

This may sound weird, especially if you want to offer your husband a bit of your amazingly delicious Japanese food. Simply use the end of the chopsticks which hasn't touched your mouth if you wish to offer something from your plate. The Japanese are extremely clean and conscious of personal hygiene, hence using the same chopsticks is frown upon. 

6. 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. Don't leave your chopsticks upright in your food (especially in your rice). Don't play with your chopsticks. 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 use the opposite end of your chopsticks which hasn't touched your mouth. 

Zen Garden Rocks Kyoto Japan

7. Do not mix soy sauce with your rice

This also applies to your sushi. You are only meant to dip the fish in soy sauce and never the rice. Please, do not mix wasabi into your soy sauce.

8. 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 drink water or beer instead. Most establishments offer complimentary green tea and water anyway.

Window Into Japan

9. Slurp away

Feel free to slurp your noodles, this tells the chef you are enjoying your food. It's a weird Japanese etiquette this one as in a Western country this is a definite no!

10. 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 to blow your nose in public. Go to the restroom and blow your nose there. It can get a little irritating but you get used to it eventually.

Sunset Landscape Japan

11. 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. Read more about how to behave in a Japanese restaurant.

12. Don't count the change

It's normal in Western countries to want to check if someone gave us the right change, but not in Japan. The Japanese people trust one another (no surprise they have the lowest levels of crime in the world) hence it is considered rude to count your change. It's a form of distrust and it is not appreciated.

Kyoto Mountains View

13. 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. You should respect this Japanese manner. 

14. Don't stare

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.

Exploring Shrines Kyoto Japan

15. 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 a train or bus. 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 listen to David's gossip. 

16. Be quiet

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. 

Maruyama Park

17. Respect, Respect, Respect

Don't ever get annoyed that someone 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, point at things and most importantly, be kind and patient. Don't make people feel bad in their own country.

18. No shouting

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. 

Tokyo Neon Lights

19. Always stick to your side

When you walk on the street always stick to your side. 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 for it. Most pavements, escalators, subway platforms will have indicative signs showing which side to stick to. Respect this. Please queue probably for the Shinkansen or subway. 

20. Shoes off

Don't wear any shoes, nor slippers when walking on a tatami. There are also 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 etiquette.

Cory Mount Hiei

21. Toilet slippers

Most hotels provide you with toilet slippers. Yes, this is a real thing in Japan. However, you should not wear the toilet slippers outside of the bathroom. The outside world and the toilet are considered dirty in Japan. Learn to respect this.

22. Visiting a Japanese person

It is customary that when you are visiting a Japanese person you bring some nicely wrapped drink or food to the host.

Meingue Kyoto

23. Gift away

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.

24. 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 or the mafia. 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. 

Cory Kyoto

25. Onsen time

When in an onsen, you should swim nude. 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. You can read more about how to experience an onsen

26. How to bath

This one is very strange and very hard for me to wrap my head around. In Japan, you must clean your body before you enter a bath tub. You then soak and relax. You exit the bath tub, 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 bath tub 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. Although I appreciate the water is kept clean at all times, I think I am a little reluctant to take a bath and recycle the water in such manner. I think I will stick to the good old traditional showers.

Train Hokuriku Shinkansen

27. Bow or Nod

Japanese people greet each other by bowing. You will see that some bow a little, 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.

Wind Snow Monkey Park

Great! You now know the most important Japanese manners and 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.

Budget Accommodation in Kyoto

Do you know any other Japanese customs? Let me know me know by leaving a comment bellow. 

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31 Comments

Maureen Crawford
Maureen Crawford

I thoroughly enjoyed your wry, detailed look into Japanese manners and customs. But why is it verboten to mix soy sauce and wasabi? WAH!

Japan is next on my list. Thank you so much for all of these great tips!

xo Tessa

I'm probably traveling to Japan for one week in September and this guide is extremely helpful! I'm gonna go through all you Japan posts now :)

You are going to have such great time, I loveeeee Japan. Where are you going to? Just Tokyo, or travelling around a little?

Camille
Camille

I loved this post! I think it's important to be able to conform to a culture when visiting to be respectful and not assume that the place is going to conform to you. I want to go to Japan so badly!!!

You should put Japan up there on the bucket list. Fascinating country

Oh, I have few post about traveling some place in Japan and I think this is so great to see the people being interested going to Japan. :) Thanks for great post.

Yes, I love Japan so much. Glad you like the post.

Love this! I'm planning on going to Japan next year - one of my best friends is there teaching english at the moment, so it's the perfect opportunity ;) Definitely saving this for when I go!

Have lots of fun. You will love it there!

Great post with great detail that's very useful for foreign visitors. I love Japan, its such a unique country and these customs are what make it special.

I can't agree with you more. It is the little details which make Japan so spectacular. Such amazing place

Great post with great detail that's very useful for foreign visitors. I love Japan, its such a unique country and these customs are what make it special.

I love this list! I've always had an interest on Japanese culture, I think they're fascinating!

International travel is our next plan, and Japan is at the top of my list. I had no idea that there were so many different basic etiquette behaviors! Thank you so, so much!!

Right on the money! Even though I live in Canada, I grew up in Taiwan as a child under a lot of Japanese influence and learned a bit of the language, and I absolutely loooove the culture. Because I'm used to these manners and customs, it's actually a culture shock for me in North America when people aren't nearly as well-behaved and polite haha. My husband visited Japan for the first time this past spring and he LOVED it. We can't wait to go back!

I've just started learning Japanese and I love, love, love it. It was weird to come back to the UK, visit a Japanese restaurant and see a Brit playing with the chopsticks as if they were drumming sticks. So glad your husband love it. You guys should totally go back!

Whoa! Lots to pay attention to for sure! I would have definitely made a few of these mistakes, like pouring my own drink!

Pouring the drink comes so natural, right? It's weird to expect somebody else to pour you your beer.

I've been to Japan a few times, including in February. It always strikes me how much order there is to the country, along with ceremony. It's a welcomed changed from Paris, but after a week, I need some chaos in my life!

Haha, I totally understand. I am with Japan and would love to move there. Paris is excellent though, I love the city. Sometimes I'm a little shocked how people get into my space during shopping hours tho.

I like your list very much! I've heard about the most of them, but it is so weird they don't talk on phone while traveling on public transport!

Haha, I know. They text a lot. It's actually quite nice to not have to hear to somebody loud talking about their day at work, right?

A very useful post. I will have to pin this so I can refer to it when we go to Japan some day. I would like to go on a foodie tour so I will have to read up on your other "how to behave in restaurants" post as well for tips.

Oh, don't even get me started on food in Japan. My favorite in the world xx

These are great tips! Especially the no tipping and no eating while walking. A lot of Americans have the "when in doubt, tip" mentality, but tipping is super offensive in Japan. I also like that you addressed the trash bin situation. Such a shock to me when I got to Japan...especially because the streets are so clean!

The streets are SO clean! I absolutely love Japan for that

I really love this. I think I would like Japan as several of these used to be seen as a matter of good manners in England too, although they might be seen as old fashioned manners now. I was certainly brought up to always take my rubbish home, to wait to have your drink poured by the host, never to point at someone (with or without chopsticks!!), and to bring your host a gift when you visit and so on.

Omniya Fareed Shafik
Omniya Fareed Shafik

I just got back to Japan and everything you mentioned in this article is really important. Cant emphasize on how important respect is in japan.

revlon fennell
revlon fennell

I plan to go to Tokyo and Kyoto in August with my 16 year old. We can't wait but we don't speak a lick of Japanese and Duolingo doesn't teach Japanese. Do you recommend a site that's helpful with that? Also, is it pretty easy to get from the airport to a hotel or is it better to arrange beforehand for transfers? Also, is it easy to travel around from city to city? We are scheduled to spend 3 days in each city. And, do you recommend any must-sees, must-dos and restaurants? I know. Lots of questions. Thanks so much for the informative blog on etiquette.

Hello and thank you for getting in touch about your trip.
You can try memrise. It's a good app for languages. Where are you landing? Narita or Haneda? They both have incredibly good connections which you can just organise on the spot. At what time are you arriving to ensure the trains / subways are still operating?

From city to city is very easy to navigate. Just make sure to get your JR Pass. Order it in advance as you need it before arriving in Japan.

I have a lot of must dos and must see for both Tokyo and Kyoto. Would you like me to send you the links? I also have a lot of information in regards to the JR Pass if you wish me to send it as well.

I am sure you are going to LOVE Japan.

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