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

Table of Contents

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Learn a few basic words in Japanese

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

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. 

How to behave in Japan guide book

How To Behave In Japan: Essential Japanese Manners & Etiquette

Discover essential tips on how to behave in Japan.
Get a complete travel guide geared towards Japan lovers.
Learn everything you need to know in order to blend in with the locals.
Our guides come with crafted manga illustrations for your ease.

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. 

Cute Sake Cup Watanabe Sake Nikko

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. 

Red Store Shibuya Tokyo

Pointing

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. 

The history of tea cup

Slurp away

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. 

Essential Japanese Manners & Etiquette

Discover essential tips on how to behave in Japan.
Get a complete travel guide geared towards Japan lovers.
Learn everything you need to know in order to blend in with the locals.
Our guides come with crafted manga illustrations for your ease.

How to behave in Japan guide book

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.

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. 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. 

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. 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. 

Tokyo Japan Street Night

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. 

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. 

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.

Shoes off

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. 

Toilet slippers

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.

Meingue Kyoto

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.

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. 

Japanese Kimono Oiran Dress

Onsen time

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. 

Onsen Mashlands Nikko Japan

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. 

spiritual sensoji tokyo

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. 

Taxi

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. 

Formal Wear

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. 

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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. 

How to behave in Japan guide book

How To Behave In Japan: Essential Japanese Manners & Etiquette

Discover essential tips on how to behave in Japan.
Get a complete travel guide geared towards Japan lovers.
Learn everything you need to know in order to blend in with the locals.
Our guides come with crafted manga illustrations for your ease.

33 Comments

There are already 33 Comments on this post. Click here to tell us your thoughts or questions.

M
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?

C
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.

O
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.

r
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.

"Gifts usually require an equal or even higher priced item in return" - this is interesting, as I have learned from a couple of podcasts and language apps (which all involve native Japanese people) that the custom is to buy a reciprocal gift which is approximately half of the value, which can still get pretty expensive when you are buying gifts in return for your wedding gifts! Does this happen on religious holidays, birthdays etc? Is it a never ending cycle of gifts where the person who gave a reciprocal gift gets another in return? ;)

Hi LJ, we learned that they have to be similar in value. It is a never-ending cycle of gifts but just because you received a gift, it doesn't mean you must purchase one straight away. So essentially, when you visit someone and you offer them a gift, they will then offer you a similar gift when they visit you and so on. Same for souvenirs etc.

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