I'm so excited you're planning your trip to Japan. It's one of the most incredible countries you'll ever visit. Learning about Japanese customs and behaviours is part of the fun as you will see some unusual things during your visit. It's best to familiarise yourself with the basic Japanese manners and Japanese 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. Don't worry, everything is straight forward and really fun to do anyway.
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. You'll know how to follow some basic rules and try to fit in as much as possible. Here is your guide to etiquette in Japan.
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Learn a few basic words in Japanese
It's always nice to learn a few Japanese words. Don't worry, nobody expects you to speak fluent Japanese but know that it shows you are well mannered when you try your best. You will find that not many Japanese people speak English so you might need to use your translator and make use of your hands to show what you need. Be calm and composed and respect locals who don't speak your language.
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.
You will notice that nobody eats or drinks on the street and this is definitely one of the most important parts of Japanese etiquette to follow.
Do not leave your rubbish behind
This is just general good manners, right? We don't throw rubbish on the floor or on the street. But Japan took this to the next level.
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
One of the most interesting Japanese customs was pouring the drink for others.
Japanese etiquette dictates that 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 an honoured guest. However, when I was out with my husband, it was fun to play this and 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.
Be well mannered and take some food from your plate with your chopsticks before you use them, and place them on your partner's plate. Alternatively, allow your partner to just take the food they want to try from your plate, with their own chopsticks.
Alternatively, 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.
These are not particular customs they are just about using common sense and behaving like an educated adult when out in a public place.
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.
I found this behaviour incredibly interesting while in Japan. I actually love it so much that I adopted it all the time. I mean our parents teach us that pointing is rude either way, so we might as well use this Japanese way of showing things. Such a cool manner.
No sugar or cream
This Japanese etiquette is to be followed by those with a sweet tooth. 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 tea which is roasted in a porcelain pot over charcoal. It tastes delicious and is usually complimentary with your meal.
You can add sugar or cream to your coffee, of course. And I promise you, there are so many sugary drinks you can enjoy in Japan, you won't have problems finding something delicious just for you.
Want to know the best ever Japanese behaviour which we love? Noodle slurping. Seriously, you will hear it in every ramen bar.
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 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. It's considered bad practice. 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.
You will notice that is common to use a machine for counting change anyway, so it's doubtful you will be given the wrong change anyway.
Don't be late
Japanese etiquette dictates that precision is key and you 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 an explanation 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.
For any of our appointments, we were arrived 5 minutes earlier just to be sure.
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.
Staring at a Japanese person is considered ill-mannered because it shows a level of threat. When you smile, smile delicately, don't show your teeth. Again, this is not a common practice in Japan. Just be reserved and keep yourself to yourself.
You can be friendly and nice, of course, but you will notice that many people avoid direct eye contact.
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 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 have to listen to loud conversations. Yay for the awesome Japanese right of silence.
This also shows you are educated and considerate and you have good manners. If the call is urgent, answer but be very brief. Tell the caller you will get off the train at the next station so you can talk to them in detail.
Be generally 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. This shows you are polite and well mannered. 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.
By being polite and respectful, you act Japanese as the locals will act like this towards you. If you see kids laughing at you, remember they are not used to seeing foreigners perhaps. Don't get angry with them. Simply ignore and move on. Always act proper.
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.
If you wonder what makes you look most polite, is this: keeping yourself to yourself. Don't scream for any reason and even when you are in a restaurant or cafe, keep the conversational volume to a minimum. If you are out partying, you can see how the crowds react and do the same.
The best way to adhere to Japanese etiquette is to first observe it and then copy what locals do.
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.
Want to know a cool Japanese thing? 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.
Everything is smartly done in Japan to make the society run efficiently. If you truly want to be polite and mannered, pay attention to these small details and act accordingly.
The most notable Japanese custom is taking the shoes off when entering an establishment with tatami. Same applies to people's homes. Don't wear any shoes or slippers when walking on a tatami because it's impolite and it's considered dirty.
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.
Here's a fun etiquette which I want to adopt back home too.
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 Yoshino 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. It may seem a little strange at first, but you will quickly get used to this.
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. You can purchase a lovely gift from any store located on a major train or subway station. Try to go for something that seems very elegant. Don't go for cheap as it won't be well received.
You can purchase some sake but make sure you only do so if you can afford good quality bottles. These can get very expensive very quickly. If you visit women, you will buy delicious and sophisticated food. For example, wagashi is ideal for this.
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.
Not sure what's the best custom for gifts? We recommend getting high-quality wagashi from a fancy store. You can always visit Shibuya and go shopping around for fancy treats. Be polite, and offer the gift with both hands. If someone offers you a gift, also take it with both hands from them. Show gratitude and appreciation.
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.
The best Japanese manners are around the onsen. I say this because once you try a Japanese onsen you will never forget your experience. It's amazing.
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. In 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.
This may seem like a strange custom and rightfully so, but remember to be polite and act accordingly.
Bow or Nod
Japanese people greet each other by bowing. I'm sure you noticed this custom in movies or shows. 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.
A Japanese business custom is that 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. Makes sense, right?
Ideally, you will have the exact amount of change to pay your part of 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-aged 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.
This is considered good manners in Japan and ultimately it's a bit of common sense to have your hands clean before touching other things in a restaurant.
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.
If your chopsticks didn't arrive in a paper cover, they will come with a nice chopsticks stand. Make sure to use the stand so the part that touched your mouth doesn't touch the table or the table cloth. Again, it's a nice hygienic behaviour.
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.
This is a nice custom that we all have in our countries as well. Everyone says cheers one way or another before drinking.
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.
If in doubt, move out of the way and allow everyone else to get out. Again, respect everyone and their space as much as possible. It is considered polite to hold the elevator door for others.
Business cards with both hands
Going to do business in Japan? There are some customs you need to be aware of. 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, layout 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. You will see that public transport is usually busy in Japan, especially in cities like Tokyo. It's best to try and be as compact as possible and not disturb others with your belongings.
You will see that everyone else will do the same.
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 the taxi driver upset. You should be quiet and polite during the journey and of course, you shouldn't leave any rubbish behind.
Taxi drivers are very proud of their cars and they keep them clean and nice at all times.
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.
You will see specially designated smoking areas. There are some pubs where smoking indoors is allowed.
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.
Dress in a neutral colour and wear a suit if you go to a business meeting.
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.
Be polite and allow the other person to take their time, especially because many Japanese people don't actually speak English often. Nod nicely, smile and avoid continuous eye contact as previously discussed.
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.
Be well mannered and use the umbrella sleeve when entering an establishment.
Hello miso soup
Soup in Japan is not eaten with a spoon. Pick up the small bowl, and drink. You can use your chopsticks to help any bits of tofu or seaweed out of the bowl.
You will notice that miso soup is usually served with almost everything you order. It's so delicious and easy to eat. Some places offer free miso soup refills. You can make use of this as it is not considered impolite to ask for a refill.
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. You are well versed in manners and know how to be viewed as a polite person in Japan. 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.