As cultures go, Japan must be one of the most unique in the world. Sharing very little in common with the rest of Asia and certainly even less with the West, it can be incredibly idiosyncratic. Furthermore, being one of the more formal cultures left in today’s modern world, it can also be intimidating…here, I’d like to share a cheat sheet on the rules and etiquette one should know when in Japan.
In the Japanese’s rather hierarchical culture, there are seemingly endless rules to be aware of when dealing in business vs. personal situations, differences in how to interact with male vs. female, how to respond based on a person’s age or their relationship to you, how to engage with people of different social statuses…the list is frankly endless.
But as a traveler to Japan, you likely won’t face all of these levels of societal complexity. That said, I see visitors make some key mistakes that can be easily avoided. You might already know that you have to take your shoes off nearly everywhere you go, but did you know that blowing your nose in public is very nearly the height of rudeness?
Here are ten basic rules of etiquette every traveler to Japan should know.
1) Never pour your own drink. Whether it is water or wine or beer, one is to never pour their own drink. The mannered Japanese’s way is to notice when your dining companion’s drink is low and to fill it for them, and they will do the same for you. After everyone’s glass is filled, it is customary to say a Japanese toast – the word for “cheers” is “kampai.”
2. Never stick your chopsticks into a bowl of rice. You can drape them over the top of your bowl, but never stick your chopsticks in the bowl with the blunt, wide ends sticking out. This is a sign of death and is incredibly bad form when dining. (see appropriate way in the main image above)
3. Never attempt to shake hands when meeting, always bow. Japanese eschew physical contact and thus are very uncomfortable when presented with an outstretched hand. Instead, the appropriate greeting is a bow. And while there are many rules for bowing, the most important thing to know is that to be most respectful, you should let the other person bow first, and then make your bow slightly lower than theirs as a sign of respect.
4. When exchanging money, always use a tray. For similar reasons as above, never try to put money or a credit card in someone’s hands or take change directly from someone’s hands. Use the tray on the counter or the tray presented…there is ALWAYS a tray.
5. Never touch the door in a taxi to enter or exit. One should always get into a taxi from the curbside (never the street side) and because the doors on curbside are auto-doors they will be opened and closed automatically by the driver. Never attempt to open or close the car door yourself.
6. Always go to a private place to blow your nose. Never, ever blow your nose in public. Always excuse yourself to a quiet corner or the bathroom. It is considered just about the rudest thing one can do in Japan. Oh the other hand, it is acceptable to sniffle aloud in order to prevent having to blow one’s nose.
7. Speaking of bathrooms, always use the sound controls on the toilet. When using a toilet in a public or shared bathroom, on the toilets, there are buttons to make sounds, like the sound of a flush, or the sound of running water or even the sound of birds chirping. Why? Because it is deemed very inconsiderate to allow others to hear ANY bodily noises while you are doing your business.
8. When dining, serve yourself from the fat end of the chopsticks. In Japan, most food is served family style, so if you are serving yourself from a community plate, never use the end of the chopsticks you put in your mouth to serve yourself…instead use the opposite end of the chopsticks, the fat end, to serve yourself from the shared platter.
9. Never leave a clean plate if you are finished eating. Whereas in many cultures a clean plate is a sign that your finished and full, in Japan it is a sign that you are still hungry. And guess what, suddenly more food will appear. So if you are full and finished with eating, always leave a bit on your plate to let your host or the restaurant know you are done.
10. Do not tip in Japan. Tipping is not common and is often considered rude. Why? Because when you tip you are assuming a higher status that the person who is serving you and by doing so you belittle them and highlight their lower social status.
And the wonderful thing about the Japanese is that when you just make a little effort to recognize their customs they are very impressed and generous in their compliments. Also, don’t be embarrassed if you don’t know something. Just ask nicely, as the Japanese see it as respectful that you acknowledge their culture is different and that you are interested to learn the rules. I find the Japanese amazingly warm and open (vs their cultural reputation) if one simply makes an effort to bridge the gap. Rest assured with these ten basic rules of etiquette you will be well prepared in the most common situations a traveler to Japan will encounter.