The Japanese are known to be the most polite and courteous people in the world, and put great value into societal manners and etiquette in the way they live their lives. In fact, the Tokyo Good Manners Project (TGMP) was launched in 2016 in an effort to promote and improve good manners and conduct in Tokyo with their public manner awareness campaigns. For most of us, it seems like a lot. But for the Japanese, the quality of conduct in public is seen as highly reputable and is held in high regard.
Omotenashi (selfless hospitality) is one of the most prominent parts of Japanese culture. The philosophy is deeply rooted in the Japanese tea ceremony, also known as sado or chanoyu, and puts great emphasis in anticipating and fulfilling a guests’ needs in advance.
If you’re planning to visit the land of the rising sun, you should be aware of some of the basic practices at the very least.
The rules and expectations will generally change according to the place and situations, but we’ve listed some of the must-know that anyone visiting Japan should always remember!
- Refrain from talking too much or interrupting others. Although this practice is widely encouraged outside of Japan, it is important to remember that the Japanese will not try to interrupt you when you talk, so the same respect must be given back and there should always be room for responses when you talk. It is also common practice to avoid talking loudly in public.
- Indirect communication. The Japanese have mastered the subtle art of saying no, without saying no. In this sense, some answers you may get may seem ambiguous or confusing. This is especially evident when you try to get a flat answer from a Japanese friend. The best way to navigate through a conversation is to focus on your conversation partner and check for hesitations or “tells” on the implied meanings. This can range from body language, eye contact, physical contact, and facial expressions.
- Be humble. Modesty is highly valued in Japan, so bragging is not commonplace no matter how accomplished someone is. Usually, even if your Japanese friend is the best you know at doing something, they will respond by saying they still need improvement.
- Apologize. It should go without saying that people should say sorry for their own mistake. The Japanese have a number of ways to apologize, all varying depending on the severity of the situation: “Sumimasen” is used as a mild apology with acquaintances and strangers while “Gomen” is an informal apology between close friends and family. Some people would use “I’m sorry” gifts as well.
- Gift giving. Speaking of gifts, this is a very common part of Japanese Culture. Gifts in Japan are typically wrapped beautifully, whether they’re just common household items or souvenirs. Gift sets of four, however, should be avoided as the number sounds very similar to the Japanese word for “death”.
- More gifts. Gifts are also used to show appreciation or as repayment to someone who did a small favor for you. These kinds of gifts are usually sweets or confectionaries and treats.
- Receive gifts gracefully. When you get a present, try not to open it immediately or ask if it’s okay to open it at that moment. Besides seeming over-eager, you don’t want to embarrass yourself or the gift-giver.
- Don’t ask for a favor. Even though the previous item mentions friends doing favors for friends, it’s not as common to openly ask for help. People in Japan tend to keep problems to themselves and look for solutions on their own.
- Don’t disturb others. As mentioned before, you should try to keep your voice down when speaking in public so as not to disturb passers-by. When you’re staying at an accommodation or anywhere with close neighbors, make sure you don’t make too much noise especially after 10 PM.
- Respect people’s names. The Japanese don’t normally call people with their first names, but instead will use an honorific suffix (-san) with someone’s last name. When you have to use someone’s name, be sure to use the same rule, especially with new friends and acquaintances. When on a first-name basis or between close friends, the suffix will vary on the gender (-kun/-chan).
- Don’t over perfume. As a courtesy to the people around you, it’s best to use subtle scents or a very little amount of perfume. Too much can cause discomfort, especially in close quarters. You should be mindful of other people, what they would think, and how they would react, keeping in mind that some people may have sensitive noses or allergic reactions.
- Keep your distance. Unlike most Western countries, people in Japan don’t usually shake hands or hug when they interact or greet each other. Instead, bowing is used more often to say “hello”, “goodbye”, “thank you”, and “I’m sorry.” Foreigners are typically not expected to bow and are more likely excused if they do it wrong. Bowing has its own set of rules, going deeper depending on how apologetic you can be or by how much you respect someone. (15°, 30°, 45°)
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Dining Etiquette and Table Manners
- Pour the drink of the person next to you during social gatherings. This act is usually seen as a gesture of appreciation and respect. Between two coworkers, it’s a way to say “you’ve worked hard”. When pouring the drink, make sure to hold the bottle properly with both hands. If you are on the receiving end, make sure you lift your glass up with two hands.
- Don’t refuse food. It is rude to say no to food being offered to you in general, not just in Japan. If you want to say no because you don’t like the dish, you should still accept it but you are not obligated to eat. Similarly, if you are offered a drink you decide you don’t like, simply leave your glass and don’t empty it. No one will refill or replace the drink if you haven’t “finished” it.
- Wait. During social gatherings, especially among coworkers, make sure you do not start eating or drinking before the highest ranking or most senior member starts eating or drinking. When you’re in an office environment, this would usually be your manager or the head of the company. In family gatherings, this would traditionally apply to the father or the eldest son.
- Kanpai! Drinking alcoholic beverages is commonplace among the Japanese, as a way to bond with coworkers or friends when they come of age. If alcohol is not palatable to you or you simply don’t want to have a glass, you can order oolong tea instead. Make sure to say “kanpai” (cheers!) before taking a shot!
- Itadakimasu! Make sure you show your appreciation for the food you eat by saying “itadakimsasu”, (thank you for the food!) when you receive your dish. Always compliment the cook by saying “umai” (delicious) while taking a bite. After finishing your meal, make sure you thank the server or your host by saying “gochisousama deshita”.
- Cover your mouth when you have to use a toothpick, especially when you’re around other people. You can use your other hand, a table napkin, or a handkerchief. If the piece you’re trying to dislodge is too stubborn, simply go to the restroom where you can comfortably work it out.
- Don’t take the last piece when you’re sharing a plate of food. This practice usually ends up in a silent debate that leads to the people at the table dancing around to offer the last piece to someone else. This could be easily resolved by asking but take note that it’s not exactly the most ideal position you want to put yourself in.
- Use your chopsticks properly. Never stab your chopsticks into your rice bowl and leave it standing up. This resembles the incense sticks that are used during funerals and it is said to bring bad luck. Similarly, never pass around food using chopsticks as this is a similar action to passing around someone’s ashes.
- Appreciate your food. The Japanese take great pride in their cuisine, preparing each dish thoughtfully and with the utmost care to bring out the perfect flavors and seasonings. It is highly irregular and disrespectful to the chef to adjust the food according to personal taste. The only time this is acceptable is in the case of food allergies or prohibitions.
- The Oshibori is a white piece of cloth given to you at restaurants meant to clean the hands. Never wipe your face with it or use it for any other purpose than what it is for.
- Handle plates carefully. Do not put the lid on the table while dripping any water from the steam everywhere. A good trick to remember is to place the lid slanting on the vessel or bowl while letting excess water drip into the food, then turning it upside down so the dry side is touching the table.
- Eat rice first, then take a few bites from other dishes, and then eat rice again. Rice is usually meant to be used as a palate cleanser to neutralize any overpowering flavors, allowing you t appreciate the flavors of the dish more intimately.
- Do not cancel a restaurant reservation at the last minute. Japanese societal norms revolve around not being an inconvenience to others, after all. Canceling your reservation at the last minute, especially at upscale restaurants, puts any advanced prep-work to waste.
- Return your own food tray. Most restaurants and cafes have a designated section where you can set down your used food tray and/or plate so the staff can have an easier time cleaning up. When there isn’t a designated area, make sure you arrange your plate and other items from the restaurant neatly with the chopsticks on the holder and any lids on their dishes.
How to Behave in Public Spaces and Transportation
- Mind where you eat. It’s generally not recommended to eat while walking as it could lead to accidents and wasted food. If you’re at a festival and can’t find yourself a place to sit, make sure you step to the side where you can snack without blocking anyone. While eating and drinking in trains is generally frowned upon, it’s even more so if you choose to eat fermented food with strong smells like garlic or kimchi.
- Find an empty seat before making your order in a cafe. Not only will this be convenient for you to immediately sit down while waiting for your meal, but it will help you avoid dancing around with other customers for an empty seat. If there is a host or hostess, wait patiently for them to escort you to a seat. If it’s a popular place, make sure to make a reservation if possible.
- Don’t pass your money to the cashier. Money is rarely passed directly from hand to hand in Japan. Whenever you purchase something, a small tray is provided where you should put your payment in, whether it’s cash or card. The change will also be placed here.
- Pay at the register. When you’re being served at a place, like a cafe, where there are servers present, make sure you pay at the cashier instead of the floor staff.
- Use an envelope when you’re handing money to someone outside of a shop. Again, always try to avoid giving money directly to someone as is.
- Don’t tip. Unlike many parts of the world, tipping is not a common practice in Japan. There are some situations that are considered an exception to this rule such as tipping private tour guides in Japan, and some ryokans. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s widely practiced. When in doubt, avoid tipping.
- Keep your bag off the floor. Wherever you go in Japan, always try to avoid placing your bag on the floor since it will get dirty. Most restaurants will have hooks under the table or baskets under the chairs for bags and purses, while box-type chairs will have enough room. If there is an empty seat, you can use that instead or hang a sling bag on the chair back.
- Use designated smoking areas. In Japan, you cannot smoke outdoors, especially in crowded spaces since it’s illegal. Parks, plazas, streets, and buildings will usually have special areas to control the smoke and pollution.
- Prioritize good hygiene. Being neat and clean is very important in Japan. This means that even during sports events or concerts, it’s not uncommon to see people cleaning their seats after the event. This is a courtesy to the maintenance staff and for the next person after you. If there aren’t any trash bins around, keep them in your bag until you can find the appropriate disposal, following waste segregation.
- Again, good hygiene, but in the bathroom this time. There aren’t many public restrooms in Japan but if you find yourself using one, make sure you clean up and be mindful of the person coming after you. Indoor restrooms like at ryokans and spas will have toilet slippers provided to avoid getting the floor dirty, both in the bathroom and the outside hall. Make sure you wear provided slippers in the restrooms only and do not bring them outside.
- Photograph appropriately. There is nothing more annoying than a tourist blatantly disregarding the rules and taking selfies at every step. Make sure to check with the place you’re visiting if photos are allowed, especially at holy sites like shrines and temples, as well as museums. You should also avoid taking pictures of strangers in the streets.
- When it comes to photographing geishas, try to take photos from a distance, and only from the sides or behind them. If they are walking, do not stop them or block their path as they are likely rushing between jobs. Always remember to be respectful.
- Observe road safety. Other than avoiding accidents, following road safety rules extend as a point of setting an example to young school children. Additionally, make sure you walk on the left side of the sidewalk and drive on the left side as well. This helps manage foot traffic, so try not to slow the flow.
- Don’t be entitled to space especially in public transportation. Japan’s bullet trains are known to be crowded and a little invasive if you value personal space. Try not to occupy a wide space when you’re sitting down, and put your bag on your lap or carry it in front of you so you don’t accidentally hit someone with it.
- Take care if you are sick. Wearing face masks isn’t a recent practice in Japan. A lot of people will wear surgical or cloth masks in public when they get the sniffles or feel sick, even before the Coronavirus outbreak. Similarly, try to avoid blowing your nose in public, and do it in a restroom. When you do this, try not to make too much noise.
- Follow the queue. People in Japan will stand in line for just about anything but never cut in the line even when someone was holding your place for you. Always go to the back of the queue out of respect for the other people in line.
- Follow the order of the people who enter the elevator – The last person who enters the elevator is supposed to be the last person to get off as well to be fair to others. When exiting, make sure to press the close button so the remaining riders will not have to wait for the doors to close.
How to Behave in Shrines and Temples
- Take off your sunglasses and hats when you’re in temples. Always remember to respect the local practices wherever you visit, even when you don’t follow the religion of the site you’re at.
- Bow when you enter the gate.
- Be quiet. Similar to some of the previous items, it is important not to draw attention to yourself by making a scene or loud noises. People at the temples would normally be meditating or praying and would appreciate the peace and quiet.
Respect the customs. When in Japan, follow as the Japanese do. When you’re making a wish at a temple, don’t say it out loud or even whisper it, just follow the common practice:
- Bow two times
- make your wish
- clap twice
- bow again
Wash your hands properly. Similarly, there is also a specific way to wash your hands at a temple:
- hold the water scoop with the right hand
- wash your left hand
- hold the water scoop with the left hand
- wash the right hand
- hold the water scoop with the right hand and pour water onto your left hand
- wash your mouth with the left hand. Do not drink from the water scoop.
- Again, photograph appropriately. Do not take a photo of the shrine by standing in the middle of the tori where you would be blocking the entrance. When there is a ceremony being held, avoid taking photos as this may disrupt the event.
- The Omamori is a lucky charm that you can get at a temple and is usually bought as a souvenir. As tempting as it can be, do not open the amulet unless you want to lose any potention good luck it could bring. There is nothing interesting inside besides a small prayer.
Basic Rules at Onsens, Ryokans, and similar places
- Cover visible tattoos. While some onsens in Tokyo and Kyoto allow for tattooed clients to enter the baths without covering up, the general rule is that tattooed individuals are not allowed in the public baths. Always check in with the onsen to confirm.
- Wash up before you enter the hot spring. Onsens are not meant for washing the dirt off your body but are instead used as a form of therapy or relaxation. Communal baths, especially, will have multiple people using them at the same time, so each person has to be thoughtful of all the guests.
- Take your shoes off when you’re going into a room with tatami mats on the floor. Socks should always be worn on the mats since they are fragile. Similarly, never place heavy baggage on them either. Make sure to arrange your shoes pointing towards the exit if they are left in the foyer so they are easy to put on when you leave. This is also common practice when visiting a typical Japanese household.
Ryokan Manners and Etiquette
Onsen Manners and Etiquette
Basic Business Manners and Etiquette
- Follow the hierarchy order. When conducting business in Japan, always take note of the most senior person in the group or at least the next person whose position is directly higher than yours. You will typically find yourself “following the leader” when you eat, drink, and make introductions.
- Be early. It’s a common practice in Japan to arrive at least ten minutes early to any meeting. Besides being responsible and respecting other people’s time, this habit is also to make up for any incidents and setbacks on the way.
- Be prepared. In a similar manner, time is valuable to any businessman around the world. It pays back to be extra prepared with documents, business cards, and other necessities when you’re going to work or conducting business.
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This article was prepared by Kimono Tea Ceremony Maikoya, a leading Japanese cultural experience provider. Our award-winning tea ceremony has topped TripAdvisor’s Top Experiences in Japan for three consecutive years and remains one of the best-rated cultural experiences in the country.
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