The reputation of Japan’s culture and etiquette precedes them. Some of us have been there — breaking an unspoken yet mutual rule of Japan unintentionally. At some point, the topic of how things actually work in this culturally rich country is bound to pop up.
If you’re not born in Japan or have lived long enough in the country, you wouldn’t necessarily know the ins and outs of it. That applies to most, if not all, countries but it’s even more prominent in Japan. The unique customs, social norms, and rules that regulate the society and relations can be pretty far off compared to what some of us are used to.
Even if foreigners tend to get a “free pass” in most situations, it’s best to not take advantage of that. Knowing a few basics here and there can go a long way, especially if you’re considering settling down (or already are) in Japan. Discover the top things foreigners should and should not do in Japan!
The Top 5 Do’s In Japan
The first few things you’ll notice in Japan are the acts that the Japanese do that you won’t witness anywhere else in the world. The Japanese have special customs unique to their culture. We, from the outside, may see these acts as intriguing, but to the Japanese, some of them are conventional and normal.
Instead of being straight-up lost in the translation of body language when you’re on the receiving end of these customary acts, why not learn about them prior to your trip to Japan? You might even end up doing some of these acts as well! You know what they say when in Japan, do what the Japanese do!
1. Do be early
I don’t know about you, but I personally have experienced being late even though I was actually on time. In Japan, being on time is considered late — being early is being on time. The Japanese value their time. When there is a scheduled appointment or even just a meet up with a friend, they’ll arrive earlier than the agreed time. This is their way of showing respect to the other party, regardless if it’s a client or a peer.
Even buses and trains in Japan are always on time. There’s the rare occasion of midday maintenance or circumstantial delay, but those happen once in a blue moon! If public transportation can afford to accurately arrive on time at their scheduled stops, why can’t we?
In Japanese culture, it’s quite embarrassing to be late. Generally, it’s awkward when someone else is waiting for you after the passed arranged time to meet. Save yourself from these unwanted feelings by being punctual. Better yet, be early!
2. Do follow the queues
Queuing systems are implemented all across the world, but you’ll only see every single one of the citizens abiding by these rules in Japan. Whether it is queuing to go into a restaurant or waiting in line behind the cashier of a supermarket, the Japanese are all for lining up. In fact, they even queue for the lifts and escalators!
The Japanese obeying such a mutually implemented cultural rule stems from the group harmony mentality that the citizens love so much. Jumping and ignoring queues is equivalent to rebelling against this peaceful harmony of the Japanese culture. You wouldn’t want to be that gaijin (外人, which means foreigner), do you?
It might sound ridiculous to stand in a queue for something as mere as an escalator or lift but you’ll end up being more grateful than finding the Japanese’s obedience for the queuing system odd. Just follow the queues, it’s way better than getting dagger glares and stares from all around you.
3. Do respect the chopstick etiquette
Don’t be surprised if and when you’re not served a fork at a restaurant in Japan. In fact, expect no forks and only chopsticks instead. Even a restaurant that offers forks for cutleries offers chopsticks as well — no doubt about that. Chopsticks are quite significant in Japanese culture. Everything from how to use it to what not to do with it is clear and understood by the locals.
Because it takes up such a huge part of the Japanese culture, it sure has more than a few rules in the chopstick etiquette handbook. There are so many that it’s impossible to list them all in this write-up. It needs its own article (maybe even two)! Most of the do’s and don’ts aren’t unreasonable. They have proper reasons as to why it shouldn’t be done.
An example is sticking a chopstick upright in a bowl. This act resembles a funeral ritual which is why it’s prohibited to place the chopsticks in that manner. Placing chopsticks across the bowl signifies that you don’t want to eat anymore. If there’s still food left or you’re not done eating, it may come across as rude to the chef. It’s also considered unclean and dirty to use your chopsticks to pass food to someone else or use it to pick up food from a sharing platter. That’s because you’ve already used the chopsticks and placed them in your mouth, so it’s unhygienic to use them in the mentioned situations.
Don’t be scared to hold a pair of chopsticks now! Of course, the Japanese wouldn’t expect us, foreigners, to know every chopstick etiquette in the Japanese culture. When in doubt, just do one simple thing: don’t play with the chopsticks. That’s as simple as it gets. For a step further, as a sign of respect to the chopstick etiquette, it’s always best to ask! Whether it is the staff who’s serving you or a Japanese friend, they’ll be more than delighted to help you out!
4. Do mind the public spaces
The Japanese are all about respecting one another — from close acquaintances to strangers on the streets. Every corner of Japan is oozing with this respect and that’s because the Japanese are extremely mindful of public spaces. One of the most significant public spaces that the Japanese are extremely particular about is public transportation.
If you’ve seen pictures and videos of the packed trains in Japan, you wouldn’t believe when we say that even during such a crowd, the train is so quiet you can hear a pin drop! Groups of people will lower their voices as they step on the trains — some even end their conversations! Phones are on silent mode, no one is on the phone and even music played on headsets is at a level that wouldn’t bother the person next to them.
This mutual, unspoken rule of silence on public transportation is just out of respect for others who are commuting on the same transportation as them. You don’t know what others are going through — they might be having a rough morning or have had a long day. Join the bandwagon and mind the public spaces!
5. Do shower first before entering the public baths
Japanese hot springs known more famously as the onsen (温泉) is a must-stop for locals and foreigners alike! These public baths are more often than not used as a form of relaxation rather than to cleanse oneself. Some people even go to the onsen for health reasons! The water in these public baths are always clean, and that’s not only because of the painstaking maintenance done by the staff.
There’s an unspoken rule of showering first before entering these public baths. Similar to the previous rule, this is more because of minding the public spaces, and onsens are considered public space. You’re likely to see a showering area either right next to the hot spring bath or somewhere nearby. Be sure to use it before dipping your toes in the relaxing waters of Japan!
The Top 5 Don’ts in Japan
I bet you’ve heard of all the things you can’t do in Japan. Japan has a fair share of its don’ts, but loads of countries are the same as well! Fair enough, there are some unspoken rules here that aren’t the same as anywhere else in the world — but that’s what makes Japan even more special, doesn’t it?
Many foreigners, regardless of expats or mere tourists, can live their time in Japan being quite oblivious to the strict no-nos in Japan. While the Japanese are polite enough to give us a pass for that, why not be in the know of a few of them just to save yourself the awkward stares and encounters?
1. Don’t tip
The first and foremost don’t in Japan is tipping. Definitely no tipping in this country! Tipping is a huge part of the culture in some countries — it is even mandatory for countries like the United States! It isn’t the same in Japan, though. It’s strictly not part of the culture.
Service charge is already included in the bills of restaurants, and the Japanese are already expected to deliver only the best and highest quality of service in their work. It doesn’t matter if they’re staff at a restaurant or a taxi driver. The Japanese don’t see the need to be praised in monetary terms as that’s the bare minimum service for them.
In fact, if you do tip, you might even offend someone! Tipping can be rude for two reasons: it can imply that the staff is only providing good quality service for monetary rewards, and the other implication is that the staff aren’t paid well by the employer.
If you really insist on praising the staff for their excellent service, the best way to do that is by complimenting them in-person or even review the restaurant online. I found out that reviewing a restaurant for their exceptional service significantly helps them in terms of their ratings and getting more customers. Who knows, if you mention the individual staff in your review, that might even get them a raise!
2. Don’t wear shoes indoors
For some of us, we might wear our shoes indoors. When in Japan, never — and I repeat, NEVER — ever wear your shoes into someone’s home regardless of whose home it is. Outdoor shoes are unclean and dirty, and for this very reason, they are not to be brought into the house. Everyone wants their home to be clean. Having their indoor and outdoor shoes separate is one way for the Japanese people to go about that.
Japanese homes have an entryway called the genkan (玄関), and this is where outdoor shoes are placed. At this special entryway, the shoes are lined up neatly. Be sure to take off your shoes before entering the house. If there are indoor shoes which you’ll be able to see at the genkan, switch to those.
This no-shoe rule does not just apply to homes. It extends to most ryokans which are traditional Japanese-style hotels, some temples and shrines, schools, and hospitals. Don’t be surprised if restaurants request you to take off your shoes before entering — especially traditional ones with tatami mats since they’re extremely delicate and can be damaged. It’s just the norm in Japan.
3. Don’t litter
One thing every foreigner notices about Japan is the lack of bins on the streets. Yet, regardless of this, the streets are almost always sparkling clean and litter-free. Amazing, isn’t it? That’s the beauty of Japan — quite literally. This is only possible because the people in the country don’t litter.
Preserve the litter-free image of the country by holding on to your rubbish if you have any. Only get rid of it when you see a bin nearby. It’s best to have a spare plastic bag with you to store all your trash and dispose of it at one go — that’s what most of the Japanese people always do! If not, they’ll hold on to it till they get home and then get rid of it then.
If you want to be even more involved in the Japanese practice, separate your trash by plastics, papers, cans and other waste, and dispose of them accordingly. You’ll be surprised at how often these all come in a row together!
4. Don’t jaywalk
The Japanese love obeying the rules, which is why everything is almost always run so smoothly in the country. So of course, there’s no such thing as jaywalking in Japan! Plus, that’s not the only reason you shouldn’t be jaywalking. There’s the obvious one and that is because it’s dangerous!
There’s no harm in waiting for a bit. The plus side is that the traffic lights in Japan don’t take long at all! If there’s construction work or breakdown of sorts, there’s always a road worker to assist the traffic flow. Save yourself the danger as well as others’ danger of following your lead to jaywalk by simply not.
5. Don’t eat or drink on-the-go
Konbinis (コンビニ) are extremely popular in Japan. They have everything — they are called convenience stores for a reason. You’d expect tons of people grabbing a wrapped onigiri and munching on them casually as they get a step on towards their next destination. After all, it is killing two birds with one stone that we’re all guilty of.
On the contrary, you won’t catch a local Japanese chomping away as they take a stroll down the pavements. To the locals, the streets are considered dirty as hundreds of people walk on them daily and leave trails of dirt behind. Why consume food on these unclean surfaces?
You’ll see the Japanese people standing right outside these konbinis to finish up their quick snack or lunch. It’s not just konbinis but also vending machines! Loitering around them makes it easier to bin the wrapping and cans or bottles in the respective bins before heading off. If you don’t fancy the standing and eating way, find a nearby bench or park to finish up your quick treat.
Japan is not Japan if it’s not for its order and system. Who knows if we’ll ever be fully familiar with the ins and outs of the Japanese culture, but we can only try! At the end of the day, the Japanese are extremely understanding of foreigners and every effort is greatly appreciated. Even the bare minimum like the do’s and don’t mentioned in this write-up is good enough, so let’s do our best! Ganbatte (頑張って)!