Japanese Etiquette DOs and DON'Ts

Published December 15th, 2015

Everyone knows that manners and etiquette can vary greatly from one country to the next, but some countries take their social standards much more seriously than others. Well, Japan is one of those countries. Almost everyone knows that you should bow in Japan instead of shake hands, but what other manners in Japan do you need to know? Use this list to learn important Japanese etiquette tips and make sure you don’t embarrass yourself on your next trip to Tokyo!

1. In Japan, Business Cards Are Very Important

japanese business card etiquette

When you exchange 名刺 (business cards, meishi) with a Japanese person, you have to be careful how to treat his/her card. Maybe in America we will grab a card, barely look at it, scribble a phone number down and throw it on our pocket, but that’s not how it’s done in Japan!

DO: Receive it with both of your hands and take a look at it, then put it into your wallet or card holder.

DON’T: Hold it or write something on it!

2. Japanese 温泉 Onsen Etiquette

japanese onsen showers

Public Baths or onsen in Japan are very popular. But since we don’t have many nude spas in the Western World, you may not know the rules!

DO: Wash your body in the showers before you enter the pool

DON’T: Just jump in like a dirty foreigner or have large tattoos showing

3. Stay Away From #4!

japanese elevator no 4th floor unlucky death etiquette
Similar to the number 13 in Western cultures, the number 4 (四, shi) is very unlucky in Japan. You will find some elevators skip that floor! It is unlucky because it can be pronounced as “shi” in Japanese and the sound means “death.” So when you are buying gifts for someone…

DO: Send someone 1, 2, 3 or 5 gifts

DON’T: Send them 4, 8, 12, 16, or any other multiple of 4!

4. I Do What in the Bathroom?

Japanese Toilet Slippers
In some countries, you leave the toilet door open when it’s not being used. But in Japan, you’re supposed to leave the door closed. Also, don’t forget to leave slippers (トイレスリッパ, toire surippa) in there. Since the Japanese don’t wear shoes inside, a pair of rubber slippers should be left right inside the bathroom door so that you can slip them on before entering. Because a bathroom is a “wet room” in Japan, you would never go in with just your socks on or with bare feet!

DO: Close the door after leaving the bathroom

DON’T Enter a bathroom in just socks or bare feet

5. Never Help Yourself to Sake.

japan sake etiquette
When you go out to drink, especially with your superiors, you shouldn’t forget to serve sake (or other alcohol drinks) to him/her. Pour for your superiors or elders first and someone will always pour for you in return. Sometimes this can mean that the drinks never stop! For a more detailed look at drinking etiquette in Japan, check out this post.

DO: Pour drinks for others first, especially your superiors

DON’T Pour yourself first or drink before the toast

6. Is it rude to point in Japan?

Japan rude to point japanese etiquette
It’s not terribly bad manners, but you shouldn’t point to somebody with a finger. Remember pointing at someone isn’t very polite in America either! If you do need to indicate where someone is you may use your palm to direct someone towards them.

DO: Indicate another human by using your palm

DON’T: Point at someone like a snickering child

7. Where Do I Blow My Nose?

don't blow your nose in public
You’re not supposed to blow your nose in public. EVER. Just sniff or go to a restroom. Even if you can’t blow your nose in public, always carry tissues in Japan. On windy winter days you can have a runny nose on the subway and when sniffing won’t work there is nowhere to put it but your sleeve! Don’t be that gross person!

DO: Blow your nose in a bathroom or other private space

DON’T: Blow your nose anywhere else in Japan

8. Escalator Etiquette in Japan

japan escaltor etiquette
When you step on an escalator (エスカレーター, esukareta) in Japan, you need to watch what other people do. Usually, you’re supposed to “stand” on one side of the escalator and “walk (or run!)” on the other side of it. In Tokyo area, you’re supposed to “stand” on the left side and keep the right side space open for those who are in a hurry.

DO: Stand to one side of the escalator so other people may pass you

DON’T: Stand in the middle like a jerk

9. Saying “Thank You” on the Road

slow down japanese road sign
When you’re driving on a crowded street, somebody may let your car in before his/her car. You don’t have to, but it’s nice to flash your hazard lamps a few times. That’s considered to be a “thank you” to the driver. This is very similar to the small wave used in America, though fewer and fewer people seem to be offering this kind gesture these days.

DO: Flash your hazards to thank someone for letting you pass them

DON’T: Cut someone off and then hope they say “thank you” for it

10. It’s OK to Slurp!

slurp ramen japanese dinner etiquette
Though slurping soups in Western cultures can be considered very rude, in Japan it is a sign that you are enjoying your meal. So go ahead and slurp (啜る, susuru) that ramen if you love it!

DO: Slurp your hot soup if you think it’s delicious

DON’T: Pour hot soup all over your face and shirt

Do you have any questions about proper etiquette in Japan? Ask them here and we will add your question to our list along with DOs and DONT’S!