Japanese Etiquette When Travelling!

Published March 25th, 2022

As Japan slowly opens up the borders again, who else is looking up flight dates to Japan? Finally, we can visit our favourite country again! But when we do get there, let’s not forget that we have to be on our best behaviour, since Japanese customs and etiquette are very different from the rest of the world.

Japanese mannerisms are abundant, and some might say that there are a bit too many to remember in a short period of time for a short trip. So to get you prepared for your trip, we’ve done up this article for travellers in a rush to get into the minimal Japanese manners mode for that week-long Japan trip we all hope to be on this year (like finally).

There are three parts of this episode: public manners, indoor manners and holy grounds etiquette, indoor manners. This article is a snippet and recap of our Season 10 Episode 7 of the Nihongo Master Podcast! The whole season focuses on Japanese mannerisms, so tune in to that for your on-the-go learning of Japanese etiquette!

Japanese Public Manners

The first category of mannerisms for travellers we’re going to touch on is public manners. This is arguably the most important category in this collection of manners. In Japanese culture, unspoken rules are a big thing, and everyone abides by them. The concept of “public” and “private” in Japan can be quite different from other cultures, so if you don’t exactly know if it’s a private or public space, just treat it as public just to be safe.

There are tons of unspoken rules for how to act in public, but don’t worry, I’ll loop you in on the 5 most important ones.

1. Keep volume down

The Japanese people are really mindful of their space, especially when out in public. Speaking in a high volume is not encouraged in Japan, as you would affect others around you. This is seen as respecting the space that you share with other strangers.

When you’re with a group of people, try your very best to keep your volume down, especially so when on public transport. Even when you’re alone, you’re expected to not blast music too loud on your headphones, as this might disturb the person next to you.

2. Queuing

The next unspoken rule in public spaces is the queuing system. The Japanese love their queues! They queue for the ramen shop, outside of a store before it opens, and even for the escalators and lifts! Even on street pavements and public transport platforms, there are signs to indicate which side to stick to or where to queue so as to not cross paths and walk into each other.

With that in mind, follow the queue system for everything in Japan. I think this etiquette is extremely convenient during rush hours and crowded streets. Fall in line and you won’t have to dodge people’s shoulders like it’s a game of dodgeball.

3. Stop to eat and drink

Eating and drinking while walking on the streets are not taken positively. This is because when you do this, it’s considered as disrespecting others walking in the same area as you. That being said, don’t drink or eat on the trains either, for the exact same reason. Oh, this excludes long-distance train rides like the Shinkansen (新幹線), which are Japanese bullet trains.

So what if you’re hungry or thirsty? Japan is scattered with convenience stores and vending machines, and the Japanese would eat or drink there and then. They would be standing outside the store and finishing their food before walking. This is the same for cans from the vending machines. Finish up your food or drink before continuing walking.

Indoor Manners

Now we’re moving on to indoor manners. You might think you wouldn’t need this, because you think you wouldn’t be in someone’s house during your time in Japan, but trust me, this also applies to ryokan (which are traditional Japanese hotels) and events like tea ceremonies.

4. Leave your shoes at the door

The first one is a crucial one to remember whenever entering any indoor space, and that is to leave your shoes at the door! Some of us come from cultures and countries where it’s normal to wear your outdoor shoes in your house, but in Japan, there’s a very clear distinction between soto (外, outside) and uchi (内, inside).

In fact, you might find yourself taking off your footwear quite often. Traditional places like shrines and temples, ryokan and izakaya, and even restaurants would require you to take off your shoes before entering. If you don’t know if you need to take them off, ask a staff member. You could also observe the people around you to see if they’re taking off their shoes.

Oftentimes, when entering an indoor space, you will find a genkan, which is the entrance area. This bit is considered as soto, even though you’re indoors, and it’s where you remove or put back on your outdoor shoes. The indoor space is usually elevated and can be covered by a different type of flooring, so that’s your best way to differentiate the two.

In some cases, you’ll be given indoor shoes, most likely slippers. I’ve picked up the habit of wearing indoor shoes in my home too.

5. Wear socks if possible

Now the next rule isn’t exactly a hard-and-fast rule, but it’s linked to the first one. Wear socks if possible, because they’ll be on display quite a bit. Some places don’t offer indoor slippers, and the Japanese believe that having socks on in the house is better than bare feet so as to not carry dust around.

One time you should definitely consider wearing socks is when you’re visiting a traditional indoor space. Say, for example, you’re going to a traditional tea ceremony in Japan. Most of the time these events take place in a tatami mat room, and it’s better to walk on tatami with socks so as to not damage the flooring.

6. Bathroom slippers

Now the third rule for indoor spaces is to take note of bathroom slippers. Sometimes in bathrooms, there will be bathroom slippers offered. In this case, leave your house slippers (if you have them on) outside the bathroom and switch for the bathroom slippers when you enter. Don’t forget to switch back after you’re done!

Visiting Holy Grounds

The third category of Japanese mannerisms for travellers is when visiting holy grounds. Temples and shrines are scattered all around the island — so many that you might even find yourself on holy ground without even realising!

Now you might not find these pointers on any of the articles you Googled online, because these three tips are from my own personal experience and observation.

7. Don’t touch

The first rule of this category is don’t touch anything. I know, curiosity kills the cat, but refrain from mindlessly touching things you don’t know about on holy ground, out of respect. If there’s something on holy grounds that looks unique and intriguing, it’s because it’s meant to be there for a purpose. You can admire something’s beauty without having your fingerprints all over them!

But of course, there are also things that you can touch, and oftentimes there are signs to signal that you can.

8. Ask if you don’t know

The next thing to remember when visiting holy grounds is that it’s okay to ask if you don’t know something. In fact, I recommend asking. Say for example you want to know if something is okay to touch, go up to any official staff worker on premises and ask them. In smaller, more local temples and shrines, there aren’t that many signs that explain things, so I found myself always asking if I could enter a space, or if I should take off my shoes. It’s so much better to get that clarified instead of wandering around and potentially misstepping.

9. Behave respectfully

Now the last rule, the general rule, is to behave respectfully. The first two points actually fall under this one, because if you think about it, the reasoning behind those two rules is because you’re respecting the holy grounds.

If you’re entering a church or a mosque, you’re going to behave respectfully just naturally, right? Similarly, with shrines and temples, you should do the same. Keep these things in mind: keeping quiet, whispering instead of talking at a normal volume if you want to talk to your friend, observing what others are doing to give you a sense of what you can do.

Vocab Recap

In the podcast episode, we used a lot of useful and related vocabulary words. Here we summarise them in a list for listeners to refer back to!

Koukyou no basho (公共の場所) — public space. Koukyou (公共) is public, and basho (場所) means place

Densha (電車) — train

Sasuga (さすが) — as expected

Narabu (並ぶ) — to queue

Konbini (コンビニ) — convenience store

Shinkansen (新幹線) — Japanese bullet trains

Uchi (内) — inside

Soto (外) — outside

Ryokan (旅館) — traditional Japanese inn

Izakaya (居酒屋) — Japanese style pub

Genkan (玄関) — the entrance bit in homes and other types of establishments

Seiza (星座) — the proper way of seating in Japanese culture

Tera (寺) — temple

Jinja (神社) — shrine

Shitsumon (質問) — question

Sonkei (尊敬) — respect

Safe Travels to Japan!

These are the absolute minimal, essential Japanese etiquette that you should know when you travel to Japan. While these are general rules for travellers, it doesn’t mean you should ignore them if you plan on living in Japan. In fact, you should know more than just these mannerisms! So tune in to the other episodes of Season 10 of the Nihongo Master Podcast for all you need to know about Japanese Mannerisms!