Everything You Need to Know About Japanese Etiquette (Podcast Recap! S1E11)

Published January 22nd, 2021

As you can guess by the title, it’s another recap of the Nihongo Master Podcast, and we’re going to look at what we talked about in Episode 11 — Japanese etiquette. Manners make the people, and the people make the country. Every country has their own set of unspoken customs and rules, and it’s undeniable that there are just some things you can do in one part of the world which are considered taboo in another. The Japanese are famously known for their politeness, and we have their highly-valued customs to thank for that. We looked at four sections and each with 2 do’s and 2 don’ts: speech, business, dining and daily. We went into detail on how to act and scenarios, but here, we’ll only give a rundown of what we talked about — for the full version, give episode 11 a listen!


How you speak to others is pretty important in any country, and when it comes to Japan, they take it to a whole new level. It’s something you’ll encounter literally every day, from business to everyday situations, that everyone in Japan has to master. Rule #1: Do be humble There is a famous Japanese proverb that goes, “minoru hodo koube wo tareru inaho kana” (実るほど頭を垂れる稲穂かな), which translates to “the bough that bears the most, hangs lowest.” It basically means that the more successful you become, the more humble you should be. The most common scenario is when one succeeds in something, like getting a promotion at work — if you start boasting, it’s considered having a bad personality. Someone with a good personality is one who denies or rejects compliments instead of straight-up agreeing to them right away. Rule #2: Do use the proper form of politeness Always use the proper form of politeness. Formality is taken extremely seriously in Japanese culture. How you talk with your friends or siblings is drastically different from how you talk with elderly people and superiors — in the latter scenario, you’re expected to speak in the respectful form of the Japanese language. Rule #3: Don’t be too direct The Japanese would rather leave things up for interpretation than give you a straight-up reply. Say your coworker invites you out for a drink after work, but you don’t particularly want to go — a simple “chotto…” (ちょっと) does the trick of rejecting an offer politely and saving you the awkward bluntness. Rule #4: Don’t stare during conversations The last rule for Japanese speech etiquette is to not stare when you’re having a conversation with another. Instead, nod the whole conversation away to show that you’re listening — whether you understand it or not — and make sure to glance around from time to time to avoid direct gaze.


We also looked at everything business. Since such a huge chunk of most Japanese people’s lives is devoted to their work in office cubicles, there’s a similarly huge chunk of cultural etiquette devoted to it too. Rule #1: Do respect the hierarchy There’s a chain of command. How you speak to anyone that’s above your position should be in the appropriate politeness form. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with age and depending on how high up the chain of command they are, there are different forms of keigo (敬語) you need to use. Rule #2: Do prepare business cards Japan can be extremely high-tech in a lot of ways, but in reality, the people are pretty old-school — LinkedIn won’t do the whole trick. Business cards are treated as an extension of oneself, so every card is handled with care. We talked about the proper way to give and receive business cards in Japan, so give the episode a listen if you’re interested to know more. Rule #3: Don’t call people by their first names In Japanese culture, it’s social taboo to call someone by their first name the first time you meet them, but it’s social suicide to do that in the office. First names are personal to Japanese people, and calling one by their first name gives off a sense of familiarity that’s reserved for their inner circle like family members and close friends. In the Japanese language, honorific suffixes act like Mr. and Mrs. — a title to show respect to the person you’re addressing. Usually, you attach this to your boss’ name or anyone of higher rank than you. Give episode 11 a listen for a few honorific suffixes recommended! Rule #4: Don’t bring your pride to work Always be a team player. Japanese companies promote collectivism and shun the sort of individualism that you’ll find in Western firms. It’s all about the team spirit — this mindset is the complete opposite of European or American companies where competitive spirit is a positive thing. In Japan, competition is discouraged.


The third category we looked at was dining. I’ll bet it was the food of Japan which got a fair few of you interested in the culture in the first place. While ramen and sushi have become dinnertime mainstays around the world, the customs that go along with them were mostly all left behind in Japan. Rule #1: Do have proper chopstick manners One of the big-time Japanese dining rules is to know your way around the ins and outs of proper chopsticks usage — you eat almost everything with it in Japan. If you can work a pair of chopsticks, you’re about halfway there — you just have to keep in mind the acts that are strict no-go’s. One is to never stick your chopsticks upwards in a bowl of rice. Want to know more? You know where to go (*cough* episode 11!) Rule #2: Do drink up Japanese people love a good pint of beer or two, and it’s a common sight to see a group of businessmen at an izakaya as soon as it’s the end of the workday. Sometimes, your boss might even join in. Don’t forget to raise your glass and say “kanpai” (乾杯) with everyone else before you start drinking. Rule #3: Don’t count your change When you’re all done with that delicious meal, it’s time to pay up — after settling the bill which you split and the waiter comes back with a tray of change, try your very best to not count it! Rule #4: Don’t hold back your appreciation For a conservative society, the Japanese aren’t afraid to shout out their satisfaction from one end of a restaurant to the other. In Japan, the louder you slurp your noodles, the better. Why, you ask? We explained it a bit more in the full podcast episode.


Last but not least, the final category we looked at is daily customs. Things around here are different — enough to get anyone confused and even overwhelmed. And the worst part of it all is that none of these things is spoken about — here’s a rundown of what we highlighted in the podcast episode. Rule #1: Do respect transport customs There are a couple of transport customs in Japan — one is to not drink or eat on any transportation. It’s not a strict no, but you’ll definitely get a few stares if you do. An even stricter custom is talking on your cell phone on public transportation — no noise should be coming from your phone, and silent mode should be on at all times. Rule #2: Do pay attention to timekeeping Japan’s timing is: you have to be early to be on time. If you’re on time, you’re considered late. Whether it's to meet a friend or for a business appointment, it’s better to be early — I’d say ten minutes before the agreed time is the safest bet. Rule #3: Don’t show off too much skin In a conservative country like Japan, even the way you dress has to be pretty modest, so try not to show off too much skin. Just like you have to show humility when speaking, the same sort of mindset applies to how you dress. This rule applies to both women and men, so the feminists out there can relax a bit. And it’s not only the skin, but it’s also the colors too. How? Well...episode 11, I guess... Rule #4: Don’t disrupt the flow Japan is filled with all sorts of systems designed to make everyday life flow in a regimented fashion, so don’t be that guy that makes waves in a peaceful ocean. There are a couple of key ones — like don’t cut into any line, and not smoking anywhere and anytime you want. You have to obey the mutual flow like joining at the end of the queue and look for designated smoking spots.

Vocab Recap

As usual, we have a list of vocabulary words that we used in the podcast episode: Seikaku (性格) — personality keigo (敬語) — honorific language Youji ga aru kara, chotto… (用事があるから、ちょっと) — “I have some things to do, so…” Kuuki yomeru (空気読める) — to read the atmosphere Sou desu ka (そうですか) — is that so? sokka (そっか) — casual form of the above Wa (和) — the Japanese concept of harmony Kaisha (会社) — company Shachou (社長) — company president Buchou (部長) — department manager Kachou (課長) — section manager Meishi (名刺) — business card Jimusho (事務所) — office Douryou (同僚) — colleague Senpai (先輩) — senior or superior, but can also refer to people who are older in school Kouhai (後輩) — people who are below in rank, but can also refer to people who are younger in school Yūshoku (夕食)— dinner chōshoku (朝食) / asagohan (朝ごはん) — breakfast Chūshoku (昼食) / hirugohan (昼ごはん) — lunch Gohan (ご飯) — cooked rice Kome (こめ) — uncooked rice grains Izakaya (居酒屋) — a Japanese bar Kanpai (乾杯) — cheers! Betsu-betsu (別々) — separate Genkin (現金) — cash Itadakimasu (いただきます) — Let’s eat! Gochisousama deshita (ごちそうさまでした) — thank you for the meal Basu (バス) — bus Densha (電車) — train Sumaho (スマホ) — a katakana word for smartphone Hayai (早い) — to be early, but it can also mean fast Osoku (遅く) — to be late Osokunatte gomennasai (遅くなってごめんなさい) — sorry I’m late Shou ga nai (しょうがない) — it can’t be helped Kajuaru (カジュアル) — casual Fōmaru (フォーマル) — formal Kitsuen (喫煙) — smoking area Kinen (禁煙) — non-smoking area


By the end of the episode, we now know how to act in a business environment, the way around a pair of chopsticks, and how to speak without putting your foot in your mouth. To be well versed in the Japanese etiquette, head over to Apple Podcast or Spotify and give Nihongo Master Podcast a listen!