It’s not surprising that a country like Japan would have its own set of etiquette to follow — its rich history calls for it. Many of us wouldn’t even know of these unspoken rules until they’ve experienced it for themselves. But why wait for that to happen when you can be educated on it beforehand?
Even though the Japanese people don’t expect foreigners to know every single one of the Japanese etiquette, it’s good to know the basics. Impress your Japanese friends or prepare for your next Japan trip with these top 15 essential Japanese etiquette tips!
What is Japanese Etiquette?
Before anything else, what is Japanese etiquette exactly? In short, it is basically a set of expected behaviours of people in Japan. Just like any other culture, the etiquette can vary depending on the relationship you have with the other person.
The Japanese etiquette is believed to have existed since the beginning of the country, or even way before Japan became Japan. Back then, Japan consisted of multiple groups of people that vary in terms of customs. Because of that, some regions in Japan may not have certain etiquette another part might have.
It’s also believed that the Japanese etiquette might have changed and evolved over the course of history. What the Japanese used to practice might not be an active practice now. Or what the Japanese practice now might not have existed back then. Regardless, there are still a few Japanese etiquettes that apply throughout this island nation with a long-standing history behind them.
Categories of Essential Japanese Etiquette
If we had to count all the Japanese etiquettes that exist, we’d eventually lose count because there’s too many! Hence, this article will highlight some of the more important ones that are practiced daily. These essential Japanese etiquettes are great to know so as to not unintentionally offend the Japanese people (even though they probably won’t take any offense — they’re too polite and nice for that).
At Home & Other Accommodations
Regardless if it’s at another person’s home or just a local Japanese accommodation like a ryokan, there are some Japanese etiquette to take note of.
1. Shoes off
This Japanese etiquette is one of the most important ones, but it can easily slip one’s mind as well. Especially when back in your home country, taking off shoes before entering the home is not a thing. In Japanese homes and accommodations, people are expected to take off their shoes at the entrance.
Bonus tip: 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 — it’s extremely common for foreigners to wear the bathroom slippers all the way back to the dining table. Don’t worry, no one will fault you for that. It’s an extremely common mistake!
2. Gift away
When visiting another one’s home or place, the Japanese regard gifts as of high importance. It’s just a sign of appreciation and thankfulness for the other person’s invite. The gift should generally be equal or higher priced than the one you received prior (if you did). Do take note not to splurge too much on a gift — the other person would have to fork out just as much or more for your return gift.
The Japanese have a “proper” way of seating known as the seiza (正座). This traditional way of seating is in a sort of kneeling position with your bottom resting on the heels of your feet. Even till this day, the Japanese naturally take on the seiza sitting position when seating on the floor, especially tatami mats. You’re not expected to adopt the traditional way of seating, but it’ll definitely impress a few people if you do.
Not every culture has the same unspoken rules when it comes to daily interactions. Regardless of whether it’s among friends or people who you aren’t so close, there are certain etiquettes to follow in Japanese culture.
4. Personal space
Generally, the Japanese people are less of a physical contact bunch of people. They are more for their personal space. Any displays of affection including hugs and kisses and even handshakes are not common in Japanese culture. It might be a bit unusual for some other cultures, but the Japanese would rather politely bow or give a friendly wave as greeting.
Whether it is meeting a friend or an appointment with a client, never be late in Japan. In fact, being early is actually being on time. So if you’re on time, you’re considered late! While the Japanese are too polite to confront you about your tardiness, it’s considered rude to be even the slightest late. Try to be at least five minutes earlier. There’s basically no excuse you can give to explain your lateness — trains and buses in Japan are always accurately on time.
In every culture, there’s always a set of table manners. In Japan, it’s no different — except that their rules are exclusive to the Japanese culture. Some are extremely specific and miniature, but there is a handful that should be kept in mind whenever you’re dining out in Japan.
6. Chopstick manners
The ohashi (お箸) etiquette is one rule you should try your best not to break. The Japanese regard the chopsticks quite highly, so fooling around with them is frowned upon. For example, you should never use chopsticks to point directly at another person or wave them around. Sticking them in a bowl of rice and passing food from chopsticks to chopsticks are reminiscences of a funeral rite, so avoid that as much as possible.
7. Counting the change is impolite
In some countries, it might only be natural and automatic to count the change you get in return at convenience stores, restaurants and other cashiers. Try not to do that in Japan. There’s a sense of trust among people in Japan, and the cashier people would never shortchange you on purpose. It’s considered impolite to count your change in front of them as it’s a sign of distrust.
It might be redundant to mention, but there’s always a set of etiquette to follow when in public. On top of the universal set of etiquette rules, Japan has a few unique to them. Some of the Japanese might expect these etiquettes to be followed as they’re basically a sign of respect to the people of the public.
8. Lowered voice
One of the most significant unspoken rules in all of Japan is lowered voices on public transports. Whether it is a bus or train, the Japanese people expect hushed voices when speaking to one another. Raised volumes and speaking on the phone in any volume is frowned upon. It is quite and unusual Japanese etiquette — imagine a packed train in Tokyo, the busiest city in Japan, being extremely silent that you could hear a pin drop.
9. No to eating or drinking on the streets
In Japan, it’s impolite to eat or drink on the streets. This raises the question, what if you’re hungry or thirsty? Japan is scattered with convenience stores and vending machines, and the people of Japan expect people to eat or drink there and then. Having the bins next to these places are convenient for that. The streets are considered dirty, so the Japanese would avoid eating on the streets because of then. It’s also best to avoid eating on trains even though it’s not prohibited so as to respect the people commuting with you.
10. Hold on to your rubbish
This is probably the first few things when you find yourself in Japan, and that is the lack of bins in the country. Yet, despite that, the country is one of the cleanest countries in the world! The Japanese hold on to their rubbish until they reach home or if they see a general waste bin somewhere. The bins next to vending machines are dedicated to vending machine users only, hence you should not bin it there if you see it.
11. Stick to your side of the road
Japan is known for its order and abiding citizens. That can be proven by the way the Japanese walk on the streets in an orderly fashion. There’s always a mutual side as to where the people should walk so as to not cross paths and walk into each other. Even on pavements, escalators and subway platforms, there are signs to indicate which side to stick to. This Japanese etiquette is extremely convenient during rush hours and similar situations so you wouldn’t be in the way of others rushing to work, and vice versa.
Some countries might allow smoking anywhere, but it’s actually illegal to walk and smoke in certain areas in Japan. There are designated areas for smoking so that the smoke from the cigarette won’t bother others around them. Cigarette buds can also be hazardous as it can burn someone accidentally, especially in a crowded area. Hence, this Japanese etiquette is more to show consideration for others.
Japanese business etiquette is one of the more important ones in Japanese culture. It’s so crucial with quite a number of unspoken rules that it deserves a whole write-up for itself. However, there are three main ones that one should be aware of on the off chance that you came across a business opportunity during your time in Japan.
13. Business cards
Business cards are the very basis of any business transaction in Japan. They’re more of an extension of oneself, hence business cards are expected to be treated with respect. Receive and give business cards with both hands. Always read the business card that’s given to you intently — it shows that you appreciate the person.
14. Calling names
Name-calling in Japan is quite important. The Japanese always called each other by their family name rather than their first name, especially in a business context. Calling by the first name indicates familiarity with the person while calling by the last name is a form of respect. There are also various honorific titles to attach to the name. Most of the time, “san” (さん) and “sama” (様) are used for people of higher rank or status.
The Golden Rule of Japanese Etiquette
If there are too many unspoken rules in the Japanese culture, just remember this one golden rule of the Japanese etiquette: be respectful. The Japanese are extremely understanding especially when it comes to foreigners who aren’t aware of their local customs. All of the Japanese etiquettes are based on the concept of respect, so if you remember to practice that, you’re all set!
The Japanese etiquette is just as beautiful as the country. Without these traditional customs and unspoken rules on behaviour, Japan wouldn’t be what it is today — inspiring. Before your next trip to Japan, or if you’re already living in this beautiful country, take note of these essential Japanese etiquette tips to impress the locals you’ll encounter!