Japan FAQ--Japanese Manners and Etiquette
JAPANESE MANNERS AND ETIQUETTE
Here's a word about good manners while living in Japan. Up to now, unless you've been
living in a cave, you must have heard about taking off your shoes before entering a
residence and not getting into a bath while still soapy, since others have already talked
these issues to death. But there are a lot more items you may not know. Japanese are very
conscious about hygiene (except for the park and train station toilets, which are
LETHAL), and Japanese are a very sensitive people -- more fastidious about
etiquette and proper form. Many Japanese already have a negative image of westerners
after observing how some have acted in Japan--hence the reputation of some
landlords and real-estate agents not to rent their apartments. Whether you help dispel their
preconceptions, or just reinforce them by acting like you belong in a zoo is entirely up
Whether you are in Japan for tourism, travel, or living, your actions have a
profound impact on how others perceive you, particularly important if you're looking
for work. As anywhere, many social customs are done away with when in the company of family and close
friends, but for coworkers and more formal situtations, it can help a lot to remember these.
Here then are a few do's and don'ts you should know --
It is impolite to eat or drink something while walking down the
Do not bite or clean your fingernails, gnaw on pencils, or lick
your fingers in front of others.
In restaurants or when visiting it's customary to get a small, moist rolled-up towel
(cold in summer, hot in winter) called an "oshibori" to wipe their hands with. It's
impolite to wipe the face and neck with it though some do in less formal places.
In Japan it is impolite to pour your own drink when eating with
others--you pour your companion's drink and your companion pours
If you don't want any more to drink, leave your glass full.
It's customary to say "Itadakimasu" before eating and "Gochisosama deshita" after
eating, especially if you're being treated, as well as "Kanpai" for "Cheers".
When sharing a dish, put what you take on your own plate before eating it.
Do not make excessive special requests in the preparation of your
food, nor wolf it down.
Do not use your chopsticks to skewer food, move dishes around, and
NEVER dish out food to another using the same ends you just ate
from--use the top ends.
Don't use your chopsticks to point at somebody.
Don't leave your chopsticks standing up out of your food.
It is normal in Japan to pick up your rice or miso soup bowl and hold it
under your chin to keep stuff from falling.
Traditional Japanese food is served on several small plates, and it's normal
to alternate between dishes instead of fully eating one dish after another.
Don't leave a mess on your plate--fold your napkins neatly.
Don't take wads of napkins, sugar packs, or steal "souvinirs" when
you leave a restaurant.
Do not put soy sauce on your rice--it isn't meant for that.
Do not put sugar or cream in Japanese tea.
There is no real custom like "help yourself". Wait until the host offers something.
If you act as host, you should anticipate your guest's needs (cream/sugar, napkins, etc.).
If you must use a toothpick, at least cover your mouth with your
Be aware that in Japan it is normal to make slurping sounds when
you're eating noodles.
In Japan, it's good (in commercials, anyway) to make loud gulping noises when drinking. Expect
to hear lots of it in ads.
It is normal to pay a restaurant or bar bill at the register instead of
giving money to the waiter/waitress. There is no tipping in Japan.
It's considered rude to count your change after paying the bill in a store or restaurant,
but the Japanese themselves do give it a cursory lookover.
Thou shalt NOT BE LATE for appointments.
There is no custom of "Ladies First".
Avoid excessive physical and eye contact--forget the back-slapping,
prodding, and pointing directly at someone with your finger (use
your hand to point, if you must).
It is considered rude to talk on your cell phone on trains and buses. Send e-mail or a text message instead.
Remember that Japanese often use silence for communication as much as speaking.
Do not chew gum when working or in other formal situations.
When Japanese start work at 9 AM, they START WORK at 9 AM.
Avoid lots of jewelry or very colorful clothes when going to work.
White-collar Japanese typically leave the office only after their
superiors have done so. Do not expect someone to be instantly free
once the official business hours are over.
Exchanging business cards is de rigueur in formal introductions. You should extend your card
to the other person with both hands, right side up to them (upside down to you). You
receive cards with both hands also. Be sure to look at the card and not just pocket it. Never
fold it, put it in your pants pocket, or sit on it in front of them.
It is polite to put "-san" after anothers name, or "-chan" after a young girls name,
or "-kun" after a boy's name, but NEVER use these after your own.
Do not scream about why nobody speaks English, why there aren't
5 different varieties of a product you want, or why workplaces or
restaurants are filled with chain-smokers. The "health thing" is
not big here yet.
Avoid shouting loudly at someone to get their attention--wave, or
go up to them.
If you have to blow your nose, leave the room, or at the very least try to face away
from other people--and use a tissue--not a handkerchief!
Don't wear tattered clothes outside, nor socks with holes when visiting someone.
On escalators, stay on the left side if you plan to just stand and not climb them - except for Osaka which is the opposite.
Japan has no tradition of making sarcastic remarks to make a point,
nor "Bronx cheers" or "the Finger" -- avoid using them.
The Japanese gesture of "Who, me?" is pointing at their nose, not their chest.
The Japanese gesture for "Come here" is to put your hand palm out, fingers up, and raise
and lower your fingers a few times. The western gesture of palm-up, closing your hand
is only used to call animals to you.
If you ask a Japanese person to do something and they tilt their head away from you, it's a sign of
strong relunctance or a polite refusal.
The Japanese gesture for no is fanning your hand sideways a few times in front of your face.
Japanese residences have thin walls and poor insulation - don't blast your stereo or television.
Don't wear your slippers into a tatami (straw) mat room.
It's customary to sit on the floor in a tatami room (called "washitsu").
Don't wear your slippers into the genkan (at the entrance to a home,
where the shoes are kept), nor outside.
Don't wear the toilet room slippers outside the toilet room.
It's better to wear shoes slipped on easily when visiting someone.
Japanese wear kimono or yukata (light summer kimono) with the left side over the right. The reverse is only for the
dead at funerals.
It's polite to initially refuse someone's offer of help. Japanese may
also initially refuse your offer even if they really want it. Traditionally an offer
is made 3 times. It may be better to state you'll carry their bag,
call a taxi, etc., instead of pushing them to be polite and refuse.
When they laugh Japanese women often cover their mouths with their hand. This comes from an
old Buddhist notion that showing bone is unclean, as well as a horrendous lack of orthodontics in Japan.
If you're a woman you have no obligation to copy this, but you will soon notice how frequently Japanese do this.
It's polite to bring some food (gift-wrapped in more formal situations) or drinks when you visit someone.
Gift giving is very important in Japan, but extravagant gifts require an
equal or slightly higher extravagant gift in return. Think carefully on giving pricey gifts.
Giving cash is normal for ceremonies like weddings and funerals; but given in special envelopes with a
printed or real red tie around it (available in stationary and convenience stores). Use new and not old bills.
After coming back from a vacation it is normal to bring a small gift for all those you work
with, even if you don't really like them a lot. Nothing expensive is required, however.
It's polite to belittle the value of your gift or food when you offer it, even
if it's blatantly untrue.
In more formal circumstances it's impolite to unwrap a gift someone brings you as soon
as you receive it. In casual surroundings it's normal to ask the giver if it can be opened now.
It's polite to see a guest to the door (or the front of a building even)
when they leave.
When someone visits it's polite to turn their shoes around and put them together
so they can put them on easily.
This is older custom, but in a home the guest is seated facing the room entrance.
The highest ranking host sits across from the guest.
Again old, but in a car the highest ranking person sits behind the driver. The lowest
For taxis the driver will open/close the rear left hand door for you.
Japanese often compliment eachother to promote good will, but it is polite
to deny how well you speak Japanese, how nice you look, etc.
In Japan the whole family uses the same bath water -- as a guest you
will probably be given the priviledge of using the bath water first.
Do NOT drain the water out after you have finished your bath!
If you have any tattoos, you had better hide them if you go to someplace like a
public bath. In Japan the people with tattoos are primarily the yakuza, or Japanese
mafia. Having any will often give others the creeps, and many places won't let you in their establishment.
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