Japanese etiquette: 13 tips for first time visitors
First-time visitors to Japan might find learning the local etiquette practices a little daunting, so we’ve pulled together a list of thirteen tips to help you master the basics.
To outsiders, Japan is a mysterious land of unique contrasts; ultra-modern but with deep ties to the customs and cultural rituals of the past. Social etiquette and respect are highly regarded wherever you may visit, and as a foreign visitor, it’s a good idea to have a grasp of the basics.
1. Learn some basic Japanese phrases
Knowing some simple Japanese words and phrases will hugely impress your new local friends and hey, who doesn’t like learning a new language? Kon'nichiwa (hello), Arigatō (thank you), Kudasai (please), Sayōnara (goodbye), Sumimasen (excuse me), Eigoga hanasemas ka (do you speak English?), and Wakarimasen (I don’t understand) are some great phrases to know. It’s also a good idea to add ‘san’ at the end of a Japanese person’s name as a courtesy if you’re meeting them for the first time.
Bowing is an important Japanese custom and while foreigners are not expected to understand the depth, duration or number of bows required in any given situation, it is good to know when to attempt a bow. If a Japanese person bows to you, a small bow or inclination of the head in return will usually suffice. However, if you’re receiving a bow of thanks from the owner of a restaurant, hotel or shop, you are not expected to bow back. Handshakes may also be exchanged but it is best to wait for the other party to offer their hand before putting yours forward.
3. Eating in public
Walking and eating or drinking is a bit of a taboo in Japan, other than during festive occasions. You’ll generally find designated areas for eating and drinking around food stalls and vending machines. It’s also a bit of a no-no to eat on public transport unless there is an area provided.
4. Dining and drinking etiquette
Say "It-tadakimas" before eating (literally ‘I humbly receive’, but meaning ‘bon appetit’), "Oi-shii" (delicious!) during the meal and "Gochisōsama deshita" (that was a great feast!) to express gratitude for your meal once you’ve finished. Waste is generally frowned upon, so try not to pick things out of your meal other than bones. It’s also polite to sample from each of the dishes being served by your host.
If you’re out at a nice restaurant or or izakaya (bar), you might be provided with a towel which should only be used to clean your hands, not your face as this is generally considered to be uncouth. Use the towel then fold it neatly and place it on the table in front of you.
When drinking from a shared bottled (eg, like sake), it’s polite to wait for your glass to be filled, rather than doing it yourself (be sure to return the favour once your glass is full). Wait until everyone in your group has received their drink and toast others with a "Kampai" (cheers!) before taking a sip.
5. Using chopsticks
You might want to impress with your chopstick prowess but there are a few dos and don’ts to be aware of. When not in use, chopsticks should lie either flat across your bowl or leaning on the chopstick rest. Don’t leave chopsticks standing upright in a bowl of rice or use them to pass food directly to another person’s chopsticks, and if you’re taking food from a communal plate, use the end of the chopsticks that hasn’t touched your mouth. It’s also considered to rude to wave your chopsticks about, point with them or act out your biggest drumming fantasies with them on the table.
6. Do Not Leave Your Rubbish Behind
You won’t find many bins in public during your travels as it’s generally considered courteous to take your rubbish with you. Have a plastic bag handy for this purpose so you can get your litter back to your accommodation to dispose of it. until you get back to your accommodation. If you come across a bin near a vending machine, steer clear of it unless you’ve bought something from the machine, as it’s generally considered poor form to use these for general waste.
7. Money matters
Tipping: Tipping is not a common practice in Japan and is genuinely not expected. If you feel the need to provide a tip to an especially great tour operator or hotel assistant, put the money in an envelope first.
Use the tray: When paying for items, many stores and service providers will have a small tray to place your money in. Use the tray rather than handing money directly to the cashier and collect your change from the tray as well.
Always have cash on hand as most places (other than big stores or expensive restaurants and hotels) do not accept credit cards. It’s also generally considered impolite to count your change as this can be interpreted as a sign of distrust.
8. Don’t blow your nose
While it might seem odd to a Westerner, blowing your nose in public is a no-no, so sniffle your snuffles until you’re able to use a tissue in private.
9. Speak quietly in public
While you’re undoubtedly going to be excited about your visit to Japan, yelling or speaking loudly in public is frowned upon, so try and keep the volume down. Talking on your mobile phone while travelling on public transport is also considered rude.
10. No pointing
In Japan, it is considered threatening to point directly at people. If you need to provide directions or indicate to a person, use an open hand to gesture, rather than point.
11. Take Off Your Shoes
You ’ll find yourself taking off your shoes often in Japan. It’s customary to de-shoe when entering someone’s home (in the genkan, or entryway) or before entering a tatami room (a room with tatami matting), which you can expect to find at ryokans (Japanese-style inns), temples and traditional restaurants. When you take your shoes off, you may be given the option of wearing a pair of slippers. These are fine to wear other than in a tatami room, so remove them before entering. You may also encounter bathroom slippers at some traditional venues. As the name suggests, these are for use in the bathroom only; be sure to remove them upon exiting the bathroom.
12. Visiting temples and shrines
When visiting an o-tera (Buddhist temple) or jinja (Shintō shrine), remember that these are places of religious significance. Always be respectful by speaking quietly and dressing appropriately. Most shrines will have a water basin which visitors are required to use to purify themselves before visiting the main shrine. Use the ladle provided to pour water over your hands, then pour some water into your hand and rinse your mouth (spit the water onto the ground, not back in the basin!).
13. Onsens and sentos
Visiting an onsen (hot spring) or sento (public bath house) are popular tourist activities but there are some etiquette rules you should absolutely be aware of before you go. In Japan, baths and springs are for relaxing, not cleaning. Before you enter either, you’ll be expected to wash in the area provided. Swimsuits are generally not permitted in traditional onsens or sentos so be prepared to de-robe prior to entry. Importantly, you must inform the staff of any tattoos you have; tattos are generally associated with the yakuza (Japanese gangs) and you may be refused entry.