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Cultural Missteps to Avoid in Japan

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I am living and working in Japan, and I write articles with advice and tips based on my own travels.

Common Cultural Mistakes

The most common mistakes that I have come across while living in Japan are things that sometimes people visiting—especially people from America—wouldn't think twice about. Now, what is considered rude in Japan may vary from region to region, but these are the ones I found most surprising coming from America.

  • Tipping isn't mandatory and can sometimes even be considered rude.
  • No thumbs down. It's like telling someone to go to hell.
  • No crossing your legs on public transport—it can be considered rude (taking up too much space).
  • Walking and eating is a big no in my area. This is surprising since there are so many food booths. You usually want to sit off to the side somewhere instead.
  • People are generally uncomfortable with body contact like hugs and sometimes even high fives and handshakes.
  • Don't blow your nose in public.

Below is a really useful video I found on cultural mistakes people tend to make in Japan.

What Not to Do in Japan

Public Transport Conduct: Train

Some people care more about these conduct rules than others, so I'm going to mention the main things that locals have mentioned to me that they don't like people doing:

  • Talking loudly on the train. Some people are sleeping, and a lot of people are trying to listen for their stop, so this is considered really rude.
  • Taking pictures and videos while on the train. It's considered too noisy and distracting.
  • Not waiting for everyone to get off the train before you try to get on. Please follow the queue.
  • Eating and drinking a lot on the train. You can sometimes be okay if it's a longer route like the Shinkansen or Sonic, as long as it's not something that's really loud to eat or really smelly.
  • Don't take up too much space with your backpack or belongings. Put them in your lap or hold them to your side if you're standing.
  • If the train is really crowded, take your backpack off and don't get out your phone.
  • When you're standing still on an escalator, stay to the left side going up and the right side going down (this varies from place to place—just follow the crowd if you aren't sure). This allows for other people to pass if they want to walk up or down the escalator to go faster.

Trains

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Public Transport Conduct: Bus

The bus is mostly the same as far as etiquette goes, so I will just include a few things here in addition to the train rules:

  • Make sure to either grab a ticket when you get on or scan your Nimoca card. Otherwise, paying will be difficult later and will cause a delay for everyone.
  • Again, make sure to follow the queue when getting on the bus and get on towards the middle not the front, unless the bus only has one entrance that's at the front.
  • Please be quiet on the bus and no phone calls.
  • This is just extra advice: if you're running late for work, you can get a late pass from the front of the bus. Just grab and go. This is only if the bus is more than five minutes late.

Food Etiquette

I'm going to focus on chopstick etiquette primarily:

  • Don’t stand the chopsticks up vertically in rice.
  • You should not pass food with chopsticks.
  • Don’t bring food from another store if you go to a restaurant.
  • Don’t order more food than you can eat.
  • You typically don't get any leftover food to go.
  • If you're going to a smaller store avoid paying with a 10,000 yen. They might not have change available.

Other Cultural Differences

Here are some other cultural differences I have noticed that may not quite fit in the above categories.

  • Don't be too emotional or over gesture. If you're emotional people will tend to take it personally like they did something wrong.
  • Don't take pictures of someone without asking. People here really like their privacy so ask first.
  • Keep tattoos covered. It tends to have a negative association with the Yakuza.
  • Take off your shoes before going into a house and even some restaurants. For restaurants and public places like schools they usually have some indoor shoes you can wear.
  • This is a work-related one. If you work at a school, do not bring papers or anything with teacher or student information home with you, and no personal USBs are allowed. This is for security reasons so be very careful about this.

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