Cultural Missteps to Avoid in Japan

Updated on November 15, 2017
Wanderingteacher profile image

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

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.

Please let me know if I missed anything in the comments below.

Thank you!

Questions & Answers

    Comments

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      • CYong74 profile image

        Kuan Leong Yong 

        11 months ago from Singapore

        The one about nose-blowing always confuses me. I've read about this and been advised before. Yet I see some Japanese doing it.

        Almost always older salary-men. Some do it right in the middle of the train platform. Most passer-bys just pretend not to notice.

        A subtle statement of rebellion? But I guess as non-Japanese, we shouldn't do it.

      • Renderbug profile image

        Adrian Bridges 

        11 months ago from Prince Edward Island

        Great hub, and great advice!

        I wish the whole, "no crossing your legs on public transport" thing was more universal. The amount of times I've had to stop and stare at a passenger who's sitting that way, foot sticking so far out in the aisle that I can't pass, is ridiculous. Usually they get it and move and apologize, but really, is being a little conscientious too much to ask for?

      • poppyr profile image

        Poppy 

        12 months ago from Tokyo, Japan

        Very detailed hub with lots of good advice, though rules such as not taking out your phone and waiting for everyone to exit the train before getting on is often ignored even by locals!

        Culture differences can be difficult to get your head round. Hopefully many travellers can use this as a reference.

      • Wanderingteacher profile imageAUTHOR

        Julia Rose 

        12 months ago from Japan

        Most of the people I have met are friendly, but some people are shy though. Depends on the individual. But generally most people in Japan are mindful of others since that's a cultural thing.

      • profile image

        szgbloggy11 

        12 months ago

        I've heard that Japanese people are very friendly. Is that true?

      • profile image

        Ray 

        12 months ago

        Thanks for the info. We love Japan! We had a blast when my family went there 2 weeks ago.

      • profile image

        Family Life Tips 

        12 months ago

        Wow, some interesting facts and things to avoid here. Thanks for the information.

      • Wanderingteacher profile imageAUTHOR

        Julia Rose 

        12 months ago from Japan

        I haven't personally seen it at any restaurants, but it's possible. To be fair where I live there aren't many tourists or other Americans.

      • AlexandraHoerl profile image

        Alexandra Hoerl 

        12 months ago from USA

        I wonder how many American tourists actually follow the "Don't tip; it's seen as rude" advice. In Italy, where I do most of my traveling, the guideline is somewhat similar, but my friends who work in restaurants tell me Americans often cannot help themselves. Do you know if the same thing happens in Japan?

      • profile image

        Prabin 

        12 months ago

        I too heard that tipping is termed as a sign of rudeness in Japan. I didn't know about the backpacks lol

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