David has been living in Japan for close to ten years. He loves reading, history, music, sports, and movies. He lives with his wife and son.
Japan is a land of customs and traditions where uninitiated foreigners sometimes feel daunted by all the rules and etiquette that come their way once they step off the plane. Of course, visitors to Japan are not expected to know all the do’s and don’ts, but knowing a few basic manners will go a long way. The general Japanese populace tends to group all foreigners under one umbrella, so if one foreigner does some outlandish stuff (remember that guy in the forest), the rest suffer some form of backlash. If you’re planning a trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, here are a few things you should try to avoid.
1. Do Not Wear Your Shoes Indoors
Japanese people pride themselves on cleanliness, and the prospect of outside dirt inside their homes is a no-no. If you happen to visit a Japanese home, apartment or school, remember to take off your shoes at the “genkan”(entryway). Indoor slippers are usually provided for guests, so don’t worry about going barefoot.
Other places like ryokans(traditional Japanese inns), hospitals, clinics, shrines, and temples have this rule as well so if you see shoes lined up at the entrance, then it’s safe to bet that your shoes should be taken off. Even some restaurants have this no-shoe rule. If you happen to see an elevated floor with traditional tatami mats, no shoes are worn and you sit on the floor with your socks so remember to match your socks and make sure there are no holes – we don’t want to damage the sensitive straw matting.
2. Do Not Leave a Tip
If you come from a country where tipping is mandatory, Japan is a place where it is frowned upon. Some may even perceive it as an insult if you try to do so. Service workers would even try and return your change in the event that you lost it, regardless if it’s a meager 1 yen (50 cents). You can appreciate their service through other means like saying a big thank you and bowing, so save yourself the awkwardness.
3. Avoid Eating and Drinking While Walking
In Japan, food sold at food stands and stalls are eaten standing up while drinks are consumed quickly and thrown in the bin next to the vending machine. You will get frowned upon if you’re caught eating and drinking on the go. Similarly, eating and drinking on public transportation like taxis and trains is frowned upon, though long-distance trains like Shinkansen (bullet trains) are exceptions to this rule.
4. Do Not Wash in the Bathtub
Sounds weird? Well, bathtubs in Japan, this includes the popular hot spring baths (onsen) are for soaking and not for washing. So how can you wash? Before slipping in the tub, there is always a shower area near it where you do all your scrubbing and washing. That said, this keeps the bathtub generally clean and makes it ideal for a long comforting soak. Sound relaxing?
5. Do Not Use Chopsticks Improperly
A lot of foreigners unknowingly err in this area so it’s a good thing to know some chopstick etiquette before visiting. Never stick your chopsticks vertically in your rice – this is akin to a funeral ritual. Do not use your chopsticks to pass food to someone else’s chopsticks. You can use it to pass food to someone else’s plate though and if you need to put them down, there is a chopstick holder right next to your plate.
6. Do Not Talk Loudly on Your Phone in Public
For a country that is one of the most densely populated in the world, you’d think people would be talking loudly on their phone nonstop. Nope. While almost everyone has a smart phone, it is considered rude to talk loudly while in public. This stems from the Japanese group harmony mentality wherein group needs are put ahead of the individual. Always switch your phone to “manner” mode in public places. This applies to talking loudly in public as well.
7. Do Not Litter
This should be a given in any culture, but the Japanese take this to a whole new level. One of the things foreigners find shocking when they arrive in Japan is the lack of public garbage bins. Seriously. Aside from convenience stores and a few public toilets, you cannot find a public garbage can anywhere. This is extra confounding when you see how clean the surroundings are. Where is all the trash?! It’s hard to believe but people often keep their personal trash with them until they go home or come across a designated trash depository, and even then they are faced with numerous recycling options. This is one custom that I think we should all follow.
8. Don’t Ignore the Queue
The Japanese are very orderly, and this was magnified during the devastating Tohoku earthquake where hundreds of Japanese were seen lining up as orderly as possible to receive supplies. Most of the reaction worldwide was one of awe and respect though some expressed skepticism. I can say this custom is definitely on point. The Japanese love to line up in orderly single file whether they’re waiting for their turn in a restaurant, train, or bus stop. Again this stems from the group harmony mentality and it is a pleasant thing that is usually taken for granted when you live here until you get rudely awakened when you go back to your home country and literally fight for your place in a queue. So if you encounter a queue in your stay in Japan, wait patiently. Your turn will come.
When you travel to a new country, make sure to get the basic information on the dos and don’ts of the country you’re visiting. Japan is a very unique country that has a lot of unique customs and traditions so knowing the basic information about the things that the locals don’t like will greatly enhance your experience and will make your stay more enjoyable.
David Denver (author) from Japan on November 20, 2018:
Glad to hear that! Will you be working or will you be here as a tourist? Either way, I believe you'll find your stay quite memorable. If you'll be staying in the major cities everything is pretty much accessible information-wise. And most of the people are used to foreigners regardless of whether they're white, black, hispanic, or asian. You'll get the occasional stare but don't worry about it. Send me a message if you have questions still. Cheers.
Glen on November 14, 2018:
I'm going to Japan in April,my first time, as a black man, is there anything I should keep in mind
David Denver (author) from Japan on March 14, 2018:
Thanks Linda! There are definitely a lot of cultural differences between Japan and the West. Hopefully this list will help you when you visit. *)
Linda Bryen from United Kingdom on March 12, 2018:
I agree with leaving the shoes outside the door to keep the house clean. I did not know that the Japanese people did not want taking tips. Thank you for this tips because I intend to visit Japan one day.
David Denver (author) from Japan on March 02, 2018:
Thanks Haley! Japan is a really unique country with lots of customs and traditions that would seem strange to some but that’s what makes it awesome! I encourage you to visit. The country has so much to offer.
Haley Kieser from Arizona on March 02, 2018:
Although I don't plan on traveling to Japan any time soon, this article was really insightful. I didn't know about any of these (except for the no shoes in the house). Thank you for sharing! I do hope that one day I'll make it out to Japan, I have a few other areas on my list.