David has been living in Japan for close to ten years. He loves reading, history, music, and movies. He lives with his wife and kids.
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 (like that American YouTube creator who filmed inappropriate material in a Japanese 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.
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4. Do Not Wash in the Bathtub
Sounds weird? Well, bathtubs in Japan, including the popular hot spring baths (called onsen), are for soaking, 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. 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 them to pass food to someone else’s plate, though. 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, and maybe a little 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's a pleasant thing that is usually taken for granted when you live here, until you're rudely awakened back in 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 do's and don'ts of the country you’re visiting. Japan is a very unique country with 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.