Travelers to Japan easily find a lot of things to love about the country.
Delectable food. Great entertainment. Beautiful scenic views.
And the politeness shown by much of the native population.
Etiquette is a big aspect of Japanese culture, one that’s often admired by those from other countries.
Because of this, if you’re planning to travel to Japan, you should try to learn and follow as many of the social mannerisms as you can.
Not only will this show you properly respect the customs, but also will lessen your chance of sticking out like a sore tourist thumb.
How to Be Polite in Japanese Custom
Before we get into the specific etiquette tips, there are more general systems of courtesy that are pretty ubiquitous in Japanese society.
敬語 (けいご, keigo) is a form of Japanese speech meant to express respect and it’s often the foremost manner in which etiquette is portrayed in social interactions. In a nutshell, 敬語 is the system of verbal Japanese formality.
敬語 is actually quite a complicated and extensive system. It’s often broken down into “levels” of formality, and for each, vocabulary and grammar usage can change significantly. There are even common discrepancies based on the speaker’s gender.
One of the most prominent ways Japanese speakers portray respect is with the use of honorifics that would trail after a person’s name. While you’re more at liberty to drop honorifics and even use Japanese nicknames for good friends or family members, you’ll most likely have honorifics incorporated in your speech when interacting with less familiar acquaintances.
敬語 is a highly important and oft-expected form of etiquette in most social interactions. If you’re ever in doubt when interacting with a native speaker, you should try to avoid informal Japanese speech and opt for a form of 敬語 instead. Fortunately, it’s likely that the Japanese you learn from established teaching resources is at a standard level of formality.
Japanese gestures and body language take up an expansive space within the world of Japanese etiquette; different body mannerisms can be interpreted to mean different things, leading to either more comfortable or distressing situations. However, there’s one gesture that stands as king: bowing, or お辞儀 (おじぎ, ojigi).
Bowing is used for a whole range of scenarios, including:
- Greeting someone
- Expressing thanks
- Expressing remorse and apologetic feelings
- Worship or expressing respect
- To mark the start of a meeting
Bowing should be done with a straight back. Men would typically have their hands at their sides while women would hold their hands in front of their waist. Eye contact isn’t usually necessary.
How deep and how long you hold your bow does matter. Generally, the deeper and longer your bow, the more respect you’re expressing to the individual. You’d usually worry about this if the person you’re meeting is your superior. Very deep bows are usually reserved for sincere apologies or to show deep reverence; the person may even get on their knees and perform a bow known as 土下座 (どげざ, dogeza), which has the head nearly touching the floor.
You’d mostly want to practice what’s known as the 15 degree bow, 会釈 (えしゃく, eshaku), and the 30 degree bow, 敬礼 (けいれい, keirei). The former is commonly used in more casual situations, such as when you’re interacting with someone your age or status, and requires that you bend at your waist down approximately 15 degrees. The latter would usually be used for greeting your superiors or customers and requires that you bend down approximately 30 degrees.
Forgetting to bow when you’re expected to can make you seem rude, ignorant or demeaning to the emotions you’re trying to portray (for example, your attempt at an apology can seem weak if you don’t include a bow).
Interjections during conversation
相槌 (あいづち, aizuchi) are the short interjections during a conversation that indicate you’re listening to the speaker. They’re basically noises and words of acknowledgment, equivalent in function to “mhm,” “uh-huh,” “right,” “go on” and so forth.
While you may be hesitant to use common aizuchi words out of fear of interrupting someone, you shouldn’t worry too much, especially if the speaker is talking at length (however, don’t actively try to stop someone mid-speech so that you can start speaking!). These quick filler words are basically cues that you’re still paying attention.
Keep in mind too that these words may be used for either in-person or phone conversations! For the former, you can supplement with head nods and eye contact. Even if you don’t actually agree with what someone is saying, try not to vocally say so until he or she has finished their piece.
To be frank, it would be difficult to learn all of the things that make Japanese etiquette as formidable as it is.
However, there are some essential tips to keep in mind if you’re traveling to the country or interacting with natives. We’ll break them down into general categories.
Japanese Etiquette When Meeting Others
Learn Japanese greetings
Greetings are almost always the first verbal interactions you have with anyone, and they hold a significance in Japan as a common and expected courtesy. These are a few common ones you’ll either hear or use often:
- こんにちは, konnichiwa — Hello
- おはようございます, ohayou gozaimasu — Good morning
- こんばんは, konban wa — Good evening
- 初めまして (はじめまして, hajimemashite) — Nice to meet you
- いらっしゃいませ, irasshaimase — Welcome (to a store, establishment)
- もしもし, moshi moshi — Hello (on the phone)
Take off your shoes at homes
Being invited to a Japanese home is often considered an honor, and to reflect your understanding of this, you should always take off your shoes (no matter how clean they may be) right near the entrance. You may also have to do the same for non-residential buildings, such as for public bathhouses, temples or high-class restaurants.
Gift-giving is special in Japanese culture as a way of showing your respect and appreciation for someone; in fact, there may be timed instances in which you’re expected to give gifts to certain people. For example, お土産 (おみやげ, omiyage) is a certain kind of gift (often a snack) that has the same concept as a trip “souvenir”, but you’re expected to give them to friends, family, or co-workers as an act of courtesy.
Even if you want to graciously refuse a gift, you should take it anyway, especially if the giver is your social “superior” like your boss. It’s also okay to open the gift in privacy and not in front of the person who gave it to you, unless they request you do so.
Be punctual when meeting others
Punctuality is highly valued as a basic sign of respect for others’ time and expectations. Be on time whenever you plan to meet up with Japanese natives; being “fashionably late” probably won’t be appreciated if it implies you’ve been selfishly going at your pace at your companions’ expense.
Dress for the occasion
If you have business with people of importance or are planning to enter a formal establishment, dress yourself so that you show you understand and respect the context. It might be a bit iffy if you try to get away with the odd T-shirt or dark pair of jeans, so try to go for the right kind of classy clothing.
Japanese Etiquette When You’re Out and About
Obey red lights
The convention of “red means stop” is quite sternly followed in Japan, so if you’re driving in the streets of a city or are at a train crossing, make sure you wait in place until the light changes.
This applies for pedestrians, as well. We know you’re itching to get to places, but if the crossing light is red, stay put! Jaywalking is an easy way for you to get attention, but not in a good way. In fact, once caught, you may get stopped or fined by a police officer.
Leave money on the tray in stores
In many Japanese stores, a small tray is placed right at the cashier’s counter. This is where you’re expected to place your money (whether cash or card) to pay for whatever you purchase; the cashier will then take the tray and put it back bearing your change. Don’t hand the money directly to the cashier worker, as this can be perceived as rude. He or she may not take it and simply gesture to the tray for you to use.
The clean, garbage-free streets common in Japan are often a marvel to travelers abroad, a wonder compounded by the apparent scarcity of public garbage bins. The bins are indeed there, just not as abundant in number as you may expect, and when you do encounter them you’ll have to properly dispose of your trash in the correct color-coded bin: bottles and cans go in one bin, burnables in another, plastics in a third and so forth.
If you feel a bit sheepish clinging onto your garbage because you can’t find a disposal area, you shouldn’t be! Most natives actually tend to carry their trash around with them in the streets until they can find the proper bin.
Don’t point at people
This is one you probably already know. Pointing directly at someone in Japan is often associated with the intention of calling them out in some way, so it’s definitely not a gesture with positive connotations. If you really must physically gesture at someone, try to use a more vague waving gesture with your whole hand.
Don’t blow your nose in public
The loud noise and the fact you’re draining your sinuses can make for a rude distraction in a public Japanese space. Admittedly, it can be a bit difficult to avoid doing; you can imagine how demanding this can be during Japan’s “pollen season” of spring to fall, during which many suffer from awful allergies.
Try to sniffle instead or blow your nose in a more private area. If you’re susceptible to nasal issues, carry around a handkerchief, as many Japanese natives do on the daily!
Tipping culture, for the most part, isn’t really a thing in Japan. If you try to hand a few extra yen over to a service person, he or she will most likely refuse it; keep insisting, and you’ll most certainly create a stressful and awkward situation for the person in question.
Good service and customer satisfaction are seen as essential in Japan’s work industry, so the idea of a tip can be seen as rude. Instead of expressing your gratitude of one’s service with cash, thank them verbally instead.
We all have our opinions on public displays of affection, but the general consensus in Japan is that they’re largely unnecessary. Intimate hugs and kisses with your partner done in plain view can get you the stink-eye from natives.
You also wouldn’t want to start speaking Japanese pick-up lines to your significant other or to random natives. As suave as you might sound, your words generally won’t be appreciated in public spaces.
Don’t restrict people’s paths
This applies not only to the stair and elevator conventions mentioned earlier, but also on sidewalks. It’s not surprising to see “lanes” of traffic even on pedestrian walks, and if you do, keep to the side that’s going in the direction you’re intending to go without hopping in and out to the other side.
This is particularly important in busier Japanese cities and rush hour periods (typically around 8:00 or 9:00 AM in the morning and after work around 5:00 PM). Remember the importance of punctuality? You don’t want to be partially responsible for anyone being late!
Don’t squeeze past or bump into people
It’s a gesture that’s generally not appreciated anywhere, accidental or not, but it’s a larger problem for Japanese women who often find themselves the victims of “people crashing.” While contact may be inevitable in more crowded areas, do your best to give others a wide enough berth.
Japanese Etiquette on Public Transport
Stay on queues for public transport
Terminals and stations can be quite crowded and fast-paced in Japan, but the orderly lines of waiting passengers will be like the calm in a storm. Take your rightful place in the queue and stay put as you patiently await your ride; cutting in line won’t be appreciated!
Be quiet on public transport
Conversations, and noise in general, are kept to a minimum within Japanese trains and buses, making for rather enjoyable and relaxed rides. To keep the peace, be quiet if you’re speaking with someone or wait to talk after you get off at your stop. You should also keep your devices at a low or silent volume, with no blaring alarms or ringtones to disturb other passengers.
Follow stairway and escalator conventions
Each side of a public stairway or escalator in Japan are usually designated for one purpose. For example, the left side of an escalator is for standing still, and the right is for walking up the steps. Going up and going down may also be differentiated by side. Different Japanese cities have different conventions, and you can figure them out with a quick observation of what everyone else is doing.
Don’t take up more space than necessary
Whether you’re standing or sitting in a seat, keep a reasonable amount of space to yourself so that you don’t hinder fellow passengers. That means no leg-spreading, sideways leaning or putting your belongings on open seats!
Try to speak Japanese, as much as you’re able
If you’re going to Japan, remember that you’re the visitor and no native Japanese person should be pressured into thinking that they must speak English to you. To show your appreciation of the culture and the people, you should try to know some basic Japanese vocabulary and phrases. Doing so will be much appreciated and will benefit both you and the folks you interact with.
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Japanese Table Manners and Etiquette
Any traveler to Japan can look forward to many wonderful experiences, one of them being the chance to chow down on some unique and excellent cuisine.
But to make your meals in Japan even more special and enjoyable, you should learn some of the social protocol that’s expected when you take a seat at the table. Whether you’re ordering food at a restaurant or you’re lucky enough to be served a home-made dish, you should keep the following etiquette tips in mind.
Say 頂きます (いただきます, itadakimasu) and ご馳走様 (ごちそうさま, gochisousama)
These two sayings express your gratitude for the food. 頂きます is said before you start eating, and ご馳走様 is said after you’re done with your meal. You can say them in the presence of whoever prepared your food; if you’re in a restaurant, you can instead tell your waiter or to the cashier worker.
Hold small bowls up to your mouth and eat from there
Japanese cuisine often involves an assortment of small-sized dishes and bowls, so holding up your bowl to keep it closer to your mouth is just neater and more practical than if you were to leave it on the table.
This can also apply to soup bowls, if they’re small enough. You probably won’t need a spoon to slurp up miso soup from its conventional petite bowl, and you won’t see many natives do so either!
Pour others’ drinks before your own
It’s considered bad taste to serve yourself first during a round of drinks with company; it can be a tad bit worse if you were to chug away when no one else has had their glasses filled. To be courteous when holding the bottle, fill up your companions’ cups before your own. They would return the favor if they had possession of the bottle by filling your cup when it’s empty.
Use the provided hot towels for your hands only
In most Japanese restaurants or food service areas, a small hot towel known as おしぼり, oshibori, will be provided at every seat at the table. These towels are for cleaning your hands before you dine; they don’t serve the same purpose as napkins or cloths that you’d put on your lap to gather spills or for cleaning any fallen food on the table.
Try to leave your plates clean
Eating the entirety of your meal is a good sign that the food was fully enjoyed. Leaving leftovers can be seen as wasteful and offensive, particularly to whoever prepared the meal. Additionally, you might not be allowed to have them boxed so that you could take them home.
If you’re uncertain about how much you can eat, order reasonably-sized portions at the start instead of going straight for a large meal.
Place dishes back to original positions
Despite the multitude of dishes common to traditional Japanese cuisine, you may notice that they were usually given in a certain order and presentation to keep things more organized. In consideration of your server, once you’re finished with your meal, make sure that the used-up dishes and bowls are placed back to their original locations. For example, if your tray consisted of a rice bowl and several small side dishes, re-organize them so that they’re all back on the tray and not scattered about.
Don’t play around with your chopsticks
Chopsticks, known as 箸 (はし, hashi) in Japanese, may seem to be just two sticks used for grabbing food. However, chopsticks have their own set of rules for proper usage.
You shouldn’t use your chopsticks to engage in activity besides picking up food. That means you shouldn’t use your chopsticks for pointing at someone, poking at food that isn’t your own or moving around dishes. You also shouldn’t spin them around in your fingers or rub them together as if you’re starting a fire (this specifically implies that you believe the provided chopsticks are cheap or have splinters poking out from them).
Additionally, don’t stick your chopsticks upright in your bowl. This can be seen as a very crass, ominous gesture as it harks to a Japanese practice performed at funerals, in which a bowl of rice with two vertically-placed chopsticks is prepared for the deceased.
Don’t make a lot of noise when eating
You may have heard that slurping your noodles in Japan is both welcome and appreciated by the cook, as it suggests you’re heartily enjoying them. This tolerance doesn’t extend so strongly to other kinds of noises involved in eating.
Loud chewing, lip-smacking or belching can grate nerves or be straight-up unsettling, so try to avoid partaking in them when eating a meal in front of others!
Keep your elbows off the table when eating
You may do this instinctively, usually because it’s more comfortable. However, putting your elbows on the dining table in Japan can be considered impolite. This may be due to the perception that elbows take up space on the table, or that elbows may potentially knock into cups, dishes or your neighbor.
Japanese Business Etiquette
Presentation matters significantly in the world of Japanese business, and a lot of it’s based around one’s ability to understand and express gestures of respect and courtesy.
That being said, there are a lot of etiquette rules unique to the business realm. Whether you’re preparing for a Japanese job interview or planning for a meeting with a Japanese client, you’ll want to put your best face forward by demonstrating your understanding of what’s expected in such scenarios.
Being punctual is great, but being early is even better. Not only does this give you a bit of time to prepare as needed, but also ensures that you won’t appear rushed. Also, getting to a meeting place a while before the appointed time just saves you from any potential setback that could hold you back a few minutes.
Carry business cards
Business cards, called 名刺 (めいし, meishi) in Japanese, are a big deal, and if you’re ever to meet with Japanese natives for the purpose of business, you’re guaranteed to receive a card from every new face you see. Symbolically, the card acts as one’s identity in the realm of business and their significance as such is even more crucial in first-time meetings.
It’s critical that you carry a stack of your own cards to hand out. Keep them in their own dedicated container, such as a cardholder, as opposed to your wallet where they could crinkle or stain.
Give and receive business cards properly
Exchanging business cards in Japan is its own art. You can have a whole cartridge full of business cards, but if you don’t know how to give them out properly, then you can lose out on a lot of courtesy points.
Firstly, there’s a general order in which cards are given. Usually the highest-ranking individuals would start the card exchange that would subsequently go down the chain of command. This is helpful for everyone involved in figuring out who’s in charge of what.
It’s also important that you show respect to the cards you receive. Don’t stuff them away immediately; in fact, if you’re to have a meeting with the individual, you’d likely have the card out and visible until you two part ways.
When giving out your business cards:
1. First give your name and the company you work for, accompanied with a typical respectful bow
2. Hold out your card with both hands to the recipient. Have the side with your written info visible
3. Try to keep eye contact with the recipient when your card is held out
When receiving business cards:
1. Receive the card with both hands and thank the giver
2. Give the card a quick read
3. If at a table, put the card in front of you, typically on top of your card holder. If you’ve received a number of cards from different people and are sitting with them at a table, place them left to right in accordance to the giver’s seat so you can learn their names. If exchanging cards on the spot, place the card into your cardholder.
Follow seating conventions when relevant
Sometimes, a certain seating pattern may occur during a Japanese business group meeting. The basic logic is that those in more superior positions deserve the better seats, while lower-ranked individuals would take the “lesser” seats.
The top seat is known as 上座 (かみざ, kamiza) and it’s reserved for the most important person in the room. The 上座 may be the most comfortable, dominant or conveniently-positioned seat; in Japanese-style rooms, this seat would typically be farthest from the entrance. Meanwhile, the lowest-ranked employee would take the 下座 (しもざ, shimoza), which would have the opposite traits of the 上座.
Partake in after-work gatherings
Commonly after a Japanese work-day, employees would head out to a pub or restaurant together to relax and unwind. Since alcohol usually is involved in these gatherings, they’re known as 飲み会 (のみかい, nomikai) which literally translates to “drinking party.”
The more casual and lighthearted atmosphere can make you more relaxed than if you were in the office, but there’s definitely a business purpose to these get-togethers. They allow fellow employees to bond and build relationships that could prove beneficial in the actual workplace.
However, you shouldn’t get too relaxed. Remember that you’re still around workmates (and potentially your superiors!), so you don’t want to embarrass yourself by dropping your respectful 敬語 speech or getting drunk. You’ll probably also notice that the previously mentioned seating conventions may occur, so you should be careful not to make a mess in front of whoever’s in the 上座 seat.
Lastly, if anything does happen during a gathering, don’t bring it up in the workplace the next day! That’s considered very poor taste.
With these tips on Japanese etiquette, you can hopefully navigate through different social scenarios with grace and confidence!
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