Most people associate Japan with bustling city streets, delectable cuisine and quirky pop culture. However, Japan has a softer side that travellers may not expect when they venture over to the land of the rising sun. Despite it’s frantic and full-on nature, manners and etiquette are a significant part of Japanese culture. It can be difficult to adjust to certain cultural practices however it is very important to be mindful of your actions out of respect to the part of the world that you’re exploring. But before you get on that plane, make sure you take a look at this list of tips and handy hints to remember so you can make the most out of our time in this glorious country.
Bowing is a custom that most tourists will know about, however some may not realise how they should be doing it. The more superior the person you’re greeting is, the lower the bow. If they are a friend usually a small nod of the head will suffice, but an office superior or person of authority should be greeted with a lower bow, bending at the waist. For a more detailed explanation of how and when to bow, check out this webpage.
Don’t walk and eat at the same time
As tempting as it is to eat that onigiri you bought at 7-11 on the way to the train, you really should refrain from doing so. Eating while walking is the height of rudeness in Japan so make sure you finish your food before walking to the next attraction on your itinerary.
Excuse Me and Thank You are your best friends
Japanese folk are the perfect exemplars of politeness and showing them the same courtesy back is of the utmost importance. So, if you learn any Japanese words at all before you travel, make sure ‘excuse me’ (sumimasen \ すみません) and ‘thank you’ (arigatou gozaimasu \ ありがとうございます) are in your vocabulary.
The dish on the counter is there for a reason
Another practise that may be confusing to foreigners is the use of small dishes when exchanging money. When you buy something using cash, you are expected to put that money in the small dish on the counter rather than directly in the person’s hands.
When you go to Japan, it is almost inevitable that you will find yourself, at one point or another, on a train. When commuting, it’s important to not be disruptive by chatting loudly to your friends and talking on the phone. Try and keep the conversation to a reasonable volume and text instead of call.
Finish all the rice (even if you’re full)
When I travelled to Japan, I stayed with a host family and on the first night I committed a critical error: I didn’t finish my rice. I wasn’t aware of this custom but my host family (bless their kind souls) politely told me that in future I should never leave any rice and if you are given the option to serve your own rice, only put in as much as you can eat.
There are a number of specific protocols that relate just to the use of chopsticks. Firstly, you should never stab or skewer food with your chopstick (even if you get frustrated with a particularly nimble piece of karaage chicken). Another thing to remember is to never leave your chopsticks crossed over one another when resting on the table or to pass food directly from your chopsticks to someone else’s as these actions are reminiscent of practices that occur during a funeral rite. Never point or wave your chopsticks around and don’t use your own chopsticks when serving yourself from a communal plate. Make sure you check some more do’s and don’t’s of chopstick use here.
Before and after a meal
Before eating, it is customary to say the phrase ‘itdakimasu’ (いただきます) which means ‘I gratefully receive’ or ‘let’s eat’. When you are finished with your meal, you say ‘gochisousama deshita’ (ごちそうさま でした) which translates to ‘thank you for the meal’.
It’s okay to slurp
In Western culture, slurping and eating loudly is usually a big no-no, however when it comes to Japan, they usually aren’t too fussed. In fact, slurping is seen as a sign that you are enjoying your meal, so keep slurping that ramen to your heart’s content!
When pouring drinks in Japan, you should never pour out your own. Serve everyone else at the table first, put down the bottle or jug and wait for someone at the table to pour your drink for you.
In the Home
Shoes and slippers
When entering a Japanese home, you will step into the genkan (げんかん) or entryway which is where you will be required to take off your shoes. Certain rooms in the house, in particular the bathroom, may have their own seperate slippers you must wear in that room only. When entering a room with a tatami floor (a traditional flooring made of rush-covered straw mats), you must wear either socks or be barefoot. So make sure before you come to Japan that you invest in some nice, fresh pairs of socks that don’t have too many holes in them!
As well as cleaning yourself, one of the main purposes of taking a bath in Japan is relaxation. Usually, Japanese bathrooms will consist of two seperate rooms: one where you undress and where you will find the sink, and the other containing the actual bath and shower. Firstly, you rinse yourself off under the shower and then get into the bathtub, which is usually heated to about 40 degrees Celsius, to soak and relax. Once you are finished in the bathtub, get out and cleanse yourself with soap under the shower again, making sure not to get any suds in the bath water. Traditionally the whole family will use the same bath water, which is why you rinse yourself before going in, and there is an order regarding who uses the bath first. In a Japanese home that still follows this practice, the Father of the house will go first, or if you are a guest in the home you will usually be asked before anyone else in the family.
Sitting and kneeling
Sometime during your trip you may be at a restaurant that seats guests at short legged-tables called chabudai (卓袱台) or on floor cushions called zabuton (ざぶとん). In formal situations, Japanese people typically kneel which is known as seiza however Westerners do not sit like this often and are not expected to be able to sit in the seiza position for extended periods of time. In this case, it is acceptable to sit cross-legged (men-only) or with your legs to the side (women-only) as demonstrated in the diagram below:
It may seem like there are many rules to follow in Japan, however the locals are usually quite accommodating and patient with tourists and know that you might not know everything. Try and remember as many of these tips as you can in order to make your Japan venture the best that it can be!
If you have any other etiquette tips or Japan travel stories let me know in the comment section! I’d love to hear from you.
Happy travels xx