Japanese Etiquette Tips: Do’s and Don’ts for International Travelers

Tea ceremony
Posted on Categories Travel Guides

When traveling to a new country for the first time, “culture shock” is expected. You may be especially intimidated if you have heard that there are a lot of “do’s and don’ts” for Japan. Consider these tips for traveling to Japan, and you will be sure to fit right in this warm and inviting country.

Meeting and greeting tips

Bowing

When in Japan, it is polite to bow to the other person when you meet them, when you are saying thank you, or when saying goodbye. If someone bows to you, lean forward and incline your head in return. There are many complexities to the bowing ritual – such as how far, how long, and how many times to bow – but as a tourist, you won’t be expected to know these details. Simply making the effort will endear you to others.

Gifts and business cards

In formal settings, such as on a business trip, it is customary to exchange business cards or name cards when you meet someone. In addition to cards, you may want to bring some small souvenir gifts from your home country. Giving a gift is a sign of appreciation, especially if you are staying in someone’s home. Choose something small and unique to your homeland, such as a candy or key chain. Always use two hands rather than one when giving or receiving gifts or cards.

Clothing tips

Remove your footwear

When entering private homes, temples, traditional style accommodations, and even many restaurants and tourist sites, you will be expected to remove your shoes. You will usually see shelving to place your shoes on. You may by given slippers to use while indoors.

If the restaurant or accommodations include areas of tatami, or woven straw matting covering the floor, you will need to remove the slippers before walking on the tatami. You may leave the slippers at the room’s entrance.

Tatami floored room in a ryokan
Tatami floored room can be found in ryokans, Japanese traditional hotels

Also, separate slippers may be provided for use in the restroom. Leave your original slippers outside the bathroom door, and change back into them when you exit the bathroom.

Tip: while traveling in Japan, wear shoes that you can remove and put on quickly and easily. Don’t forget to wear clean socks!

Eating and drinking tips 

Table manners

Good manners involve words of appreciation before, during, and after the meal. Before you chow down, remember to say i-ta-da-ki-mas, the equivalent for “bon appetit” meaning, “I will receive.” During the meal, say oi-shii to indicate that you are enjoying yourself.

Afterwards, say go-chi-so-sa-ma de-shi-ta to express appreciation for the meal. Don’t be surprised to hear others slurping their soup or noodles – that is acceptable. It’s fun, too, so give it a try while in a land that welcomes noisy eating! 

Using chopsticks

If you’ve already gotten the hang of eating with chopsticks, that’s good. Remember, though, that your mother told you not to play with your food – similarly, in Japan there are certain actions that are considered ‘playing’ with your chopsticks. Avoid using them to scratch an itch, signal to a waiter in a restaurant, point at someone, spear a piece of food, or drum on the table.

Also, don’t cross the chopsticks, leave them standing up in your bowl, and don’t use your chopsticks to ‘hand’ a piece of food to someone else’s waiting chopsticks. The latter are related to funeral rituals and are therefore not appropriate for mealtimes. If taking food from a communal serving dish, use the ‘wrong’ end of the chopsticks, opposite the end you put in your mouth.

Chopsticks and ramen
Don’t cross your chopsticks when resting them on the table.

Tipping in Japan

Tipping is not customary in Japan. If you leave a cash tip on the table, the waiter may not understand it and chase you down to return it. Money is also seldom passed from hand to hand. When paying for an item, you will place the cash in the tray provided. Your change will likewise be placed in this tray.

Temples and Shrines

Tours are offered at many Buddhist and Shinto shrines, and you may see these as mere tourist attractions – but remember, these are religious sites still used for worship. Be respectful when visiting a temple or shrine – don’t enter off-limits areas, speak softly, and dress respectfully (i.e., don’t wear your swim suit).

Religious rituals

Most shrines require ceremonial washing before entering. Use a ladle to pour water over your hands. Catch some of the water in your hand and rinse your mouthspit the water onto the ground, never back into the water basin. 

Meiji shrine entrance
Meiji shrine entrance, in Tokyo

Trains and public transportation tips

Mobile devices

Talking on your cell phone in the confined spaces of a train or bus is considered rude. If you must use your phone to text message, turn the ringer to silent mode. Also, speak quietly to your travel companions.

Queues and lines

In busy train stations, bus stations, and airports, you will be expected to form an orderly line. Don’t push ahead, and pay attention to directional lines painted on the floors.

In case of illness

Do not blow your nose while in a public place, and try to avoid sniffling or sneezing. If you are sick, purchase and wear a surgical mask to avoid spreading germs to others.

Shinkansen bullet train
On train platforms, you should stand on either side of the doors in a queue.

The language barrier 

While you may very well meet people who speak the English language, don’t assume that everyone will. Instead, learn some helpful phrases in Japanese, such as sumimasen, meaning “excuse me” or “sorry,” and arigato, which means, “thank you.” 

Even if you make a mistake or forget what is expected in a certain situation, always be kind and patient with yourself and others around you. The locals will likely be pleased with your efforts at mastering Japan etiquette, even when imperfect.

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