Most, if not all, Japanese are very understanding of a foreigner (gaijin or gaikokujin) who does not immediately adapt to their culture; indeed, the Japanese like to boast (with questionable credibility) that their language and culture are among the most difficult in the world to understand, so they are generally quite happy to help you if you seem to be having difficulty. However, Japanese will appreciate it if you at least follow the following rules, many of which boil down to the social norms of strict cleanliness and avoiding assaulting others (迷惑 meiwaku).
- Shoes (and feet in general) are considered very dirty by the Japanese. Avoid pointing the soles of your feet at anyone (e.g. putting your foot on the opposite knee when sitting) and try to prevent children from standing up in seats. It is very rude to bang your feet against another person’s clothes, even if it is just an accident.
- In many buildings, you are expected to remove your shoes when entering and deposit them in a lowered entrance area or shoe locker. If available, you can borrow slippers (though usually only in sizes for typically smaller Japanese feet), wear socks or go barefoot. Wearing shoes inside such a building is considered disrespectful as it brings dirt and/or evil spirits inside. For similar reasons, it is preferable to be able to take your shoes off and put them on with your hands as little as possible.
- The Japanese consider a pat on the back rude, especially if it comes from someone they have just met. As it is not common in Japan, hugging should also be avoided unless you are in a romantic relationship with the other person. It is typically very awkward and uncomfortable for Japanese people.
- Point with your open hand, not your finger, and ask people to come by waving your hand down, not up.
- Avoid shouting or talking loudly in public. Talking on a mobile phone on the train is considered rude and many trains have signs saying not to use them. (However, sending text messages is considered de rigueur).
- Sniffing in public is considered rude, similar to flatulence. It is okay to walk around sniffing until you find a private place to blow your nose.
- As in Germany, the Second World War is a sensitive and complicated subject, especially among older people, and is generally best avoided. More intellectual and alternative circles tend to discuss it, especially when visiting Hiroshima.
- As in India and China and other countries, swastikas are Buddhist symbols that represent happiness and in no way represent Nazism or anti-Semitism, and you will find that the symbol actually points in the opposite direction. Swastikas are often used on maps to mark the locations of Buddhist temples and monasteries.
- Smoking is prohibited on many street corners and pavements in Tokyo. Although you see people smoking everywhere, most find themselves in designated smoking areas. The Japanese are such a clean culture that many of the smokers do not even leave ashes on the ground.
- Showing an open mouth is considered impolite.
- As in neighbouring China and Korea, saving face is a very important concept in Japanese culture. Especially in a business environment, Japanese people rarely say “no” if they are not interested in a deal, and would instead say something more indirect like “I will think about it”. Unless it is a boss or someone from a higher position, mistakes are not usually addressed and if you do, you are likely to be greatly embarrassed.
- Avoid talking about politics, especially Japan’s territorial disputes with China, South Korea and Russia, as many locals have very strong feelings about these issues.
Things to avoid
Japanese understand that visitors do not know the intricacies of Japanese etiquette and tend to tolerate foreigners’ mistakes in this regard. There are a few serious breaches of etiquette that meet with general disapproval (even if committed by foreigners) and should be avoided if possible:
- Never step on a tatami mat with shoes or even slippers.
- Never leave your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice (this is how rice is sacrificed to the dead).
Never enter a bathtub without first washing thoroughly.
Things to do
- Learn a little of the language and try to use it. They will compliment you if you try and there is no reason to be ashamed. They realise that Japanese is very difficult for foreigners and are tolerant of your mistakes; on the contrary, they will like you more if you try.
- The average Japanese person bows over 100 times a day; this ubiquitous gesture of respect is used to greet, to say goodbye, to thank, to accept thanks, to apologise, to accept apologies, and so on. Men bow with their hands at their sides. Women bow with their hands in front of each other. Women’s hands look as if they are placed in their lap when bowing (not in a prayer posture as in wai in Thailand). The exact degree of bowing depends on your position in society relative to the recipient of the bow and on the occasion: the largely unwritten rules are complex, but for foreigners a “symbolic bow” is fine and better than accidentally doing a deep formal bow (as US President Obama once did). Many Japanese are happy to offer a handshake instead or in addition; just be careful not to bump heads if you try to do both at the same time.
- When you hand something to someone, especially a business card, it is considered polite to hold it with both hands.
- Business cards (名刺 meishi) in particular are treated very respectfully and formally. How you treat someone’s business card is seen as representative of how you will treat the person. Be sure to pack more than you need, because not carrying a business card is a serious faux pas. As with bowing, there is a lot of nuanced etiquette, but here are some basics:
When handing over a business card, orient it so that it is legible to the person you are giving it to and hold it with both hands at the corners so that everything is visible. When accepting a business card, grasp it with both hands at the corners and take the time to read the card and make sure you know how to pronounce the person’s name (this is more of a problem in Japanese, as the characters for a person’s name can be pronounced in different ways). It is impolite to write on a card, fold it or put it in your back pocket (where you sit on it!). Instead, arrange the cards on the table (in order of seniority) so you can remember who is who. When it’s time to leave, you can put the cards in a nice case to keep them untouched; if you don’t have one, hold on to them until you’re out of sight before pocketing them.
- On the other hand, cash is traditionally considered “dirty” and is not passed from hand to hand. Cash registers often have a small tray that is used to give your payment and receive change.
If you give money as a gift (e.g. as a tip in a ryokan), you should get unused notes from the bank and present them in a formal envelope.
- When drinking sake or beer in a group, it is considered polite not to fill your glass yourself, but to allow someone else to do so. Usually, glasses are refilled before they are empty. To be extra polite, hold up your own glass with both hands while one of your companions fills it. (It is okay to refuse, but you must do it frequently, otherwise an older person at your table might fill your glass when you are not looking).
- Gift-giving is very common in Japan. You may find that as a guest you are showered with gifts and dinners. Foreign guests are of course exempt from this sometimes annoying system of give and take (kashi-kari), but it would be a nice gesture to offer a gift or souvenir (omiyage), including one that is unique or representative of your country. A gift that is “consumable” is advisable due to the smaller size of Japanese homes. Items such as soap, sweets, alcohol or stationery go down well, as the recipient is not expected to always have them to hand on subsequent visits. Re-gifting” is a common and accepted practice, even for items such as fruit.
- Expressing gratitude is different from giving an obligatory gift. Even if you have brought a gift for your Japanese host, it is a sign of good etiquette to send a handwritten thank-you card when you return: it will be much appreciated. Japanese guests always exchange photos they have taken with their hosts. So you should expect to receive some snapshots and be prepared to send yours back (of you and your hosts together). Depending on the age of the host and the nature of your relationship (business or personal), an online exchange may be sufficient.
- Older people are accorded special respect in Japanese society and are used to the privileges that come with it. Visitors waiting to board a train may be surprised to be pushed aside by a fearless obaa-san who has her eye on a seat. Note that certain seats (“silver seats”) on many trains are reserved for disabled and elderly people.
- If you visit a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple, follow the appropriate purification procedure at the chōzuya (手水舎) before entering. After filling the ladle with water, rinse your left hand, then your right hand. Then fill your left hand with water and rinse your mouth with it. Do not touch the ladle directly with your mouth. Finally, turn the ladle upright so that the remaining water sloshes down to rinse the handle before returning the ladle.
- There are not many bins in public places; you may have to carry your rubbish around for a while before you find one. When you do find one, you will often see 4 to 6 of them together; Japan is very conscious of recycling. Most disposable containers are labelled with a recycling symbol in Japanese indicating what type of material it is. Some types of recycling containers you will often see are:
- Paper (紙 kami)
- PET/plastic (PET PETTO or PLA PURA)
- Glass bottles (ビン dustbin)
- Metal cans (カン kan)
- Combustible waste (moeru gomi)
- Non-combustible waste (moenai gomi)
- Punctuality is highly valued and, thanks to Japan’s reliable public transport, expected. If you’re meeting someone and it looks like you’re going to be even a few minutes late, Japanese prefer the reassurance of a phone call or a message if you can send one. Being on time (which really means being early) is even more important in business; Japanese employees might be scolded if they are even a minute late for work in the morning.
Gay and lesbian travelers
Japan is considered very safe for gay and lesbian travellers, and violence against homosexuals is quite rare. There are no laws against homosexuality in Japan and major cities like Tokyo and Osaka have a large gay scene, but same-sex relationships are not recognised by the government and open displays of your orientation are still likely to attract stares and whispers.