Social behaviour and etiquette are considered very important in Japan. While certain rules of courtesy are supposed to be universal, quite a few Japanese manners and habits are unique and should also be respected by foreigners. Please notice that some of the customs outlined below are based on personal observation and experience.
We have currently added chapters on general customs, table manners and bathing and shall continue to expand this section. Feel free to comment on this page on the Japan Forum or in the comments box below.
- Shoes: upon entering a house or a Japanese inn (旅館 ryokan), take off your shoes in the entryway (玄関 genkan). You will usually be provided with slippers. Slippers have to be taken off when stepping on tatami floor though. In ryokan and sometimes in private homes as well, you will be provided with toilet slippers, which are only to be used inside the toilet. A lot of Japanese restaurants (居酒屋 izakaya) also request their guests to take off their shoes. You will be offered a shoe locker to store your shoes.
- Bowing: Japanese people do not shake hands when greeting each other, but bow (お辞儀 o-jigi). The way of bowing reflects each person’s social status, and the social position towards one another, resulting in bows of up to 90 degrees in angle, when very deferential, to a slight nod, when greeting someone of lower social standing or of junior rank. While women fold their hands slightly in front of their body when bowing, men’s hands rest on their flanks. Foreigners are usually not expected to bow and will be readily welcomed with a handshake.
- Blowing your nose: most Japan travel guides emphasize the fact that it is considered very rude to blow your nose in public. Don’t be mistaken: if you – as a matter of general courtesy that applies to other countries than Japan as well – blow your nose discreetly, no one will mind, even in a crowded restaurant. You will however find many Japanese people loudly sniffling and snorting on trains or in other public spaces, a behaviour considered to be quite rude in most Western countries.
Chopsticks: while most restaurants in Japan do offer Western-style cutlery, you might encounter situations, where you have no choice but to use chopsticks (箸 hashi or お手元 otemoto). The pointed ends of the chopsticks are often placed on chopstick rests (箸置き hashioki), where you place them back when interrupting your meal. Chopsticks are never to be stuck into food vertically or crossed on the table, as this is only done when food is offered to the dead. When handling food from a dish shared with others, many Japanese turn their chopsticks to hand out portions, which – according to some – is not considered proper etiquette. It is best to use a new set of chopsticks for that purpose. Needless to mention, you should never use your chopsticks to point at people or objects. Whether disposable chopsticks (割箸 waribashi) made of splittable wood should be placed back into their paper wrappers after a formal meal remains a controversial issue.
Please see our special feature on Japanese chopstick manners.
Eating habits: start your meal by stating the phrase “itadakimasu” (いただきます, lit. “I humbly receive”, “bon appetit”) to show your gratitude to whoever contributed to your meal by hunting, fishing, cultivating and/or preparing it, conclude it with “gochisōsama deshita (ごちそうさまでした, “Thanks for a good meal”). Contrary to some other Asian nations, it is considered rude to belch at the table. Slurping Japanese noodles on the other hand, is not only socially accepted, but often expected. Italian pasta, such as spaghetti, etc, however should not be slurped. It is also polite custom to clear your plates down to the last grain of rice and put the dishes back into the same position they were initially served in. Sushi should be eaten in one piece, soup is consumed by holding the bowl with both hands and to drink from it, while other ingredients can be picked up with your chopsticks. Some dishes, such as Japanese curry or fried rice, are eaten with spoons.
Drinking manners: never pour alcoholic beverages for yourself, always share with others and serve according to seniority. If you have poured for others, another guest will usually pour you, too. On formal occasions, it is customary for female or junior attendants to pour the drinks. The first drink is usually consumed together, so wait until everyone have their glassed filled. You then toast each other by using the phrase “kampai” (乾杯 or 乾盃). Under no circumstances should you use the Italian “chin chin” to toast, as the term is colloquially used to describe the male private parts in Japanese.
- Bathing habits: Japanese are pretty passionate about taking baths (風呂 furo or polite お風呂 ofuro). Despite the introduction of Western-style bathrooms equipped with showers, it is still customary for a Japanese family to take a bath at night, not only in winter, but also on sultry summer nights. Bathing is not only a matter of bodily hygiene, but of physical and mental repose.
- Shower first: when taking a bath in a private Japanese home or in the shared bath of a ryokan or a hotel, you will need to take a shower first. Japanese inns, hotels as well as hot springs (温泉 onsen) offer communal shower facilities satisfying all imaginable needs of body hygiene, often providing even shavers and tooth brushes. Private bathrooms are often furnished with small plastic stools and wash bowls. Once sponged and scrubbed, make sure to rinse your body thoroughly before stepping into the bath! After soaking, shower your body once again. It is quite common for Japanese families to share the same bath: one after another that is, usually with the pater familias in the lead. Guests will usually be given the honour of being first to enjoy the tub. Make sure not to empty the tub after you have soaked, the rest of the family will still use your water.
Please check out our feature on gift-giving in Japan.