Japanese etiquette can be bewildering – but with a little know-how, you’ll soon scratch the surface of this incredible country
Mind-boggling moments are endless in Japan. And those moments are unforgettable, too – you’ll always remember first seeing a kimono-clad geisha, eating a multi-course kaiseki meal, or belting out karaoke in a booth, Lost in Translation-style. But for all the big hitters, it’s the unexpected that truly astounds: the curious island revamped as a living work of art, say, or the vending machine dispensing ‘marital aids’. From the slopes of Mount Fuji to the beaches of Okinawa, one thing’s for sure: Japan is like no place you’ve ever been to before.
1. Learn some Japanese before you go
True, few people speak English here, especially outside Tokyo. But if you look lost or confused, someone will come to your aid and a simple “sumimasen” (excuse me) while pointing at a map is enough to get directions (and plenty of enthusiastic gesturing).
There are also some good translation apps. Tokyo’s subway is a doddle. It’s colour-coded, and station names appear in Western script. It also identifies the line by a letter, while each station has a number. Many places to eat display their dishes with pictures or wax food replicas in the window, so you can point at your chosen one.
2. Get up to speed on bathroom etiquette
Brace yourself for two extremes. Public toilets are occasionally the ceramic ‘squat’ type (but designed for the user to face the ‘wrong’ way, ie, towards the flusher at the back) but Western toilets, though more common, can be confusing too. They look like your toilet at home, but come with a remote control – press the wrong button and a jet of water or blast of hot air will give you a shock. Hit another and music or fake-flushing sounds will help retain some of your dignity.
Many places offer a choice of both. Look for a sign on the door that says ‘Western’ or ‘yoshiki’ if you want the non-squat variety. Carry tissues – you’ll always have access to soap and water, but hand-driers and towels are rarely provided. And, crucially, you should always remove your shoes and put on the plastic ‘bathroom slippers’ found outside the door of the toilet (it’s considered disgusting not to). The good news is that, no matter which type of toilet you use, it will always be spotless.
3. Table or tatami?
Tatami mats – traditional flooring made from woven straw – are a quintessential element of Japanese life but you can largely avoid an evening spent kneeling on one, as most restaurants and bars have Western-style tables. Even they may have ‘tatami sections’ – it’s fun to eat a meal that way, so do try it at least once: You’ll be expected to kneel (shins on the ground, bum on feet), while sitting around a low table (although it is acceptable for men to sit cross-legged and for women to sit ‘side-saddle’, with legs tucked beside them).
Many places to eat, however, also have low-slung tables but with sunken floors beneath where you can discreetly put your legs, which is a much more comfortable position for non-Japanese people (the locals can sit on their knees for hours at a time with no problem). If you’d like one of these, ask for “horigotatsu“, followed by “arigato gozaimasu” (thank you). If the restaurant has this option, you will be given it.
4. Cover up your tattoos
In the 1800s tattoos were made illegal and – even though the law was changed after WWII – they are still synonymous with the yakuza (Japanese mafia), which means they’re banned in many places. Even a tiny stamp on your ankle or wrist could get you thrown out of spas, gyms, pools, bars and onsens; keep them covered with plasters, clothes or waterproof tattoo concealer.
5. Avoid playing with your chopsticks
If you’re confident in your chopstick skills, great. If not, avoid a highly likely accidental faux-pas. Placing your chopsticks vertically in a bowl of rice resembles a funeral ritual and will be inevitably frowned at.
6. Take your shoes off
Visiting a Japanese home? Make sure you’ve kicked off your shoes of before entering. Outdoor shoes are seen as dirty and your host will swiftly provide you with indoor slippers instead. You’ll also find this rule stands in public spaces such as temples and schools, as well as some traditional ryoken hotels. Unsure? Make sure you ask first before entering to avoid offending your host.
7. The maps are mind-boggling
There are few more baffling tasks than working out Japanese street addresses. In most cities, including Tokyo and Osaka, street names are rare; instead, locations are pinpointed by three numbers, denoting the district, the block and the house – which in an ideal world will lead people to their destination. In reality, it’s tricky – even for locals.
Ask your hotel concierge to write down addresses in Japanese so you can show taxi drivers or locals, and expect to have to ask for help – that’s what the Japanese do. Kyoto is even worse. Due to the high number of small districts, a jigsaw puzzle system is also in place using words such as ‘enter north’ and ‘below’. Station signs are in English, though. And one guaranteed way to avoid getting lost is to use a guide.
8. Queue in single file
It’s considered good manners in Japan to queue in single file at train stations. You’ll notice that when trains pull in any Japanese people will wait patiently until all passengers have left – in single file, of course – before stepping onboard.
9. Don’t leave a tip
Polar opposites to the Americans, tipping isn’t encouraged in Japanese culture. On the contrary, Receiving gifts should always be done with two hands, whether it’s something you’ve paid for in a shop or a drink in a café. Always use both hands and put your money in the small tray next to the cashier instead of directly into their hands.
10. Pay lots of attention to business cards
Travellers to Japan should never underestimate the importance of business cards. Anyone who you meet is likely to give you one. The unspoken rule applies that you should study the card with interest and asks them questions about their title.
11. Avoid blowing your nose in public
Blowing your nose in public is seen as extremely rude. Instead, wait until you’re in a bathroom or a quiet area. You’ll probably spot people walking around in masks. This means they have a cold and want to avoid spreading their germs across the city.
12. Expect to shake a lot of hands
If you’re not Japanese, you’ll find anyone you converse with will want to shake hands. This may also lead to do a complicated combined bow and handshake.
13. Never be late
The Japanese are renowned for politeness and are tolerant and forgiving towards visitors navigating the complex minefield of Japanese etiquette. That said, you need a few basics. Do bring business cards and give them – holding with both hands – to everyone you meet; and read their card as if it’s the most beautiful one you’ve ever seen. Be religiously punctual or early, as lateness is the height of rudeness.
Don’t accept compliments – the Japanese consider it arrogant. Never blow your nose in public. Learn a few words in Japanese – you’ll be amazed how much this will be appreciated. Do say hello and bow when you meet someone. Always remove your shoes before entering a shrine, temple, home or anywhere with a tatami mat. Don’t lose your temper, no matter how frustrated. When dining, don’t stick chopsticks upright in a rice bowl, stab food with them, rub them together or wave them around. Don’t sit with your feet facing anyone.
Thinking of visiting Japan? Here are a few tours you’ll love…