When we close our eyes and envisage Japan, what springs to mind? The bustling Harajuku district of Tokyo? Shinto shrines and bamboo forests? Perhaps delicately prepared sushi, or the majestic outline of Mount Fuji. It is likely though, that the customs of this fascinating culture remain something of a mystery to most travelers. Japan is notorious for its niceties and social intricacies, which can be a daunting prospect for any potential visitor hoping to navigate this beautiful country with some aplomb, and make a good impression.
In Japan, the saying goes, “The nail that sticks out is the first to be hammered down,” and while most travelers can’t avoid “sticking out” a little, it is natural to want to do so all the same, and in the most courteous manner possible, especially in a country so concerned with decorum and etiquette. No Japanese person will ever expect you to know all the ins and outs of their culture, just as you would not expect someone from a foreign country to understand every vagary of yours. Making mistakes is perfectly acceptable in Japan, and certainly should not be something to lose sleep over. However, with these five tips, we’ll round up for you the key cultural faux pas to avoid, ensuring you feel comfortable and confident about making a good impression.
Tip One: Slip-on shoes are your friend
Some of the most important customs you are likely to encounter in Japan relate to shoes, and they are the only instances in which the normally polite Japanese will point out a faux pas. Initially, the rules can seem complex; you are expected to remove your shoes frequently – when entering someone’s home or a restaurant, whenever you encounter a change of level in a building, and when you are standing on a tatami mat. Often you will be offered a pair of slippers to wear instead, which you should always accept. Additionally, you are expected to swap to a second pair when using the restroom. This one is crucial, as coming back from the restroom in the designated bathroom slippers is extremely bad manners. Though it seems like a lot to remember, in truth you’ll find it’s easy enough to look around for clues and follow what others are doing. There may be a shoe rack or a line of shoes to which to add your own, and you may even be offered a bag to carry your shoes around in.
Tip Two: Bowing is important, on many levels
Aware of the complexities of their rules around bowing, the enduringly considerate Japanese will often shake hands with a westerner as a greeting, and will not expect you – as a visitor – to adapt. However, if you are in Japan and keen to make a good impression, a little bowing goes a long way. While the customs are complicated, a good rule of thumb is: the higher the status, the lower you should bow. Status is almost always directly related to age, even in business situations – the most senior person will often be the most senior member of the team. While depth is important, so is duration and a longer bow conveys sincerity – if in doubt, go for the lower, longer bow to show respect to an important acquaintance. When entering a shop, though, you can simply incline your head in acknowledgment. Bowing is used for apology and thanks as well as greetings, and speaking of greeting, when meeting someone for the first time, don’t use first names until (and if) they invite you to.
Tip Three: Slurp your noodles as loudly as you like
Discovering the cuisine is one of the many delights of visiting Japan, from the beautifully crafted sushi and sashimi, to the delicious bowls of ramen. Even the most seasoned traveler may struggle to navigate soupy dishes with chopsticks, but no need to worry, it’s completely acceptable in all social circles to lift the bowl to your mouth to ensure you don’t miss a morsel. What’s more, making noise while you eat is considered a compliment to the chef, so feel free to slurp away heartily. Rice is central to many Japanese dishes and plays a symbolic role in the culture, and you should eat a small amount of it before you start any other part of the meal. Chopstick etiquette is very important: they should never be planted standing up in a bowl of rice. This is how rice is offered to the dead at funerals, so it’s considered to be bad luck at the dinner table. Instead, lay your chopsticks on your plate when you’re not using them, and across your bowl when you’re finished. Don’t pass food from your chopsticks to anyone else’s; again this is considered a little too reminiscent to the ceremonial passing of bones at a funeral. If you want more rice, leave a little in the bowl, but, conversely, if you want a refill of your drink, finish your glass.
Tip Four: Tip… sometimes
Generally-speaking, Japan does not share the same culture of tipping as the west, and service-providers often won’t accept it. Service charge is almost universally included, and those who have tried to tip will tell you stories of restaurateurs chasing them down the street to return their “forgotten” change. Taxi drivers also always give exact change. (On a related note, taxis in Japan are equipped with automatic doors controlled by the driver; don’t try to open or close them yourself). In Japan, especially in less cosmopolitan areas, it is considered presumptuous to accept a gratuity; the offer can cause embarrassment, or at the very least, a response along the lines of “Thank you very much, but I will accept your kindness only”. There are, however, a few instances when tipping will be accepted and appreciated, if approached with delicacy. If you have a private driver or guide who looks after you all day or on a regular basis, a tip is a nice way to show your appreciation for their extra effort. Secondly, when staying in a ryokan, you are usually shown to your room and served tea by a host, and it is customary to put a tip in an envelope and present it politely when they have shown you around and settled you in.
Tip Five: Simply, do what everyone else is doing
We all want to blend in and look like we know what we’re doing and in Japan it’s actually relatively easy. Since the rules are so prescriptive, all one has to do is look around and do as the Japanese do. If you follow their lead, you’ll soon start to notice a few behavioural traits you can emulate. First, it’s rare to see anyone blowing their nose in public. Japanese tend to sniffle their way through a cold or wear a surgical mask as a preventative measure, rather than reach for the tissues. Second, although the younger generations are arguably less conservative than their predecessors, it’s still probably fair to say that public displays of affection and emotion are not considered ‘cool’. Here, assess the situation you are in and who you are with. Finally, in the likely event you find yourself drinking with friends, make sure to pour their drinks, but never your own. Someone in the group will always spot if you need a refill, so don’t do it yourself.
We offer many fantastic itineraries to Japan where you can try your newly discovered cultural knowledge out. Check out our Japan section, or our Japan itineraries. Some favourite itineraries that we recommend include: