Your Complete Guide to Japanese Etiquette
Every country has a rich and multifaceted culture and Japan is no exception. Although you cannot possibly be expected to learn the intricacies of Japanese etiquette, this guide will help you on your way to walking and talking like the Japanese do.
- Taking off your Shoes
While travelling through Japan you will undoubtedly take your shoes on and off several times a day. In Japan it is considered customary to remove your shoes before entering certain public and private areas in an effort to keep the space clean and as a sign of respect. Predominantly, you will be supplied with slippers to replace your footwear while indoors. However, do not be afraid to walk around in socks or barefoot.
Typically, Japanese etiquette dictates that you should remove your shoes: when changing level, visiting a temple or shrine, entering a Japanese home and whenever you encounter a tatami mat (a traditional Japanese flooring made from woven rush grass and rice straw). If you are ever unsure whether to shoe or not to shoe, look out for the signs: how is everyone else behaving? Is there a shoe stand close by? Can you see rows of shoes left at the entrance of a building? Are there any notices anywhere?
It is common practice to wear specific toilet slippers while in the bathroom. These slippers usually have the word ‘toilet’ on them and should only be used in the confines of the bathroom.
If you are planning a trip to the gym during your stay, you will be required to wear indoor trainers. These trainers should be worn exclusively indoors and can usually be rented from the gym if required.
TIP: If you are uncomfortable walking around barefoot, remember to take a pair of socks in your bag which you can change into if necessary.
Bows take many different forms and serve a variety of purposes within Japan ranging from a greeting to an apology. These bows can vary from a 10° nod of the head, to a low, 45° bow. In general, the lower the bow, the more formal or deeply expressed the gesture is considered.
When bowing, it is customary for women to hold their hands together in front of their thighs while men are expected to hold their arms straight by their sides. Each form of bow should be performed with a straight back, pivoting the body from the hips.
If you are unsure which bow to use or how to bow correctly, bowing your head is usually sufficient.
TIP: Do not shake someone’s hand or speak while bowing.
- Eating and Drinking
Japanese etiquette for eating and drinking can appear daunting as it is so far removed from western culture. To avoid making a dinner-time faux pas, try to keep these fundamental Japanese table manners in mind:
- Unlike in the UK, slurping and bringing your food to your mouth is considered a sign of enjoyment and appreciation, rather than a symbol of disrespect. If you’re struggling to eat your yaki soba or katsu curry, don’t hesitate to do as the Japanese do and bring your bowl up to your mouth.
- How you use chopsticks and where you position them during a meal can be regarded as a sign of bad fortune. As a general rule of thumb, you should only use your chopsticks for eating and should place them down on the table beside your food once you have finished your meal so as not to offend anyone.
- Pour drinks for the people around you but wait for them to pour your own.
TIP: Impress the locals and show appreciation for your food by saying “itadakimasu!” (pronounced “ee-ta-da-key-mas”) meaning “I humbly receive this food”.
- Onsen Etiquette
It is almost impossible to visit Japan without indulging in an onsen. These natural hot springs are prevalent throughout Japan and are enormously popular.
Before visiting onsen, it is essential to understand how and how not to behave to avoid insulting the locals and sullying the water.
- The first thing to do before entering a Japanese hot spring is to thoroughly wash yourself.
- The use of photography is generally discouraged while using an onsen.
- Enter the water slowly without splashing or diving.
- Never bring anything into the water.
- Do not swim. Instead, spend time relaxing in quiet contemplation.
- Tattoos are often banned from onsens as they are considered a sign of the Japanese mafia.
- Japanese Greetings
In Japan, like in every culture, how you greet someone can either make or break a meeting. Japanese greetings differ considerably from western traditions. Although many Japanese people will alter their behaviour to accommodate foreign travellers, there are three main points to consider when greeting a person in Japan. Firstly, it is customary to greet Japanese people with a bow. Secondly, it is commonplace in Japan for two people to exchange business cards upon meeting. Thirdly, it is considered rude to make eye contact in Japan.
TIP: To learn some everyday Japanese verbal greetings, check out: https://www.coscom.co.jp/learnjapanese101/wordcategory/basicwords_greeting.html
- Gift Giving
Japan is a country notorious for its gift-giving culture. The exchanging of gifts is such an intrinsic part of Japanese etiquette that gifts are commonly given all year round and in all kinds of settings. During your stay in Japan, you will invariably be presented with several gifts. It is, therefore, important to understand how to reciprocate correctly.
When presented with a gift, you are expected to respond by giving the present-giver a gift of greater or equal value. In Japan, a great deal of attention is given to the presentation of gifts. As such, the gift in question should be beautifully wrapped and given to the receiver using both hands.
TIP: If you are planning a trip to Japan, it would be wise to travel stocked with a few goodies which you can distribute during your stay. If you are struggling for gift inspiration, at The Japanese Shop, we have a collection of wonderfully traditional, masterfully crafted and reasonably priced items perfect for gifting, all authentically presented in Japanese gift wrapping.