Japanese customs and etiquette are confusing enough to make some people feel like their exciting holiday has turned into a cultural minefield. However, in reality, Japanese people won’t be too offended if you make an honest mistake – it’s not trying that’s likely to cause trouble! To help you feel a bit more comfortable with Japanese etiquette, we’ve put together a list of key do’s and don’ts that will see you through.
Make sure you do bow upon greeting in Japan (although it’s perhaps not quite as necessary with a whale!). It’s a sign of respect and, more generally, it’s just polite. It’s also customary to bow when saying ‘thank you’ or apologising for the same reasons. The deeper the bow, the more respectful it is – this is worth knowing especially if you’re heading to Japan on business.
While Japanese people are comfortable greeting non-Japanese people by shaking hands, we’d suggest you don’t go in for a handshake with a stranger unless they offer. It could come across as though you haven’t bothered to learn a custom, which doesn’t make a great first impression. Japan Talk have got a pretty comprehensive guide on reasons to bow in Japan which is worth having a look through.
Etiquette in the Japanese Home
You do remove shoes when indoors in Japan, especially at someone’s home or at a place of worship. It’s probably the most well-known Japanese custom. Where taking your shoes off is necessary, there will be a genkan – floorspace set below the main building designed for shoes to be left. It’s technically classed as being outside! Generally, slippers will be provided by the host. If you’re going in and out of a lot of places, it might be a good idea to invest in some slip-on shoes for quick removal.
The bathroom is a different animal altogether. Usually, there will be special toilet slippers to wear while in the bathroom, which are left in there and swapped for the regular indoor slippers on your return. Make sure you don’t return wearing the toilet slippers – it’s a fairly common, although not a hugely strict, faux pas.
Most of the questions surrounding Japanese etiquette are to do with table manners and dining customs. What’s classed as polite behaviour? How much do you tip at restaurants? And just how do you use chopsticks correctly?
Often at Japanese restaurants, you’ll be provided with a towel at the start of the meal. This will be hot or cold, depending on the season. Do use it to clean you hands before the meal, fold it up, and put it neatly on the side – and that’s all! Don’t use it to clean around your mouth or face, it’s considered a bit rude.
Generally speaking, you should make sure you don’t pour your own drink when eating in a group with people. By all means pour for others, but let someone else pour yours. Do make sure you say “kan-pai!” as a toast before drinking, though – it’s a fun, but important, “cheers!” equivalent.
When eating with chopsticks, you should make sure that you do put them down in a chopstick rest or down on the table when you’re pausing eating. Whatever you do, don’t stick them in your food – this is reminiscent of traditional offering to family members who have died, and could seriously upset or offend some Japanese people. Make sure you don’t point at anyone with your chopsticks too, as this is very rude.
Oh, and tipping? Just don’t in restaurants and bars. It’s not the done thing, and most staff members would chase you down the street to give you your money back!
Japan is a culture that thrives off giving and receiving gifts, and there’s special customs that go with it. Gifts are given for a variety of reasons and occasions, which means you’ll probably be presented with a few at some point in your trip. Gifts are expected to be reciprocated with one of greater or equal value, so make sure you do keep some with you just in case.
Do give and receive the gifts with two hands – it’s shows that the gift is important, and is a mark of respect. Gifts are often elaborately wrapped, so make sure yours are too! If you’re struggling for ideas, we’ve got a fabulous range of Japanese gifts that would make a brilliant first impression.
A Top Tip from The Japanese Shop’s Hiromi & Jez
Japanese people are pretty forgiving and generally don’t expect foreigners, or gaijin (literally translates as ‘aliens’!) to know everything about their customs. Just make sure you learn how to use chopsticks correctly!