A Guide to Japanese Customs and Etiquette

Japan is known for its fascinating culture, rich history, and incredibly complex customs. Getting to grips with Japanese customs can seem daunting at first, so we asked our Travel Specialists to help unravel the intricacies of this remarkable country with a handy list of what to do – and what not to do.

02 December 2022

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Despite being internationally recognized for its continually shifting fashions and boundary-pushing technological developments, Japan is also steeped in rich cultural traditions that date back thousands of years. While the Japanese nation is very understanding of foreign travelers having different customs, here are a few top tips on Japanese etiquette to help you avoid accidentally offending.

1. Bowing

Bowing is how you greet people in Japan – it’s a bit like a handshake in the US, although with many more intricacies. It is used to say goodbye, express thanks, apologize, and even for asking for a favor.

As a general rule, bows are divided into three main types: informal, formal, and very formal, with the degree of tilt changing significantly between them. The informal bow is suitable for most greetings and means lowering your back to a 15° angle. For more formal situations, a 45° angle is considered respectful. 

2. Shoes

Shoes are considered dirty and are expected to be removed upon entering a home, a place of spiritual significance, or a ryokan. Look out for shoe cupboards, “step ups”, and areas with tatami matting or polished wood floors as these all signify places where you should remove your shoes.

Toilet Slippers

Toilet slippers are common in Japan as well and are used not just in the home, but in several other establishments too. These are special slippers for use in the bathroom only (usually labeled with the word ‘toilet’ on the top of each foot). One is expected to change shoes before entering the bathroom and remember to remove them before re-entering the main living area, so as not to bring any dirt from the bathroom back in with you. Failure to do either of these is deemed a faux pas. 

Top tip: While traveling in Japan you may have to take off your shoes several times a day, so opt for easily removable footwear.

3. Taking an Onsen

Visiting an onsen is a key cultural highlight when in Japan and is well worth adapting to Japanese customs to do. When visiting an onsen, you’ll wade into single-sex communal pools and hot springs completely naked. Towels are provided for walking between areas, but once you’re in the water no clothing or coverups are permitted.

Now, while this is truly a unique experience, there are more westernized onsens (and private onsens) that are perfect for those that want to pay respect to Japan’s culture but desire a less exposing option. They even have ones that allow tattoos.

A few things that don’t change though are:

  • You must bathe before getting in – taking an onsen is a spiritual cleanse not a physical one
  • Your hair must be worn up, out of the water
  • Do not submerge your head underneath the water

If you want to learn about onsen etiquette, and where to go – read our guide here!

4. Eating & drinking

To prevent sticking out like a sore thumb when eating with chopsticks, here are a few things to avoid:

  • Pointing them at other people
  • Waving them in the air
  • Using them to spear food
  • Sticking them upright in a bowl
  • Leaving chopsticks crossed over one another on top of your bowl
  • Passing food chopsticks to chopsticks

Leaving chopsticks upright in a rice bowl is an especially taboo move to avoid as it represents an offering to the deceased and is a ritual performed at funerals. Instead, when not in use, place them on your chopstick rest if provided or neatly lie your sticks one beside the other on the top of your bowl.  

If you’re lucky enough to experience a tea ceremony it is considered polite to make an audible sipping sound upon your last sip to show appreciation for how it was made.

5. Tipping Is Not Customary

In Japan, whether you’re in a hotel, restaurant, or taxi, tipping is not expected. In fact, the Japanese will often politely decline tips, and offering them can lead to awkward misunderstandings. The Japanese find the concept of tipping quite uncomfortable; they believe a price is a price and pride themselves on conducting all services to the best of their ability, without wanting a tip.

The slight exception to this is with guides: while they will never expect a tip, it is acceptable if you feel inclined, but please present it in an envelope and hand it over using both hands (perhaps with a little bow as well)! Similarly, if at a hotel, should you feel a tip is absolutely necessary, it is best placed in an envelope and left in your room or handed over with two hands. 

6. Kimonos & Yukatas

When wearing a kimono or yukata, the left side should always be wrapped over the right: fold your right side towards your body first, and then left side on top of it. Right side over left is only done when dressing the dead for burial, so it’s considered pretty bad luck to get this wrong!

7. Exchanging Business Cards

Should you need to exchange business cards with someone, this should be done at the very start of a meeting. The handing over of cards is done with great care. Standing opposite one another, you must offer your business card with both hands, making sure the card is face up so that the receiver can read it straight away. Likewise, cards are accepted with two hands and put into a cardholder with a smile, or carefully placed on the table. It is considered incredibly rude to toss a card into a pocket or a bag. 

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