Japan is well-known for its atmosphere of politeness and respect. Japanese interpersonal manners revolve around elevating the status of others while humbling oneself. There is an entire subsection of the Japanese language, known as keigo (敬語, respectful language) which is used in formal situations.
While it can be difficult for newcomers to Japan to understand and follow all the Japanese societal rules and practices, this guide will help you to avoid committing any major faux-pas.
Table of Contents
Out in Public
- Smoking in the street is banned in many areas. In the cities, walking and smoking is generally prohibited. Although there are no nationwide bans on public smoking, some city wards have enacted anti-smoking bans locally.
- Eating and walking in the street is generally frowned upon, unless the item is traditionally eaten outdoors (such as ice cream or taiyaki).
- On escalators in Tokyo, riders often stand on the left side to allow those in a hurry to pass on the right. In Osaka, this is reversed. However, local authorities are increasingly requesting that people remain standing while riding the escalator.
- Public displays of affection beyond hand-holding are generally considered inappropriate.
- When sick, it is considered good manners to wear a medical mask to avoid passing germs to others.
- Blowing one’s nose in front of others is considered uncouth. In public it is generally safer to sniff or to subtly wipe one’s nose with a tissue.
- Littering is practically unheard of in Japan, despite the lack of public trash cans. Be prepared to take your rubbish home with you, especially when travelling to the countryside.
On Public Transport
- It is customary to let passengers disembark a train before boarding oneself. When trains are busy, passengers near the door should step onto the platform to allow other passengers to disembark.
- Most trains and buses have a priority seating area for elderly, disabled and pregnant passengers, and those with small children. Able-bodied passengers sitting in these seats should give them up when the train is busy.
- Talking on the phone is generally forbidden on public transport. Passengers are usually requested to turn phones off near priority seats.
Work and Business
- Greetings are very important in the workplace, and workers will always say “ohayō gozaimasu” (おはようございます, “good morning”) to their colleagues on arrival in the morning.
- When leaving work before one’s colleagues, it’s usual to say “osaki ni shitsurei shimasu” (お先に失礼します, “excuse me for leaving ahead of you”). The usual response is “otsukaresama deshita” (お疲れさまでした), which may roughly be translated as “good job today”. It’s common for colleagues to use “otsukaresama desu” as a greeting during the day.
- When exchanging business cards, two hands are used. Generally speaking, cards are kept out in the open until the meeting is concluded, and only stored after parting.
- When addressing or referring to personnel from other companies, honorifics such as -san and -sama are used. When talking about one’s own company’s employees to members of other companies, names are spoken without honorifics.
- “Itadakimasu” (いただきます) and “gochisō-sama” (ごちそうさま) are set phrases Japanese people often say before and after meals respectively, to express gratitude for everything that went into the meal. You can say “gochisō-sama deshita” (ごちそうさまでした, “thank you for the meal”) to a person who has treated you to a meal.
- Planting chopsticks upright in rice, and passing food to others chopstick-to-chopstick are considered taboo, as these motions are part of Japanese funeral rites.
It is acceptable to lift small dishes, such as rice and soup, closer to the face while eating.
- Noisily slurping noodles such as ramen or soba is accepted, if not encouraged, when eating with chopsticks. Western noodles such as spaghetti are often eaten quietly with a fork and spoon.
Removing your shoes
The rules regarding footwear in Japan reflect the inside vs. outside attitude that has a strong influence on Japanese culture and can be traced back to Shintōism. You will often be required to remove your footwear at the genkan (玄関, entranceway) when entering buildings, especially family homes, temples, some schools, and certain traditional-style restaurants. Slippers are worn indoors in most areas of the house, though Japanese-style rooms (和室, washitsu) with tatami mats are only entered barefoot or in socks. Some homes, restaurants or hotels provide slippers for exclusive use in toilets, and it is easy to forget to switch to the correct slippers on entering or leaving.
At schools and workplaces with indoor/outdoor footwear rules, staff or students will generally have their own footwear for dedicated indoor use. Often the rules treat the entire grounds of the institution as “inside”, allowing indoor shoes to be worn outdoors between buildings, for example. School students will often require three pairs of footwear at school – one for regular indoor classes, one for indoor P.E. classes and sports, and one for outdoor P.E. classes and sports. A growing number of schools and institutions are getting rid of these shoe policies.
At the Public Bath
At Japanese sentō (銭湯, public bath) or onsen (温泉, hot spring), bathers wash and rinse themselves thoroughly before entering the communal bathtub. Soap bubbles should not be allowed to get into the bath, and one’s towel should be kept out of the water.
Interacting With Others
- “I am not sure” or “It’s very difficult” is often the Japanese way of saying “No”. Whenever possible, avoid criticizing other people directly or being too direct on negative matters.
- Rather than pointing with your index finger, which can be considered rude, indicate a person or gesture in a direction using the entire hand.
- Receiving items and passing things to others using two hands gives off a better impression than using one hand only.
- Depending on context, standing with arms crossed or hands in pockets can be considered a sign of disagreement or hostility.
Common Japanese Gestures
|Forefinger pointed at nose
|Hand held vertically in front of face and moved side to side
|Hand held in front, as though praying with one hand only
|Extended hand, palm face-down, flapped front-to-back from the wrist
|A back-to-front sweeping version of “come here”
|Crossed arms in X shape
|Arms above head in large O shape