Before you travel to Japan, it pays to brush up on some cultural differences to avoid offending local sensibilities. Manners and social rules are not universal, and it’s easy to commit a gaffe if you’re not aware of their customs and conventions. The Japanese are relatively reserved and polite, so you probably won’t even realize you’re affronting anyone – but they’ll notice. Part of the enrichment of travel is learning about other cultures and being sensitive to their ways. The Japanese are about as hospitable and welcoming as it gets, so take the time to read up on some basic behavioral dos and don’ts to ensure a faux-pas free trip. Here are 19 things NOT to do in Japan.
1. Don’t Wear Shoes in the House
Let’s start with an easy one. Most people are aware that you take your shoes off before entering a home in Japan. It’s a reasonable and hygienic request when you think about it. They simply don’t want the dust and dirt from the outside streets being trekked all over their clean floors and tatami mats. Most homes have a small recessed vestibule called a genkan where shoes should be removed and slippers put on (guest slippers are often provided). Note, these slippers should be removed when you enter a tatami mat room, where socks are the preferred footwear.
2. Don’t Forget the Toilet Slippers
The fastidious Japanese have a dedicated set of slippers for toilet usage. These are often emblazoned with a word or picture to make it obvious. Simply switch out of your house slippers and into the toilet slippers, do your thing, then switch back before walking away. Sounds simple, right? I guarantee at some point during your trip you will forget to change back into the house slippers and will be caught traipsing through a home or restaurant in offending footwear. Don’t worry, most Japanese people are pretty good-natured about this cultural difference. It will be considered a source of amusement rather than a serious rudeness.
3. Don’t Queue for the Next Stall
In the western world, we usually form a line to wait for the next available stall in a public restroom. It’s considered the fair way – first come, first served. The queuing system is a little different in Japan. Each person stands in front of a random cubicle and uses it whenever it becomes free, regardless if someone else has been waiting longer. This can seem kind of frustrating if you’re desperate to go and you happen to choose a door with a slowpoke in it, but that’s the luck-of-the-draw local convention. You could call it a crap shoot.
4. Don’t Expect Western Toilets
If you’re lucky, you may encounter one of those high-tech wonder thrones in Japan, with a control panel of buttons that warm the seat, spray your bits, blow you dry, spritz a scent and play a tune for you. Some even take your blood pressure while you’re waiting. At some point on your trip, however, you’ll probably be faced with a traditional Asian hole-in-the-ground squat toilet. Granted, if you stick to western-style restaurants, hotels and the big cities, you’ll find plenty of familiar seated commodes just like back home. But venture out into smaller towns or more traditional establishments and squat toilets are the norm. Don’t be intimidated. Just bend your knees, straddle and watch your balance as you hunker down to do what comes naturally. Note, toilet paper is rarely provided for you, so always have a pack of tissues in your pocket for this purpose.
5. Don’t Bathe Dirty
It may sound counter-intuitive, but bathing is not for cleansing in Japan. Those deep ofuro tubs you see are for soaking and soothing AFTER you’ve already soaped and scrubbed in the adjacent shower (often seated on a small bench beside a hand-help shower nozzle). In fact, several people may take a turn in the same hot water before draining it – so you’d better be squeaky clean before dipping your toes in one of these communal tubs. You’ll be submerged up to your neck in steaming hot water, not stretched out and reclining like in western baths. It’s a blissfully relaxing spa-like treatment that will warm you to the core. Remember, when you’re done, don’t pull the drain plug as someone else may be waiting their turn.
6. Don’t Sip or Snack While Walking
Moving while ingesting is generally a no-no in Japan. Unlike many western countries where people chew and slurp on the go all the time, here people prefer to take the time to stop and consume while stationary. Perhaps it has something to do with their cultural respect for food – most meals begin with an Itadakimasu prayer which means “I humbly receive”. Or maybe it stems from a desire not to spill. Whatever the reason, you don’t see people sipping and snacking while walking on the streets of Japan, and you’ll look out of place if you do. Even street grub, vending machine munchies and fast food fare deserve a few minutes’ sit-down or stand-still.
7. Don’t Douse Your Rice in Soy Sauce
Rice is a starchy staple in Japan, and little bowls of sticky white grains are served for breakfast, lunch and dinner there. Contrary to western tastes, however, Japanese don’t pour soy sauce directly onto their rice. You’ll be looked at aghast if you soak your bowl with salty sauce like a condiment topping (it would be akin to pouring sugar on your french fries or something equally odd). Rice is meant to balance out the flavors of other delectables on the table. If you must, you can dip a morsel of rice into a little side-dish of soy or other sauces in your spread to give it a flavor boost. But don’t douse the bowl directly or you’ll raise the eyebrows of your Japanese dining companions. Feel free to pour soy sauce directly on top of tofu, but not rice.
8. Don’t Misuse Chopsticks
Before you go to Japan, learn how to use chopsticks (o-hashi) . It’s really not that hard if you practice, and you will be amazed at how the locals will praise you for your skill as if it’s some great feat. Even if you’re already adept with these utensils, here are a few chopstick etiquette rules to keep in mind over there. Don’t wave them above your food, use them as drumsticks, mock sword-fight or point to people with them. Consider the pair a unit, so don’t poke your food with one solitary stick in hand. Never stand them upright in a bowl of rice or pass food to another person with them – that’s akin to funeral rituals and will be considered very ill-mannered. Don’t stab or spear morsels of food with them, and don’t use them to pull dishes towards you. Don’t lick or suck on the ends of them. Don’t cross them like an X or lay them across your bowl like a bridge. When you are finished eating, simply put your chopsticks down in front of you facing left. Got all that?
9. Don’t Be Afraid to Slurp and Burp
With all these Japanese guidelines for table manners, it can take foreign visitors by surprise to hear the locals devouring their meals in a way we might consider a bit gauche. They’ll sip, slurp, smack, suck, chew, chomp and even burp audibly throughout the meal as a polite sign that they are enjoying the feast. The louder the better, it seems. So go ahead, forget what your mom taught you and make a little gusto noise at a Japanese table. The cook will be flattered.
10. Don’t Pour Your Own Drink
Alcohol is a key part of socializing in Japan, and the custom is for colleagues and friends to keep each others’ glasses full and bottomless. This means there will be a constant stream of refills as everyone tries to top each other up. As a foreigner, you may be the beneficiary of this hospitable gesture more than most. So be careful, it can be challenging to keep tabs on how much you’re imbibing here! Don’t forget to reciprocate the gesture to others. The most polite and honorable way is to pour using two hands. Kampai!
11. Don’t Tip in Japan
Tipping is not a standard practice in Japan, and in fact will be perceived as an insult if you try to do so. Service workers like waiters, taxi drivers and hairstylists receive a reasonable wage and do not expect any bonus payment from their customers. Save yourself the awkwardness and forget the gratuities in Japan.
12. Stop Spreading the Germs
The Japanese are pretty considerate when it comes to being sick in public. Many take it upon themselves to wear protective surgical masks if they know they have a cold or flu. Its quite common to see this on the streets and in the subways. This might seem a bit extreme, but in such a densely populated country it’s best not to have germs coughed and sneezed upon the masses. By the way, another one of the things not to do in Japan is blowing your nose overtly in public. Either excuse yourself to dab your nose in private or be as discreet as possible, using a fresh tissue every time.
13. Don’t Point to Your Chest for “Me”
Body language can be as foreign as verbal language between different countries. There are lots of examples of this in Japan, but one you might come across while visiting is the gesture for “me” or “I”. While those of us from the west might point to our chests to reflect upon ourselves, in Japan the gesture is to point to one’s nose. It looks a little goofy, but now you know what they’re doing.
14. Avoid the Number Four
Four is a very superstitious number in Japan, sort of akin to unlucky 13. The number four is pronounced shi in Japanese, which has the same sound as their word for death. There’s actually an alternate pronunciation for this number, yon, so you can try to avoid these bad luck connotations. You’ll often find four is skipped on room, floor or seat numbers in Japan. Nine is another unlucky number in Japan they go out of their way to avoid, as kyu sounds like their word for torture or suffering. You definitely don’t want to walk around with a San Francisco 49ers t-shirt on in Japan.
15. Don’t Blab on your Cell Phone
Japan is one of the most densely populated countries in the world and has 90% penetration when it comes to mobile devices. You’d think they’d all be yammering on cell phones all day long. However, that’s not the case. While almost everyone has a smart phone, there are some socially agreed upon etiquette rules for talking on them in public. The Japanese put group needs ahead of the individual, so they never want their phone usage to be considered a nuisance to others. They find it rude to talk loudly on a phone on the streets, trains, buses or other public spaces in Japan. You are asked to switch your phone to “manner mode” in quiet places like hotel lobbies or restaurants. They respect other people’s zone of privacy and don’t want to intrude by taking voice calls in a communal sphere. Sure, they’re texting/gaming/reading screen zombies just like the rest of us, but they’ve at least curtailed the loud talking habit so everyone doesn’t have to listen along to their one-sided conversations.
16. Don’t Touch in Public
Unlike Europe or Latin America where hugs and cheek pecks are greetings among casual acquaintances, Japan is more reserved with their public displays of affection. You almost never see people holding hands, walking arm-in-arm or kissing on the streets. Even those who are madly in love will keep things demure in public. Don’t expect any physical contact when saying hello or goodbye to even close friends in Japan. You’ll just make them uncomfortable going in for a big bear hug or parting smooch at the train station. For colleagues or esteemed people up the social hierarchy, its always best to stick with a formal hands-off bow as a greeting.
17. Don’t Assume Yes means Yes
You’ll often hear the Japanese saying hi when you are talking to them. Although this translates to “yes”, it is more of a “uhuh, I hear you, I’m listening” kind of utterance than a true affirmative statement. Don’t necessarily assume they’ve agreed with what your are saying unless further specific details are forthcoming. On a similar note, the Japanese rarely use a precise “no” when negotiating something. It’s considered too direct and confrontational. They prefer to let you down with a more subtle “we’ll try our best”, “let’s consider that” or “that might be difficult”, which allows the rejectee to save face. This ambiguity often causes great confusion in east/west negotiations.
18. Don’t Litter in Japan
For such a crowded country, it’s astounding how little litter you see on the streets. It’s doubly confounding because you don’t see a lot of trash cans around, either. Just where does all this garbage go? Believe it or not, people often keep their wrappers and waste with them until they get home. Or they wait until they get to a designated trash repository, where they will be met with a myriad of recycling options depending on what exactly they are throwing away. Japan has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to recycling (77% recycling rate as compared to America’s 20%). Japan has never been a litterbug culture, and its ingrained at a young age not to throw things on the ground. Of all the things not to do in Japan, this is an impressive cultural convention we should all follow.
19. Don’t Do Drugs
Japan takes its drug laws very seriously. If you are caught with even a small amount of marijuana or other illegal drug, you will be met with a hefty penalty and maybe even jail time. There is a zero-tolerance policy there, and there’s no clemency if you’re a foreigner – just ask Paul McCartney and Paris Hilton. Avoid recreational drug usage when visiting Japan or prepare to face the consequences.