10 eye-opening facts about Japanese cultural etiquette

Recently updated on July 27th, 2023 at 04:59 pm

From mouth-watering sushi and steaming hot ramen to Haruki Murakami novels and awesome anime – the world has fallen in love with Japanese culture. But touching down in Japan can be a culture shock for first-time tourists who have to get to grips with Japanese customs and traditions – and the do’s and don’ts that come with them. From taking your shoes off when entering one’s home, pouring other’s drinks first and never blowing your nose in public, these eye-opening facts about Japanese cultural etiquette will help you blend in with the locals in no time.

Go for the bow!

Japanese bow

Respect is a huge part of Japanese culture. And the bow encapsulates this perfectly. But it can take some getting used to for first time travellers whose instinct is to go for the handshake. It’s good Japanese culture etiquette to bow when meeting someone. To guide you: aim for a simple 15 degree bow. Bend at the waist, keep your back and neck straight, look down at the ground, and keep arms and hands by your side. The locals will be very impressed with your efforts!

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Slip your shoes off in homes

Japanese shoes etiquette

Cleanliness and politeness is deeply ingrained in Japanese culture. So remember to take your shoes off when entering someone’s home to prevent dirt spreading. Look for the row of neatly piled shoes in the genkan (entryway) and say ‘o-jama shimasu’ (‘sorry for disturbing!’) for good manners. You must also slip your shoes off at Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, traditional tea ceremonies, some traditional restaurants (where you’ll get cosy indoor slippers to put on instead).

Never pour your own drink

Japanese izakaya

Drinking in an izakaya (Japanese bar) is a special experience. A great way to bond with friends and colleagues. But before you can sip smooth sake or tasty sapporo beer, remember to always pour drinks for others, starting with the eldest at the table. When receiving a drink, it’s good Japanese cultural etiquette to cup your glass with both hands to show appreciation of goodwill. All drinkers should drink together, so resist taking huge gulps alone. Importantly, if you need to slow down, leave your glass full so it doesn’t get refilled (or you may wake up with a sore head the next morning). Wait to hear “kanpai!” (cheers!) before clinking your glasses and drinking together. Enjoy!

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Be careful with chopsticks

Japanese soba

Food is an art form in Japan. Cherished for centuries. And there are important etiquette rules attached it. Particularly with chopsticks… note these down:

  • • Don’t leave your chopsticks standing vertically in your food (this is a funeral ritual!)
  • • Don’t rest your chopsticks on your bowl or rub them together
  • • Don’t pass food from one chopstick to another
  • • Don’t stab food with a chopstick
  • • Don’t drench your sushi rice in soy sauce, dip the fish side in lightly

It’s respectful to say “itadakimasu” (before eating) and “gochisōsama desu” (after eating) so say “thank you!” for the food. Fun fact: slurping is not rude – it shows how delicious you find the food! Still with us? Get ready to taste the most mouth-wateringly delicious food of your life. And don’t worry, good Japanese cultural etiquette means you are not expected to tip in Japan.

Business cards are sacred

Japanese business cards

Home to the 3rd largest global economy and mega-companies like Toyota, Honda and Sony – Japan has become a hotspot in the business world. Thinking of working here? Our top tip is to treat business cards with absolute care. When giving (and receiving) a card, hold it at the corner so that names and logos are visible. Gently bow and hand over it over with your right hand. As a sign of respect when receiving one, inspect it closely, then place it in a cardholder. Never write on it or put it away in your pocket or wallet.

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Don’t eat and drink while walking

walking in Japan

How many times have you scoffed down something to eat on-the-go? In contrast, it’s considered disrespectful to eat and drink and smoke on the move in Japan. Instead, if after something quick, many use Japan’s vending machines jidōhanbaiki (自動販売機) and eat or drink at them. And look for designed smoking areas.

Take your rubbish home

First time visitors will be amazed how clean the streets of Japan are. With very little graffiti and hardly any bins on show, you’re expected to your rubbish home with you when you’re out. Never, ever litter. Put rubbish in a bag or your pocket.

Try a little Japanese language

tourists in Japan

About 98% of Japan’s population are native Japanese speakers. And just under 30% speak English. That’s why a little language can go a long way – and is greatly appreciated by the locals! These should get you started:

  • • Hello = konnichiwa (こんにちは)
  • • Excuse me?’ = ‘anō’  (あのー)
  • • Thank you = arigato (ありがとう)

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Gift giving is common practice

It is good Japanese cultural etiquette to bring someone a gift on anniversaries, weddings, graduations, births, and housewarmings. Plus first business meetings. Omiyage (souvenirs) are given to family, friends and co-workers when returning from a trip. Importantly, the act of giving and presentation of the gift is more important than the gift itself. Make sure to offer and receive a gift with both hands as a sign of respect.

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Show respect in small ways

If you remember one thing from this article – it’s that Japanese cultural etiquette is all about respect. Here are some unspoken expectations to remember on your visit to ‘The Land of the Rising Sun’. Ready?

  • • Do not blow your nose in public
  • • Do not skip queues
  • • Do not slam taxi doors (be gentle!)
  • • Give up a seat to an elder on public transport, and do not have loud conversations on the phone
  • • Wait to cross the street only when the light is green, even if it is clear
  • • Be punctual: Japanese locals are notoriously 10 minutes early for everything

Feeling excited for your soon-to-be Japanese adventure? Tell us what you’re most looking forward to in the comments below!

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