Japanese customs and manners you should know

As each country and region has its own culture, customs and etiquette, Japan also has its own customs that you should be aware of. In Japan, there is a strong culture of “give and take”, like when people queue diligently to be served and give way to each other on the street. In addition, as Japanese people love to keep things clean and tidy, they don’t take kindly to littering or making a mess on dining tables. To ensure you have a pleasant trip in Japan, please take a minute to learn about the various Japanese customs prior to your visit.

■ Useful Japanese words/phrases to remember

1. SUMIMASEN (Excuse me)

“SUMIMASEN” is a word that you can use for a variety of occasions. These include when you want to ask someone for directions or a question, when you want someone to give way or you bumped into someone by accident, or when you want the attention of staff at a restaurant. It also has the meaning of “I’m sorry”, and the nuances of “Thank you”. If you need to speak to a Japanese person, “SUMIMASEN” is a good conversation starter.

2. ARIGATO (Thank you)

“ARIGATO” is the word to use when you want to express gratitude, equivalent to “Thank you”, “謝謝”, and “merci beaucoup”.

3. ●● E, IKITAIDESU (I want to go to ●●)

This is a simple sentence to use if you want to tell someone where you want to go. When you need to ask for directions for the place you want to go, many people would help you out if you tell them “●● E IKITAIDESU”.

■ Common etiquette that you should follow in public places

1. Do not litter

It is unthinkable in Japan to throw away garbage and leftover food on the roadside. Please make sure you dispose of it in the garbage bin, or if there are no bins nearby, take it back to your hotel and throw it away. Please also note that garbage bins are often divided into “plastic bottles”, “burnable waste (paper, etc.)” and “non-burnable waste (plastic, etc.)”.

2. Do not smoke on the street

In Japan, where there has been a deliberate move to eliminate/limit smoking, you are not allowed to smoke on the street or as you walk along the street. Depending on where you are, you may be fined if you break the rule. If you need to smoke, make sure you do it in the designated public smoking area. There are often smoking rooms in large commercial facilities.

3. Queueing

Queueing is a big part of Japanese culture. If you’re trying to get in to a popular restaurant, or waiting to pay at the registers, or waiting for your turn in the public toilet, or waiting for a train, bus or a taxi, please make sure you check where the back of the queue is and line up accordingly. Pushing in is breach of manners in Japanese culture and is one of the acts that will anger Japanese people the most.

4. “Priority seats” on public trains and buses are not for young and healthy people

“Priority Seats” are reserved for the elderly, injured, disabled, parents with baby, or pregnant mothers. Young and healthy people should sit in the regular seats.

5. Don’t be too noisy in public trains and buses

When you’re riding the train or bus in Japan, if you speak loudly to each other or have a conversation on your phone it will be frowned upon by other passengers. If you need to make a phone call, make sure you step off at the nearest station to make the call. Try to keep your voices down when you’re having a conversation with your friends. It is also desirable to set your cell phone to silent mode or vibration mode.

6. Don’t take anyone’s picture without consent

When traveling, there will be ample opportunities to take pictures and you may want to post your photo on social media immediately. However, you shouldn’t post the photo if it clearly shows the faces of people you don’t know! Also, it is rude to take a picture of people you don’t know without their consent. Be especially careful when you’re taking photos in the city.

7. Please keep the toilets clean

In Japan, where people consider public toilets are for everyone, it is an iron rule to keep them as clean as possible. If it gets dirty when you’re using the toilet, make sure you wipe it and flush before you leave, and when using items such as toilet paper, please only use what you need.

8. Don’t bring food/drink from other stores into a restaurant

Most Japanese restaurants do not allow food/drinks from outside to be brought in to their premises. You are not allowed to drink/eat items not purchased at the restaurant. If you’re just carrying something that you purchased as a souvenir to take back to the hotel/home, it is fine as long as you don’t open it.

9. Try not to obstruct other people

As the walkways of Japan’s urban areas can be particularly narrow, walking in groups may hinder people coming from behind. When walking with your friends along a narrow road, try to walk in a line and don’t spread out, and make sure you give way to other people.

10. Stand on one side of escalators

When riding on escalators in stations and commercial facilities, you should line up on one side of the escalator when standing still. It is Japanese custom to leave one side for people who want to walk up the escalator.

■ Etiquette for eating and everyday life

1. Shoes are strictly prohibited in the house

Shoes are not allowed in not only normal Japanese homes, but in temples and shrines, Japanese-style ryokan accommodation, Japanese-style rooms with tatami mats, and bars and restaurant with zashiki areas where you need to take off your shoes. We recommend that you wear socks and stockings if possible.

In addition, temples and shrines are sacred places, so please refrain from speaking loudly or taking pictures without permission.

2. Etiquette when using chopsticks

There are a lot of etiquettes when using chopsticks, but here are the bare minimum you should know before your trip.

・ Don’t pass food from your chopsticks to someone else’s chopstick (Watashi-bashi)

・ Don’t use your chopsticks to move dishes and bowls around (Yose-bashi)

・ Don’t lick the food off from your chopsticks (Neburi-bashi)

・ Don’t point at people with your chopsticks (Sashi-bashi)

・ Don’t stick your chopsticks in your food or rice (It’s bad luck as it is done at funerals)

3. You can make slurping noises while eating soba or ramen noodles!

It is part of Japanese culture to make slurping noises when eating soba noodles and ramen.

There is no need for you to make a noise, but it is not bad manners if you do make some noise when slurping the noodles.

■ Etiquette at hot springs and public baths

1. One basket per person in changing rooms

When you’re in the changing rooms, you’re generally allowed to use one basket per person. It is frowned upon if you try to use multiple baskets for your group.

2. Please pour hot water on your body before entering the bathtub

When you’re at a hot spring or public bath, basic manner is to pour hot water all over your entire body using a small hand bucket (always placed next to hot spring or public bathtub) prior to entering the bathtub. You can also use the shower instead.

3. Hide your body with a towel

It is Japanese practice to hide your body with a towel when walking around in the public bath.

4. Don’t swim or play in the bathtub

A bathtub is a place where people come to relax, so you shouldn’t swim or thrash around with your legs.

5. Dry off when you leave the bath

When you’ve finished bathing, make sure you dry off thoroughly with a towel before you go back into the changing room. Leaving the floor of the changing room wet is considered bad manners.