The important Japanese customs which visitors to Japan are often struck by on arrival are at the centre of Japanese culture. In Japan, traditional customs are taken very seriously and it is important to understand them. Although foreign visitors are mostly forgiven for not following the same etiquette rules, if you wish to really understand Japanese living then here are the five most commonly used customs today.
Taking off your shoes
If taking part in a class, tea ceremony or dinner at someone’s home, guests are always expected to take off their shoes upon entering. This rule also applies to many ryokans (Japanese guesthouses), traditional hotels, restaurants and onsens. In this case there will usually be a shoe rack and in many hotels and onsens guests can swap their outdoor shoes for indoor slippers.
If there is a tatami mat on the floor, then guests cannot wear any shoes, even slippers. In bathrooms, you will often find more slippers which are to be worn whilst you are in the bathroom only. As the Japanese take their hygiene very seriously, it is not acceptable to wear bathroom slippers in any other area of the house.
Drinking at a bar
When drinking at a bar in Japan it is important to be aware of the typical drinking etiquette. It is seen as bad luck to pour your own drink so you may find that another customer will join you in order to pour the drink for you. This can be a very nice way to start a conversation with the locals and if you are with a group, just make sure to pour each other’s drink.
When at a bar it is rude to drink before saying cheers. The Japanese word for cheers is ‘kampai’.
Tipping in Japan
Though Western countries welcome and encourage tipping, in Japan tipping is not usually accepted and is sometimes viewed as an insult. When dining in a local restaurant it is best not to leave a tip because sometimes waiters will run after you to return the money. In international hotels and restaurants, you may find that a service charge has been added but the general rule for local restaurants, hotels and taxis is do not tip. If you meet someone who goes out of their way to help you (e.g. a host at a guesthouse) then it is acceptable to offer a small gift instead.
Greetings in the street
When walking around Japan, it is not uncommon to see businessmen bowing their heads several times as they part their separate ways. This form of head bowing is the general way that locals greet one another. Children are taught to bow at school and it is a form of respect in Japan. It is also a sign of respect to address someone by using ‘san’ or ‘sama’ before their first name. Seeing a foreign visitor trying to gently bow their head upon meeting someone will be greatly appreciated.
When it comes to eating out there are a number of rules that visitors should try to follow. Eating along the street or on the train is frowned upon and visitors should try to avoid this as much as possible. It is acceptable to walk whilst eating ice cream.
Noodles are a popular delicacy in Japan and a delicious one too. In order to show your appreciation for the noodles and soups, it is considered polite to slurp the noodles.
Trying to eat with chopsticks is a fun part of Japanese dining but there are a few rules. When receiving a variety of sharing dishes, it is important to put the food onto your own plate before eating. Do not try to help someone pick up the same food as this is considered to be a bad sign. Chopsticks should always be placed on a holder and not the table.