Japan will likely be one of the most mesmerizing countries you’ll visit—that’s why I keep going back! It is cluttered with one gorgeous spot after another and its cuisine is incredible and diverse, especially so if you travel around the different regions. But the pull of the country is also so much more than that, and once you’ve gotten a taste of the unique Japanese culture and traditions, you’ll know just why.
There are a lot of peculiarities to the country’s culture and to Japanese customs; I’ve laid out some interesting points below, but really you must visit Japan yourself to truly see and feel and understand how these Japanese lifestyle choices and customs make the country so interesting. If you’re planning a trip to Japan—or daydreaming about planning one in the future—these are handy etiquette tips and facts to know before you go.
1. Remove Your Shoes
In Japanese culture, it is seen as good and essential manners to remove your shoes upon entering a home, as well as some restaurants, to ensure the floors and tatami mats stay as clean as possible. This kind of cleanliness is sought after as in many households and restaurants people eat on a tatami mat with the table close to the floor, and it is also normal to sleep on a tatami mat as opposed to a bed. In addition, it is customary to wear specific types of slippers in different rooms, instead of moving in all the rooms simply in socks or barefoot.
You obviously won’t need to take your shoes off everywhere, but if there’s a mat next to the front door with some shoes next to it, that’s your cue. Slippers are sometimes provided in restrooms, hotels and private homes. Use them!
2. Bow When Greeting
There are all kinds of customs around bowing, but you shouldn’t worry about knowing all the particulars—the Japanese generally don’t expect foreigners to get it completely right. But as a baseline, tradition is that you should bow when greeting someone out of respect. That can vary from a slight nod of the head to completely bending down at the waist.
The longer and deeper the bow, the more respectful—but don’t feel obligated to overdo it every time! And—pro tip—bowing with your hands together in front of your chest isn’t the custom in Japan. You can read more here: Bowing in Japan.
3. No Tipping is Required
Tipping is always something to adjust to when you’re in a new country, because it seems that every one is different with different customs. In the Japanese culture, it’s easy: you don’t have to do any quick math or remember specific percentages because tipping is not customary. Not in the traditional restaurants, hotels or for cabs. You can leave some leftover coins, but tips aren’t expected.
Though tipping is not traditionally customary or expected, there may be exceptions to this rule when staying at large hotel chains or more americanized attractions or restaurants.
4. Omiyage: Bring the Gift of Food
The concept of ‘omiyage’ translates as a souvenir to bring back to your loved ones and work colleagues from any trips, long or short, international or domestic, that you go on. That’s why you’ll notice that at train stations and airports there are entire shops filled with a plethora of food products.
Though we’re all familiar with the idea of souvenirs, you must understand that in Japan it is seen more as an expected gift to give and get, rather than something you shop for if you happen to feel like it. In addition, another one of their particularities is that omiyage gift boxes contain edible souvenirs, though the type of snacks included of course depends on where you have visited; different regions in Japan sell different kinds of snacks, for example. Stay away from tchotchkes like magnets and shot glasses. Instead, food items like matcha flavored snacks or mochi are more the tradition.
If you’re not sure which gifts to buy these 11 top Japanese food omiyage might give you some ideas.
5. It’s Ok to Slurp Your Noodles
Although noisy eating in general is seen as something to frown upon in Japan, interestingly enough it’s simultaneously regarded almost preferable that you slurp your noodles. Originally this Japanese custom started to better taste the flavor of soba, the traditional Japanese noodles. However, the other big reason is that, by slurping your noodles right as they’re served, while still steaming hot, you’ll ensure you won’t burn your tongue – and therefore also don’t have to wait around for your dish to cool down before, well, slurping it down. Of course, burping and loudly crunching are still off limits!
6. Don’t Slam the Taxi Doors
Of Japanese customs, this one may especially get you going “wait what” at first sound. But it’ll make sense to you as soon as you hear that the Japanese taxis’ back doors opening automatically, meaning you won’t even have to touch the door handles. In fact, it’s a rule of the taxi drivers’ that you don’t touch them.
It’s definitely something that takes a little getting used to, but you don’t want to shut the door when you get out of the car and accidentally slam it. I did it once and ended up scaring the bejesus out of our driver in Shinjuku!
7. Know The Importance of Business Cards
Called ‘meishi’ in Japan, also translating as ‘business card’, exchanging business cards is an important part of Japanese culture and tradition, and especially of its business world; you must know it in detail if you hope to conduct business with the Japanese. It is the responsibility – or privilege – of the people in the higher-ranking positions to take charge in exchanging business cards, moving in order of everyone’s rank in the room.
Be prepared before attending the meeting:
- Have enough business cards ready
- Know how to bow and how to introduce yourself
- Hand the card over with two hands
- Memorize their names
- Absolutely do not write on the card or put them in your pocket or wallet.
8. Wearing a Kimono Properly is Important
Kimono is an integral part of Japanese traditions, and therefore it’s important to know how to wear a kimono properly if intending to wear one at all. It might might seem like an article of clothing that you can’t really get wrong: you just put it on, wrap one side in front of the other, and tie, right? Well, sort of.
There are different kimonos for different occasions, depending on their level of formality. Plus, specific ways they need to be worn. Here is a guide for how to put on a kimono properly if you’ve got an opportunity to wear a kimono ahead of you. For a basic tip: for both women and men, kimonos fold left over right—exactly the opposite of women’s clothing in the US. With some kimonos, you can tell pretty quickly if you’ve put the wrong side on top because it will interrupt the pattern. Regardless, remember: left over right!
Besides how to wear the kimono itself, you need to know that you must wear specific type of white socks with it, that there are some types of kimonos that can only be worn by single women, and that you’ll want to skip the decorative knots unless you’re a young woman in a festive occasion.
9. Know How to Use Chopsticks
In the worst case scenario, you may be able to switch up to a fork, but chopsticks are the key to eating Japanese cuisine. From sushi to noodles, all dishes are eaten using chopsticks as a tool, and you’ll find yourself in trouble trying to find a Japanese person who wouldn’t know how to hold them perfectly. This step-by-step guide to eating with chopsticks will help you out, but practice makes perfect!
Once you’ve gotten the form down, there are a few customs to keep in mind:
- It’s considered inappropriate to stab or cut food with your chopsticks, or to stick them upright in your food. Putting your chopsticks upright in rice, for example, is associated with funeral traditions.
- If you need to break up a large piece of food, like tempura, you can always just lift it with the chopsticks and take a bite off. That might feel silly, but it’s actually more appropriate than stabbing or breaking it up with your chopsticks.
- When you’re done eating, you can place your chopsticks in front of you, with the tips facing to the left.
10. Use Proper Etiquette When Visiting Onsen
In Japan, hot springs also have a specific etiquette you’ll want to adhere to when visiting – just like in hot springs anywhere in the world. To start off with, you ought to be totally naked when dipping into one; it may make you hesitate at first, but try not to worry about it too much as it’s totally normal and everyone around you will be just as butt naked as you. You’ll of course want to wash yourself first, there’s typically a showering area. These showers are usually equipped with small stools, movable shower-heads, soap, and shampoo, so that you can sit down and wash up before getting into the bath.
Also note that you should leave drinking to another place in town; not to mention that it’s incredibly rude to stare at others who are around you!
If you’re nervous about your first visit (like I was!) the guides will definitely help:
11. Follow the Subway Rules
Because of the large amount of people using the subway and trains every day, some official (and some silent) rules have been put into place, thanks to which the subways and trains in Japan always seem to go about in beautifully orderly fashion. The biggest ones you’ll want to know about is that you shouldn’t take too much space (like leaving your luggage on the seat next to you), you should keep quiet (that means your phone as well!), leave the priority seats empty, and get in and out of the train in neat order. But then, all of these should be common sense anyway!
12. Eating Horse Meat is Common
Although horses aren’t native to Japan, since their introduction, they’ve been popular to use in dishes. There have been periods throughout the history where horse meat has disappeared off the menu, but in the modern days it’s nearly as common to eat horse meat as it is beef, pork and chicken.
13. Dressing Up in Anime is POPULAR
Not only did the Japanese come up with anime, a brilliant form of animation, but they also popularized cosplay. It’s popular and totally normal to go around the city dressed up as your favorite anime character now, especially in a big city like Tokyo. If you want to spot some amazing cosplay and Lolita outfits, on any regular day, or better yet want to dress up yourself, head over to Tokyo’s Harajuku.
If you are heading to Tokyo, don’t miss reading the Best Tokyo Bucket List: 50+ Top Things To Do, Places to Visit and Attractions in Japan’s Coolest City.
14. Conservatively Dressing is the Norm
While cosplay outfits are common, at the same time it’s the norm for the dress code to be conservative and one that easily blends in. Business attire is typically black or navy, paired with a neutrally colored shirt and a tie that’s simplistic in style and color. For women, it’s not common to show bare shoulders, and cleavage is quite the no-no, although short skirts are totally fine to wear (for informal events and occasions, at least!). Of course, in big cities like Tokyo, and especially neighborhoods like Harajuku, you may see all sorts of risqué outfits these days, but especially in the smaller towns and rural places the dress code is conservative, whether an everyday casual outing or a formal party.
15. Being Punctual is Serious Business
Punctuality is another important part of Japanese culture. When it comes to your workplace, you’re expected to arrive some 10 minutes before the start of your shift, and it will actually be a huge deal if you arrive even a minute late. This doesn’t just include arriving to work or for meetings or gatherings with friends, but even the subway in Japan is so punctual you wouldn’t need a clock to tell the time!
16. Hospitality is Key Part of the Culture
Defined by the word ‘omotenashi’, in many ways the Japanese hospitality as it is today was brought on by the way tea ceremonies were hosted. Hospitality is a key part of the Japanese culture, as it is seen important to offer a service that comes from the bottom of your heart – and it shows. It goes past any regular level of hospitality, and it is seen as an unspoken two-way street, in that in exchange of the truly exceptional level of hospitality, the customer will also eagerly offer their own respect and service of a customer.
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Now that you’ve gotten a bite of the Japanese culture, traditions and customs are you already booking your tickets to visit for yourself? Some of the items on the above list may sound a little too offbeat, but even if you’re not eager to employ them in your own daily lifestyle, they might be interesting to take a look into. And simply for omotenashi alone, you know you’ll be taking yourself on an incredible trip the day you choose to make you way to Japan. Japanese culture may feel eccentric, and even rigorous, to us who didn’t grow up there, but there’s so much beauty and intrigue in its uniqueness and clear cultural norms.