Before you travel to Japan, it is a good idea you learn about Japanese social ways. You will be able to behave more appropriately in different situations and avoid embarrassing misunderstandings. Every destination has a different culture, customs and social etiquette, so it is good practice to learn about it before visiting that country. During my first visit to Japan, I observed many differences between Spanish and Japanese social ways. Here are the 10 most important points to address for any foreign traveler.
1. GREETINGS AND BOWS
The Japanese consider bowing a gesture of respect and appreciation. The degree of bending is dependent on the formality of the situation and the person being bowed to. A slight torso inclination will suffice for informal greetings and gratitude comments at hotel receptions, restaurants or gatherings with acquaintances of similar age. A 30º bow is appropriate for professional encounters and a 45º bow for apologies or deep appreciation. You should avoid long direct eye contact or any eye contact at all. It is considered aggressive and invasive.
When entering a shop, restaurant or hotel, you can nod your head slightly accompanying with a greeting. There are a few ways to greet, but “Konnichiwa” and “Ohayu Gozaimasu” are the ones I heard the most in my trip to Japan (even on hiking trails). When meeting someone new, do not use physical contact to greet unless they offer to shake your hand first. If a business card is given to you, hold it with two hands and take a few seconds to read its content.
2. DO NOT STAND OUT IN PUBLIC
Japanese people do not appreciate people standing out in public, especially with certain behaviours such as:
- Eating on the street or in public places. It is ok to eat cone ice-creams.
- Blowing your nose or sneezing loudly.
- Speaking loudly to others around you or on the phone.
- Talking on your mobile phone inside trains or restaurants. If needed, take the call outside or use texts instead.
- Smoking while walking or on the street.
3. JAPANESE DINING ETIQUETTE
In majority of restaurants, a wet towel will be given to you or placed on a table plate at the beginning of a meal. This is for cleaning your hands only and should not be used to wipe your face. Once you have finished using it, place it on the same plate or on your side.
The Japanese use chopsticks to eat most of their food, so do not expect any fork, spoon or knife. It is important to use chopsticks only to eat and not to play, point at or push the bowl closer to you. Ensure your chopsticks only touch that food you intend to eat completely. Leaving food on your plate is disrespectful. During your meal, you can rest your chopsticks on the chopstick stand if needed and they could only be placed across your plate pointing to the left when you finish eating.
Rice, noodles and soups are served in bowls and eaten directly from them by bringing them close to your mouth with the left hand. It is ok to slurp your noodles but not to make chewing noises. Also, you should not stir your food or change the arrangements of the dish while eating as it is disrespectful to the chef.
Sushi can be eaten with both chopsticks and hands and, preferably, in just one bite. In case you want to have wasabi with your sushi, it is better to add it directly onto the sushi piece instead of mixing it in the soy sauce.
Some restaurants do not use chairs but tatami and cushions. In these cases, remove your shoes before stepping on the tatami without stepping on the cushions. Men can sit with their legs crossed but women should only sit with their legs together to one side.
4. TO TIP OR NOT TO TIP
Tipping in restaurants, bars or cabs is not common in Japan. It could be perceived as an insult. The belief is that giving good service is the norm and one should not pay extra to get things done right. If you still decide to tip, be ready to take it back if the tip is rejected.
5. USE YOUR HANDS RIGHT
The meaning of hand gestures differs around the world. To avoid misunderstandings in Japan, note these down:
- Use your open hand to point at something or someone instead of your index finger.
- Place both hand palms together in front of your face (as a single clap) to offer gratitude or an apology.
- Counting 1 to 5 with your fingers is done reversely. Hence, when holding your thumb up and keeping the other 4 fingers bent down means 4 instead of 1. In other words, the number of fingers down (and NOT up) designates the desired number.
6. DO NOT LITTER, DO NOT CONTAMINATE
Even though there are no bins on the streets, Japanese keep their streets and public places immaculately clean. So please keep it that way too. Whatever waste you generate outdoors, keep it in your bag and dispose it in the trash when you see one.
Spitting on the street is strictly prohibited. Also, Japanese are extremely careful in not contaminating others with their germs when sick. The use of face masks in very common and blowing your nose in public should be avoided at all times. You will also see that majority of public toilets do not have dry towel dispensers or electronic dryers. This is why Japanese nationals carry their own hand towels everywhere. They even have an entire section on department stores for cute and designer towels.
7. KNOW HOW TO BATHE IN PUBLIC BATHS
Using public baths with hot tap water or large hot spring bathtubs are very common in Japan. People use them for relaxation and socializing with friends of the same gender. Hence, there are different baths for women and men. Before going in one of these baths, you should know the basic rules:
- Undress fully in the changing room and leave your clothes and belongings in a basket or locker. You can take a small towel inside with you. Bathing suits are not allowed.
- Before entering the bathtub, wash yourself with the washbowl and soap provided (or your own soap) while siting on a stool. Ensure to rinse off all the soap/shampoo before entering the bathtub. You can use your small towel to cover yourself until you reach the bathtub (not common).
- Fold and place the towel outside the tub and enter the hot bath to relax. It is not strange to bathe alone in silence.
- You can rinse yourself again after exiting the hot tub if desired. Just ensure to dry yourself well before proceeding into the changing rooms.
There are also private thermal baths and hot tubs in some traditional Japanese hotels (or Ryokans).
8. USE JAPANESE HIGH-TECH THE RIGHT WAY
We all know Japanese people love using their technology and this also applies to hotel rooms and bathrooms. You will see a main control panel on your bedside table to switch on and off the room lights, shutters, air conditioning and any other electronically controlled device. Majority of hotel commands will be in both Japanese and English but if you cannot figure it out, either use trial and error or ask someone at reception.
The high-tech toilets is another mystery and unfortunately, the commands are usually only in Japanese. So you better know which button to press if you want to avoid water splashing or music being played in a public toilet. That’s right, some toilets can play sounds also. Toilet configurations are different and this post on Surviving in Japan offers great detailed instructions. In some large department stores’ toilets, there are instructions in English on a sticker behind the door or by the toilet.
9. KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH YOUR SHOES
You can keep your shoes on in shops and majority of restaurants (unless there is a tatami) as well as western-style hotels. However, you will need to remove your outdoor shoes when entering a Japanese-style hotel or someone’s house. Most likely, there will be indoor slippers available for you to use inside the premises. Be aware there might also be a pair of slippers in the bathroom, in which case you should only use them there and never take away to other house rooms.
10. PAY WITH CASH PLEASE
Majority of hotels, large shops and restaurants accept cards but smaller or more traditional business operate in cash. This is the preferred method of payment everywhere in Japan, so ensure to have cash with you at all times. If you are going to take the bus or subway without a day-pass, it is important to carry small change to pay exact bus fare.
Have you been to Japan and observed any of these Japanese social ways? If you know any other relevant Japanese behaviours worth knowing about, please share on the comments below!
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