For me, Japan conjures up images of geishas wearing kimonos, cherry blossom lined streets, giggling schoolgirls… But something else springs to mind – the politest people on the planet. Etiquette is huge in Japan, with behaviour and body language seeming to be even more important than what you say. There seems to be a never-ending list of rules to follow, which can make a trip to the country an incredibly daunting one for fear of offending anyone.
I’m lucky enough to be travelling to Tokyo in April with some of my colleagues who are more at home in a rowdy pub than anywhere demanding courtesy. So, this post is a handy guide for them and, in fact, any visitor tat wants to play by the rules.
Visiting shrines or temples
Japan has some of the most beautiful temples in the world, demonstrating the importance it places on its Buddhist religion. To show your respect in a place of worship, you should:
- Wear conservative clothes – try to keep shoulders and knees covered
- Follow the lead of a local to work out how to pray or take part in rituals
- Look out for any signs that tell you not to take photos, otherwise feel free to snap away!
When buying souvenirs from a market or shop, manners don’t cost a thing (ha, see what I did there..) To be polite, try to:
- Remember not to hand cash directly to a shopkeeper when paying for things
- Place money in the small tray near the till
- Pick up your change (if you’re owed any!) from that same tray
- Have a go at Japanese – say “Arigato” to say thank you
This is where I had most trouble – I can’t use chopsticks for the life of me, so it was even more important for me to get the etiquette right. If you too struggle with chopsticks – here’s a really useful how-to video. Etiquette-wise, remember:
- Never leave chopsticks crossed. Instead, put them back in their rest or lay them on the table with tips to the left
- Avoid pointing with your chopsticks, or use them to skewer food – though I understand how tempting it can be if you can’t use them properly!
- Never pass any food from your chopsticks to someone else’s, or stick your chopsticks into bowls of food. These are funeral rituals and can be deeply offensive
- It’s okay to suck noodles into your mouth, but try not to eat with your mouth open
- It’s rude to burp at the table or blow your nose – bodily functions aren’t great around food
- If you’re eating in someone’s house, clear your plate completely – unless you want to be served more!
- In restaurants, don’t leave a tip – waiters and waitresses might think you’re insulting their salary and run after you to give it back
Etiquette around footwear is probably the most well known, but it’s super important to get right because shoes are considered unclean. You should:
- Always take off your shoes before going inside a house and some other buildings. There will be a place for you to take them off and swap to a pair of slippers. If in doubt, look for other peoples’ shoes and follow their lead
- Invest in some new socks if you need to – holes and bare feet aren’t considered very attractive!
- Don’t mix up your indoor slippers with your toilet slippers. They’re separate for a reason…
Thankfully, toilets and bathrooms are private places so you could get away with quite a lot in them! However… there are still a few things to be aware of as Japanese toilets are notoriously different to back home:
- The famous electronic toilets will have buttons with little pictures that demonstrate their function – so take note!
- Stand well back just in case you get a jet stream of toilet water in your face (I’ll admit it – this did actually happen to me once!) It’s meant to clean your behind, not your front…
- Some toilets (especially public ones) even play music or running water sounds when they detect a visitor, to mask any sound you might make. It’s bizzare.
My father in law told me a hilarious story about arriving in Japan. He accidentally bowed too low to the receptionist at a hotel, which made the receptionist bow again. Confused, he bowed again which made the receptionist do it too! They were there for a good few minutes bowing at each other before they called it quits. Avoid that awkward situation by remembering:
- The ‘size’ of the bow reflects seniority or social ranking
- A small bow is informal – you’d do this for friends
- A large bow is very formal, so would only really be used to show deep gratitude or apology
- If in doubt, go with a medium sized one!
I know this may sound like a lot to remember – but in reality, you will be forgiven for muddling up a greeting or pressing the wrong button on the toilet (though I hope they wouldn’t know if you did that last one!)
Have you been to Japan? Do you have any other etiquette tips to share, or any stories where you got it completely wrong?