Social Customs

The Japanese are forgiving towards their foreign guests. However, there are a few essentials to abide by and other manners that will be quietly appreciated by your hosts. Some manners may seem a bit oppressive when read here but in practice are much less onerous.

Essential Customs

Never enter a house or ryokan, Japanese inn, with your shoes on. Within the entrance there is usually a step up into the building proper. Slippers, which are to wear inside, lined up awaiting use are another common indicator that you are at the appropriate place to remove your shoes. Ideally, you should slip out of your shoes, stepping straight up into the interior and not walk around in stockinged or bare feet in the entrance way.

Do not wear slippers into tatami, straw mat, rooms. Slip them off and leave them at the entrance to the room. Always walk on the tatami in stockinged or bare feet. Slippers are also slipped out of when entering a toilet. Inside you will find another pair of slippers for exclusive use there. Always remember to leave them in the toilet after use and not walk around the building in them. This is a faux pas that creates great laughter and causes your host to quickly scurry off with the offending articles. The slipper shuffle does not apply to public toilets, where you keep your shoes on.

The Japanese wash before soaking themselves in the bath. By the side of each bathtub is a shower unit. Completely rinse of any soap and shampoo before getting into the bath. The bath is shared in turn by everyone so do not empty it after you have bathed. Also, replace the wood or plastic cover, if there is one, to the bath. The Japanese like bathing in fairly hot water (40 ~ 48 degrees centigrade, 104 ~ 118 degrees Fahrenheit). If you find it too hot you may add some cold water, but not so much that it becomes tepid. Others in the bath queue will not appreciate it. The bathing etiquette remains the same for onsen hot spring baths, although there will be no cover and you will not be able to control the bath water temperature.

In hotels with en suite facilities you may bathe in the same manner as you would in the west.

Dining Customs

Do not stick your chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice and leave them there. Do not pass food to someone else with your chopsticks. These are both taboo because they are associated with Buddhist funerals.

Do not play with, point with, or spear your food with chopsticks. You may, though, very occasionally see Japanese surreptitiously spear a particularly slippery morsel.

Do not leave your food, especially rice. You can usually control the amount of rice you receive and can always have more. If you have ever grown rice the Japanese way, which is time-consuming and laborious, you will appreciate why they tend not to leave even one grain. Never pour soy sauce over rice. Japanese rice is considered good tasting -and it usually is - and does not need to be ‘spiced up’. When eating sushi or sashimi, and the like you will be provided with a separate small dish for soy sauce. Pour in only as much as you will use. You can always add more to your dish should you run out.

When sharing a meal, or just drinking, you should fill or refill the glasses of your companions. They will return the compliment. If you have an empty glass and nobody has noticed, serve someone else. The Japanese will respond in kind. You may be thought a bit of a lush if you pour your own alcoholic drink. If you do not want a refill, leave your glass full.

The Japanese often like to start a meal with a toast and, just beforehand, you will be plied with an alcoholic drink. Even if you do not drink, accept it and at the toast make a gesture of drinking it. A clear refusal of anything, especially at a time of enjoyment, is a
bit jarring to Japanese sensibilities. However, going through the motions is perfectly acceptable.

It is polite to say Itadakimasu once before eating or drinking, and Gochiso sama deshita to your host or the restaurant’s staff after finishing your meal.

Other Customs

Do not sit on tables or in the tokonoma, an alcove traditionally displaying a scroll with a seasonal theme, flowers, and/or a ceramic objet d’art.

In a ryokan your futon will be laid out for you but if you lay out your own have it such that your head is pointing in any direction except north. Only the deceased are laid out at funerals with their head to the north.

Refrain from blowing your nose in front of other people and only use paper tissues for the purpose. If you cannot help having a blow or need to sneeze turn
your back on your Japanese counterpart. When face to face a dainty dab or wipe is not considered rude.

Japanese tend not to eat while walking along or standing around on the street. Eating and drinking on local trains, but not long distance express trains, is also frowned upon.

When riding on trains and buses turn your mobile/ cell phone to silent mode and do not use it for conversation. Text messaging, though, is not considered a problem and you will see many Japanese furiously tapping away.

When visiting a Japanese family take a small gift. A food item is ideal.

Do not point your finger, feet, or chopsticks at people. If you have to indicate a person, object or direction, wave your fingers with the palm downwards in the general direction.

Umbrella stands are often found outside shops and restaurants. Use these on rainy days before entering. Some establishments provide plastic covers for umbrellas. Slip this over the wet article and walk in with it in hand.

If you are given a business or name card accept it with both hands. First look at it before carefully putting it away. If you are sitting at a table, place the card on the table in front of you. Do not fold it, play with it, or write on it especially in front of the giver. At an appropriate moment, either at the end of the meeting or after a reasonable period of time has elapsed, put it away into your wallet or card holder.

If you are visiting someone, especially for business, do not sit down of your own accord. Allow your Japanese host to indicate the seat for you to use. This would, in normal circumstances, be considered the best in the room.