Basic Etiquette Tips for Japan

By Asuka Naito
May 22, 2016
Lifestyle

When traveling or moving to a completely new country, it is expected that you might commit a social faux pas or two. But with some experience and being reminded that "this simply isn’t done here” by the locals, you eventually learn what the acceptable behavior is.

etiquette

In Japan, as with anywhere else, there are social rules of conduct that would benefit you to follow. The only thing is, the Japanese tend to be a little shy when confronting people about their behavior. In other words, you may never know that you are offending people, as it is possible that no one will tell you. So, here are the top five etiquette mistakes to avoid when in Japan.

1. Eating or drinking on trains

Generally speaking, people don’t eat while walking on the street or in crowded commuter trains. It’s not necessarily rude, but it does look a little shabby and might annoy other people. However, on the shinkansen (bullet trains) and on planes where food is served, it’s fine to consume your own food and drinks.

2. Speaking in a loud voice on trains

Another thing that annoys people is speaking in a loud voice on trains and other public transportation. Using your phone on a train is a definite no-no. It’s common for people to get off at the next stop to take a call rather than face the collective ire of their fellow commuters. Japanese people tend to be less vocal and expressive when in public compared with some of their western counterparts, so please keep it down. Yes, I’m talking to you, you loud foreigner.

3. Public displays of affection

Although this is changing with the younger generation, the Japanese tend to be a little conservative when it comes to physical contact or displaying affection in public. Friends don’t usually kiss or hug when meeting, and shaking hands is not so common. Things tend to loosen up after drinking and singing karaoke with your friends and colleagues. However, at first, being low key is the thing when meeting new people.

4. Incorrect chopstick etiquette

Here are some chopstick etiquette dos and don’ts.

  • Do place your chopstick on the chopstick rest when you are not eating.
  • Do use your chopsticks as much as possible and avoid using your fingers.
  • Don’t fiddle or play with your chopsticks.
  • Don’t pass food from chopstick to chopstick (this gesture is reminiscent of a traditional Buddhist funeral, when the bones of the deceased are passed between ceremonial chopsticks of the family members).
  • Don’t stick your chopsticks vertically in your rice (again, this reminds people of burning incense for the deceased).

5. Not separating your trash properly

If there is one thing that raises the blood pressure of your poor suffering neighbors the most, it is (gasp!) not separating your trash correctly. In Japan, there are very specific and strict rules about this. Failure to comply might result in passive aggressive notes left on your front door, or your trash being returned to your doorstep. Plastics, burnable and non-burnable trash have to be properly sorted, inserted into the right garbage cans, and thrown out on the right day. Your apartment building will usually distribute information on how to sort and throw out your trash. It is advisable to read and remember this to avoid problems with your neighbors.

This is, of course, not an exhaustive etiquette list for Japan. There are plenty of other etiquette points, such as being punctual, never making excuses, and not pouring your own beer at a party. However, as with anywhere you travel, a little awareness, common sense and decency toward your fellow human beings are key.

If you do happen to put your foot in your mouth, then check out our next article, which will teach you how to apologize in Japanese (perhaps the single most important social skill in Japan). Good luck!

For more useful Japanese learning materials, including PDF cheat sheets and podcasts, please visit Learn Japanese Pod