The secrets of etiquette: how to behave in Japan
Updated: Dec 11, 2022
Etiquette must be respected even in friendship. Japanese proverb
We will not deal here with the rules of politeness in the Japanese language, which are very numerous and complex. The politeness formulas quoted in this article will be roughly translated to make them understandable for everyone.
Foreigners don't understand why the Japanese allow themselves to knock loudly at the table, don't open the door for women and don't let them get ahead.
Travelling allows us to learn more about a culture. Of course, when we arrive in the country, it is always good, practical and even respectful to know and adopt etiquette and good manners.
From this article, you will learn a lot about Japanese etiquette: how to greet someone, how to handle chopsticks, how to behave in public transport, and more…
Japanese etiquette is a complex "science".
Its origins lie in Confucianism, Shintoism and a strict hierarchical system of Japanese society.
Japanese people are almost always polite and calm. They understand that it is difficult for a foreigner to adapt to their culture, and refer to mistakes in tourist behaviour with good irony. That is why knowledge of Japanese traditions by a foreigner gives them real respect.
The basic rules are politeness, modesty, cleanliness, punctuality and more general respect for others.
When meeting someone, one should avoid physical contact, no kissing or shaking hands, but bow slightly. A slight and quick bow of the head is sufficient.
When meeting someone for the first time, it is customary to use the greeting "hajimemashite" (pleased to meet you) as an introduction, and then when the introductions are over saying "yoroshiku onegaishimasu" (it's a pleasure to meet you).
To apologize, the word "sumimasen" (sorry) is used, accompanied by a brief bow of the head. If you feel guilty, you should say "gomen nasai" (sorry). Between friends, a simple "gomen" or "warui" is often used.
One should avoid putting oneself forward, giving too much importance to one's actions and politely refusing compliments.
Pay particular attention to the wrapping of gifts, both when you give and receive something (do not tear the wrapping or apologize if you can't do otherwise). In Japan, the container is as important as the content, or almost.
You use both hands to give or receive something, especially a gift or a business card.
Gifts are often open outside the presence of the giver unless it is food that is to be shared. If you are not sure, ask if you can open a gift now.
Do not refuse directly. The Japanese "no" (iie) is only used on very specific occasions. It is more commonly used as "daijoubu desu" which means that nothing else is needed.
Bowing is an important part of Japanese culture. Most often it is expressed with a bow (more on that later), but words are also used:
Ohayo gozaimasu - good morning.
Konnichiwa - good afternoon.
Konbanwa - good evening.
Hisasiburi desune - long time no see.
Also used are informal options such as "Ossu", "Yahho!".
In Japan they say:
Sayonara - goodbye.
Matane - for now, see you soon
Oyasumi nasai or just oyasumi - good night.
Thank you in Japan:
Domo - thanks.
Domo arigato - thank you very much.
Domo arigato gozaimas - thank you very much.
To ask for help, you have to say "onegaishimasu" or "kudasai". But in Japan it is not accepted to ask (only in the most extreme cases). Therefore, giving up help is not rude, but, on the contrary, a sign of respect. Accepting support from someone is only possible when a person expresses willingness to help several times in a row.
Address to the interlocutor
Nihongo (Japanese language) keisyo is a noun suffix used in communication and added to a person's name, surname or profession. They indicate the degree of proximity to the interlocutors and the social links between them. Calling without a suffix is rude. It is only allowed in communication between schoolchildren, students and close friends, and also when an adult addresses a child.
Basic Nihongo but do it:
-san - is used to communicate people of equal social status, younger and older, as well as strangers, to show respect;
-kun - is used in informal communication between colleagues, friends and also for treatment from elder to younger (from boss to subordinate);
-chan - is used in close communication between people of the same social status and age, and also as an appeal to children;
-sama - is used for expressing an extreme degree of respect, usually formal letters (something like "lord");
-senpai - used to address from younger to older people ( from less experienced employee to more experienced);
-kohai - the reverse of "senpai";
-Sensei - used to refer to scientists, doctors, writers, teachers, politicians and other respected people in society.
Words are secondary to the Japanese. They express a lot (if not all) in sign language.
The main rule in communicating with the Japanese is not to violate personal space.
When talking with a stranger, observe the distance. No slapping on the shoulder and hugging, no intrusion into the personal comfort zone.
Greeting, gratitude, apology, respect - all these Japanese are expressed through bows. Bowing (ojigi) is an integral part of Japanese culture. Some bow, even on the phone (on the machine, unconsciously). The right bow is the sign of being good.
There are three kinds of obedience:
Eshaku is a barely noticeable short bow, a backward bend of only 15º. Widely used in everyday life, to greet friends, as well as unknown people with higher status or a "thank you".
Futsuurei - deeper bow (30º) and slightly longer. So welcome distinguished colleagues, business partners.
Sai-Keirei - the strongest (45º) and longest bow, expresses deep respect for man, used to welcome very important people.
The Japanese greet each other by bowing. People greet each other when they meet, students bow at the beginning and end of each class, shop assistants greet you when you enter a department store or lift, and there are even road signs with a character bowing to apologise for delays caused by construction. Mothers teach their children to wave by pressing lightly on the back of their necks, and some people even wave when they are on the phone.
The degree of bow indicates the status of the person you are greeting, a slight bow for a friend and a steeper bow for someone more important in the hierarchy. Some companies even run manners courses for fear that young recruits will not know how to use forms of politeness or bow properly.
As you are not Japanese, it is very possible that the Japanese will follow Western customs with you and shake your hand. Nevertheless, if you bow, it will bode well for your future relations and will show your knowledge of Japanese customs. If you are a man, put your hands along your body. If you are a woman, you can do the same or cross your hands in front of you. Bow from the waist down, not too much or too little.
Do not smoke on the street except in designated areas, it is forbidden by law. In Tokyo, the fine is 2,000 yen (about €16).
Do not throw anything in the street and sort your rubbish outside as you would at home.
Avoid kissing in public.
Do not eat in the street or on the train.
On an escalator, squeeze in on the left side to let people pass on the right side (in Osaka, it is the opposite).
Wait for the bus, train or underground in single file, don't jostle each other and let people out before going in. However, jostling is common in front of trains/subways during rush hour.
Avoid blowing your nose in public, especially in a tissue. In Japan, the tissue is only used to wipe your hands after washing them.
Do not talk on the phone on public transport.
A Rule of Japanese Pedestrian Etiquette: Obey the Traffic Lights
Crossing the street on a red light is very much frowned upon here, unlike in the Westerns. Even if there is hardly anyone around, it is better to wait for the little man to allow you to cross the street to appear! Be patient and polite in Japan!
You will probably come across many Japanese people wearing surgical masks. This is a sign of politeness and respect towards their counterparts. This way they avoid the spread of bacteria or COVID-19. If you catch a cold, think of others and arm yourself with a mask, as do the locals (they are available in many shops).
Not only do the Japanese queue, but they do it with great discipline, which can sometimes be difficult for Westerners to understand. Watch the people around you and the indicator lines on the bus, metro and train stop to see which way to go.
Japanese politeness for taking pictures: Avoid taking pictures when it is mentioned
Many places prohibit taking pictures. If you want to take a picture of a kiosk, for example, look around for a sign that says no cameras and politely ask if you can take a picture. If people are taking pictures and the shopkeeper doesn't say anything, the field is clear.
Shops and public buildings
Leave your umbrella at the entrance or use the special plastic bags often available.
Take care to remove your shoes in some places, especially in traditional restaurants where you sit on the floor.
Bring a gift (omiyage), often food, when you are invited to someone's home.
Take your shoes off at the entrance and do not leave them in the path.
If indoor shoes are available, use them.
Once your shoes are off, it is customary to say "ojama shimasu" (I'm bothering you a little) when you enter someone's home.
At the table
At the table, there are many rules to follow, especially regarding the use of chopsticks. In order to understand this, it is important to know that Japanese meals generally consist of several small dishes rather than one large main dish and that these are placed in the centre of the table so that everyone can help themselves.
Before starting to eat, one should say "itadakimasu". This expression does not mean "bon appétit" but rather "thank you for the food I am receiving".
After the meal, guests can show their appreciation by saying, “Gochisousama deshita”, which is uttered by guests to express great appreciation toward those who had to run, gather, harvest, and prepare the food being presented to them. You can also say it to the restaurant staff or a friend who treated you.
Before drinking, one often toasts by saying "kampai" (avoid "chin chin" which refers to the male sex).
If you notice that someone at the table has an empty glass, you can serve them and they will do the same for you. This is especially true for alcohol.
Hold your rice bowl in the palm of your left hand and bring it close to your mouth before taking the contents with your chopsticks (the opposite of left-handed people).
Tipping is not only not common in Japan, it is even considered rude! No one expects to be rewarded for doing a good job (which is part of their great sense of duty).
Among the many rules concerning the use of chopsticks, the following should be noted:
Do not use your chopsticks to help yourself to the main dishes if other chopsticks are provided.
Do not point at anything or anyone with your chopsticks.
Do not stick your chopsticks vertically into food, especially rice (this is the way to present rice at the altar of a deceased person).
Do not hang food by poking a chopstick into it either.
Do not pass food from one pair of chopsticks to another (after a cremation, the relatives of the deceased pass the remains of the bones in this way).
Do not lick your chopsticks.
Do not push or pull a dish together with your chopsticks.
Do not look for something in the dish while moving the other food.
Do not pick up something from the opposite side of the dish but what is in front of you.
Don't put your chopsticks on the edge of your plate or bowl, but on the chopstick rest or on the table.
Do not choose only the best pieces or hesitate when choosing a piece, which suggests that you are choosing the best.
Do not cross your chopsticks or clench them in your fist.
Do not hold your chopsticks in your hand while drinking.
There are other rules of the same type. The most important thing to avoid is sticking your chopsticks into your rice and exchanging something from chopsticks to chopsticks, which can really shock the people around you.
You take a shower and wash before entering the bath, which is a communal bath, with everyone in the house using the same water.
No soap or shampoo is used in the bath, the bath is used for relaxation and the water must remain clear for the following people.
The water should also be kept warm, no cold water should be poured in and the top of the bath should be closed after use.
Of course, the bathwater should not be emptied, as it will be used by the next person and sometimes as water for the washing machine at the end of the day or the next morning.
In the toilet
Special toilet sandals are often found in homes and restaurants. Use them.
Onsen / Sentou (hot springs and public baths)
Same rules as for the bathroom, shower before entering the water, no soap or shampoo in the bath.
Tattoos are often forbidden, especially if they are very visible.
No clothing, you enter the water totally naked, you can just take a small towel which can be used to hide your sex when you move.
Do not put your towel in the bathwater, put it next to the water or on your head.
If your hair can be touched to the bathwater, you have to tie up your hair.
Avoid bandages or dressings.
Bathing and changing rooms are generally separate for men and women. The men's changing rooms are usually marked with the blue kanji 男, for the women you will see the red kanji 女. The same goes for the toilets.
After a day's work or a hard day's work, one generally congratulates the person with an "otsukaresama" to congratulate him or her for his or her efforts.
If one leaves work before one's colleagues, one uses the expression "o saki ni" (I am leaving before you).
Do not use a telephone or an umbrella while riding (unless you have an umbrella holder on the handlebars).
Do not use your bell excessively.
In Japan, there are several important rules of conduct in public places, including transport:
You can't shout (don't shout loudly in a crowd, even if it's your friend).
You can't be rude and react to shocks (and pushed on the transport stage often (imagine Tokyo underground passenger traffic), but no breaking and scandals, just suffer).
You can't talk on a mobile phone in a station, at a stop, and even more so on the train - it disrupts the rest of the passengers and is considered a superior non-culture (everyone writes SMS).
You can't sit in a women's carriage if you are a man (in the evening of some branches of shuttle trains with carriages for passengers only, to protect them from harassment during the rush).
You cannot blow your nose in public.
The Japanese know a lot about business. To gain the trust and respect of Japanese partners, you need to know several basic rules of national business etiquette.
The Japanese are never late. Keeping Japanese people waiting is mean disrespect. It is better to arrive at a meeting earlier than later.
Hearing a direct refusal from a Japanese businessman is nonsense.
The Japanese do not say "no".
Even if the terms of the transaction are not completely acceptable to them. Instead, the Japanese will nod and give abstract evasive answers ("We will think about it", "This is difficult", etc.). The origin of this behaviour in "chinmoku" (Japanese art of silence) is to remain silent rather than hurt a person's feelings by refusing.
If the agreement is fully satisfied with the Japanese, you will hear a clear and unambiguous "Yes".
The exchange of business cards is an important ceremony in Japanese business communication. First of all, a business card is a kind of cheat sheet (Japanese is difficult to give European names, just like us Japanese). Secondly, on the business card, the position is indicated, so that the right course of action can be chosen. Thirdly, it is a sign of respect for a partner.
Visits are exchanged at the first meeting during the greeting. Hand them over and take them as a gift, with both hands. The business card should be accurate, printed on quality paper, the text is written (at least) in two languages - Japanese and English.
You go to a foreign country - fulfill its customs. Japanese proverb
Do not blow out a candle or incense stick, fan them with a stream of air from your hand. Birthday candles are still blown out.
At a wedding party, money is usually given. Avoid giving an even number of notes, as this can split the money in half and cause a break-up. Use a special envelope for this purpose.
Do not whistle in the evening, it attracts snakes according to an old superstition.
To wish someone well, use the expression "o daiji ni" (take care of yourself) before leaving.