On my travels throughout Japan, I have found Japanese people to be extremely welcoming and helpful to visitors to their country. They are highly appreciative of people who show interest in their culture and language.
Unfortunately, even with the best of intentions, the traveler to Japan can unwittingly, raise a few disapproving eyebrows by committing a social faux pas. The problem is, because the Japanese tend to be modest and polite, they might not tell you directly that you have caused offense.
So here’s a top 10 list of etiquette mistakes to avoid when coming to Japan.
1) Eating on commuter trains
There are a set of posters on the Tokyo Metro that display in graphic comic detail how you shouldn’t conduct yourself on the train. A lot of these are common sense but perhaps one thing visitors to Japan might not be aware of is eating on commuter trains. Don’t do it. It’s considered a little shabby and not very good manners. This is especially true in a crowded carriage at rush hour.
Also, eating while walking on the street isn’t generally done. Drinking from a can or bottle on the street is usually OK but you don’t see it so much on trains. One exception to this rule is eating and drinking on the Shinkansen. Bentos and snacks are provided which are of course OK to eat.
2) Speaking in a loud voice on a mobile phone on trains and buses
This is of course rude in most countries. However, the Japanese are generally very good about not speaking in a loud irritating voice on mobile phones on trains and buses. From an early age, Japanese people are taught not to disturb or annoy people around them.
迷惑 meiwaku – or causing a nuisance is a social faux pas you don’t want to commit. You will sometimes see the odd salaryman taking an important call but will usually adopt the “hand-cupped-over-the-phone-I-know-I’m-bad” cowering posture. Commuters are often reminded to switch their phones to “manner mode” or vibrate. So, turn off your phone you noisy gaijin, yeah, I’m talking to you!
3) Not being on time
There is a phrase in Japanese “申し訳ございません” - “moushi wake gozaimasen” which literally means “I have no excuse”. This is perhaps the most commonly used phrase for being late in formal situations and a clue to how important punctuality is in Japan. This is usually true for private engagements and especially so for business appointments.
If you do turn up late, get ready for some profuse apologizing and a night in the dog house followed by some more grovelling and a large helping of shame. I exaggerate for purposes of comedy but it’s generally true that being late is entirely your fault and excuses are simply excuses. Oh and by the way, you’re fired.
I suppose with advent of smart phones and text messaging, younger people in Japan possibly feel a little more flexibility in turning up almost on time. However, for work and with older people punctuality is important. It’s generally good to turn up about about 10 minutes before an appointment.
4) Talking about yourself and showing off
You’re probably not going to win friends and influence people at a party when you say “well enough about me, what do you think about me?”. In Japan, modesty is a virtue, so cutting down on the me, me, me and the blah, blah, blah is a good idea. Japanese people tend to be a little more reserved when talking about their accomplishments. So try to resist going on and on about how incredibly amazing you think you are.
If you do show off, your Japanese friends will obligingly laugh, clap and compliment you on what a wonderful human being you are. They’ll then go home and immediately complain about what a boorish showoff you are… Also, try to listen more when someone else is speaking. Japanese people tend to interrupt each other much less than we crazy foreigners do.
5) Never apologizing
You can never apologize enough in Japan. Here are the two golden rules:
1) If it’s your fault, apologize.
Example: I’m so sorry I’m late. I’m a worthless, pathetic excuse for a human being. Please slap me in the face. (see point 3)
2) If it’s not your fault, apologize
Example: I’m so sorry for the terrible weather.
OK, I’m only slightly kidding here. However, a sincere apology with a large helping of modesty related to how awful you are goes a long way to repair relations when you mess up. It shows that you are grown up enough to accept responsibility for your transgressions. It’s the social glue that holds relationships together showing modesty and good will between people.
Now, there are times when you mess up big time. I’m talking about one of early afternoons when you wake up in strange hotel room somewhere in Tokyo, with a baby tiger and perhaps a body in the bath. Or perhaps you didn’t apologize enough or a similarly terrible crime. Then you need a letter of apology. That is the nuclear option and in some cases, literally speaking, your get out of jail free card.
At this point, I would like to apologize for the poor quality of this pathetic excuse for an article on Japanese culture. I’m so sorry.
6) Open displays of affection or hugging ain’t the done thing
Again, modesty is the keyword here. Japanese people are generally quite reserved when it comes to public displays of affection. This is especially true for older people who tend to be more modest and conservative. Even a friendly hug has the potential to make people feel uncomfortable.
This is changing a little for the younger generation who feel less constrained by the older social rules however.
Be aware of the social dynamic you find yourself in and when in doubt, do as the locals do. To be on the safe side, keep your hands to yourself…at least till you get to the love hotel.
7) Blowing your nose in public
This one depends on who you ask but it’s usually quite rare to see someone blowing their nose in public.
You may hear more sniffling rather than nose blowing in the winter which some westerners might find surprising.
Many Japanese prefer to take preventative measures which is why you see so many people wearing masks during winter and the hay fever season. Oh, and by the way, Japanese people think YOU are weird for not wearing a mask when you have a cold.
8) Not separating your garbage
If there’s one thing that really, really, really raises your neighbors’ blood pressure, it’s not separating your garbage properly. There’s nothing more they hate than seeing…gasp…the wrong type of garbage deposited in the wrong bin on the wrong day.
Depending on what ward or city you live in, there are very clear and detailed instructions on what types of garbage you can throw out and on what day. I myself have awoken to find the garbage I threw out previously, now on my doorstep, with an angry note asking me to separate it properly.
Do not incur the wrath of the garbage police. They will crush and destroy you like a small plastic bottle, which, incidentally, should only be thrown out on the 2nd Wednesday of the month, before 7:30am.
9) Passing food with your chopsticks
It’s really not polite to pass food with your chopsticks to someone else’s chopsticks. This action is reminiscent of a funeral where the cremated bones of the deceased are passed along using ceremonial chopsticks. Some other chopstick rules:
– When not eating, place your chopsticks on the chopstick rest in front of your bowl or plate.
– Don’t fiddle or play with them
– Never stick them vertically in a bowl of rice
10) Pouring your own drink in public.
This isn’t a deadly sin but when drinking with friends, it is considered good manners to pour other people’s beer and not your own. So at the beginning of a drinking session someone will usually offer to pour your beer. Hold the glass as they pour and then pour their beer. Someone will usually make sure that everyone is topped up during your meal or drinking session. Do that and you’ll impress your Japanese friends.
This is not an exhaustive list and I’m sure there are many other ways I have offended our poor suffering Japanese compatriots. Of course, there are exceptions, especially with speaking in a loud voice and disturbing people. That’s how most people speak in Osaka. (Hey, people from Osaka, I love you all, I’m just kidding!)
In conclusion, I would say it’s somewhat of a myth that Japan has a set of esoteric, indecipherable social rules of conduct that barbaric foreigners could never work out. With a bit of common sense, decency and respect towards your fellow human being, you’ll be fine on your travels to Japan. Added to that, the Japanese are highly forgiving, friendly and hospitable people. At least, they’ll be kind enough to not directly tell you that you’re a rude, inconsiderate, barbaric slob.
Please leave comments below and I’d love to hear of your own experiences with Japanese etiquette, exceptions to the rules and social faux pas you may have committed yourselves.