Some traditional-style restaurants, tearooms, ryokan and similar establishments ask that you remove your shoes before entering. You should also remove your shoes in the entranceway (genkan) of people’s homes, and remove even your slippers before stepping onto tatami. The best way to make sure you’re following the correct shoe etiquette is to pay attention to your surroundings. If there are cubbies at the restaurant or a pile of shoes by the door, it’s safe to say you should take yours off too.
Some places, such as hotels and the aforementioned restaurants, provide a pair of slippers that are just for use in the toilet. It’s easy to forget you’re wearing them, especially after a few drinks, so while wearing them back to the table is considered very embarrassing, nearly everyone ends up doing this at one time or another—even the locals.
When dealing with people from other countries—in politics, business or personal life—handshakes are the default greeting for the Japanese. They don’t expect visitors to know how and when to bow. But many foreigners are equally educated on the bowing etiquette of Japan, and this can lead to a lot of awkward “handshake bows” when the two meet.
In many countries, it’s normal to express your gratitude to waiters, taxi drivers or cashiers by thanking them, and in some cases, leaving a large tip. But the Japanese believe it’s the customer who should be thanked, not the staff, and tipping is not a Japanese custom. The very formal and sincere doumo arigatou goizaimasu (which is one of the first ways Japanese language learners are told means thank you) sounds strange and over the top coming from a customer.
In some places, it’s perfectly acceptable to stand anywhere you want on the escalator as you wait for your ride to the top. In Japan, keeping one side of the escalator free for walking helps keep things running smoothly and allows people who are in a hurry to get ahead. Many people end up blocking off the fast lane by mistake (i.e., with a huge backpack) and end up being a nuisance to those around them.
In public places, most people try to be quiet or discrete about talking on the phone or just send text messages instead. Taking calls on the subway or in a quiet restaurant or café is considered rude. That isn’t to say that no one does it, but it’s just more polite not to draw attention to yourself in this way.
In Japan, many people avoid eating or drinking while walking, not only because it’s perceived as sloppy but because stopping to eat or drink means you’re less likely to spill it or make a mess. Walking and smoking is also discouraged and even illegal in some places, so find a designated smoking area before lighting up.
Candid photos can be great, but when it comes to strangers, be sure to ask permission before whipping out your DSLR. Tourists taking intrusive photos has quickly become the number one pet peeve of many locals. Respect people’s privacy and obey “no photography” signs when you see them.
Tourists everywhere, not just in Japan, have earned themselves a reputation for having terrible fashion sense. Even though most dress codes are unwritten in Japan, showing up at high-end restaurants or bars in shorts, sandals, and a T-shirt is not recommended. While you might still be allowed to enter, the Japanese take appearances seriously, and you’ll probably be considered rude if you don’t take yours seriously too.
Everyone knows that in formal situations, you should accept business cards with both hands, but what about after that? The most common mistakes people make are leaving the card behind on the table or stuffing it somewhere it doesn’t belong, such as loose inside your back pocket.
Trains in Japan have a lot of etiquette rules that might be unfamiliar to tourists, and talking loudly on the trains is one of the most common faux pas committed by visitors.