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Etiquette and public transport go hand in hand | © Pixabay
Etiquette and public transport go hand in hand | © Pixabay

Etiquette Tips For Visiting Japan

Picture of Alicia Joy
Tokyo Writer
Updated: 9 February 2017
Japan is known for its highly structured society, governed by an unspoken set of strict etiquette rules. This can be a little daunting for the newcomer to Japan, but fret not, the Japanese don’t expect outsiders to know all the rules of the game, although a basic understanding is of course helpful. Here are 11 etiquette tips to keep in mind for your next trip to Japan.

Handling Chopsticks

There are two places to lay your chopsticks down on the table: either flat across your bowl, or leaning on the chopstick rest. Never leave your chopsticks sticking straight up in your rice bowl and never pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks: both of these mimic funeral rituals and are considered disrespectful. If you want to pass food to someone, use the back end of your chopsticks to place it in a dish for them.

Chopticks on a paper rest | © Orin Zebest/WikiCommons

Chopticks on a paper rest | © Orin Zebest/WikiCommons

Don’t Be a Picky Eater

The Japanese hate to be wasteful, and picking things out of your meal to leave aside (bones excluded) is considered disrespectful. It offends not only your host but also the farmers who cultivated the vegetables and the animals who gave up their lives for the sake of your dish. It’s also polite to sample a little from each dish on the table.

Don’t Fill Your Own Glass

You’ve probably heard the expression kampai, which is the Japanese equivalent to cheers. But what else do you know about drinking alcohol in Japan? For starters, do not fill your own glass, which implies that your host or dining partners are ungracious. Wait for someone else to fill it, and be sure to return the favor. If possible, try and raise your glass a little off the table while it’s being filled – this is highly formal, however, so if you’re just dining with friends it’s best to wait and see what everyone else does first.

Sake vessel and cup | © Motoshi Ohmori/Flickr

Say Itadakimasu!

A meal at a Japanese table is not a free-for-all. Politely wait for everyone to be seated before saying itadakimasu (“I humbly receive”) together. At the end of the meal, be sure to thank the cook by saying gochisō-sama deshita (“That was a great feast”). Your host will definitely appreciate this gesture.

Give Up Your Seat

When using public transport, be sure to give up your seat to those who need it more. Be careful not to use those seats reserved for the elderly and disabled, as well as pregnant women and those with small children. Many pregnant Japanese women stay so slim that they must carry pink tags to signify their right to reserved seating. Keep an eye out for those as well.

Don’t Walk and Eat

In general, walking and eating or drinking is frowned upon, although some foods are acceptable to be eaten while walking, especially during festive occasions. You’ll see most people carrying their takeout in secure bags to eat later, or finishing their drinks while standing at the vending machine. Drinking and eating are also not allowed on public transport.

Forget the Tip

Tipping is not common practice in Japan. Restaurants or other service providers will usually have an additional fee set by their establishment built into the bill. If you do feel the need to give some money to your home-stay family or to tip an especially helpful maid at your accommodations, place the money in an envelope first.

Japan is a cash society | © Japanexperterna

Japan is a cash society | © Japanexperterna

Use the Tray

Many stores will have small trays to place the money in when paying for an item, rather than handing it directly to the cashier. If you spot such a tray be sure to put the money in there as disregarding it is somewhat rude. Another thing to keep in mind is that most people pay with cash and few places accept credit cards besides the ‘superstores’ or expensive restaurants and hotels. Always be sure to carry enough cash with you to cover your expenses.

Present Your Card

If you have a business card or meishi, present it to your new acquaintance at the beginning of your meeting (bonus points for having it printed in both Japanese and English). Hold the card in both hands when receiving. Either place the card face up on the table in front of you for reference, or tuck it safely away in a business card holder – nowhere else. It’s also okay to ask how to pronounce someone’s name at this point (but never write on the card in their presence)!

Business card etiquette in Japan | © Pixabay

Business card etiquette in Japan | © Pixabay

Take Off Your Shoes

Always take off your shoes when entering someone’s home. A Japanese home will always have slippers for guests to wear, so you don’t have to worry about getting your socks dirty. Some temples and restaurants might also ask patrons to remove their shoes before entering.

Sit Properly

It’s very common in homes, and even in some traditional restaurants, to sit on the floor around a low table to eat rather than in Western-style chairs. For formal occasions, both genders kneel down and sit up straight. For more casual situations, women may sit with both legs to one side, and men can sit in the cross-legged seated position that many cultures are familiar with.