The vibrant capital of Tokyo has a unique culture all its own and is a forever-evolving landscape of social norms and conventions. While some more traditional customs are gradually being phased out as the city becomes more international, it’s worth knowing what they are so you don’t get caught out.
As with most forms of etiquette, it’s best to follow the lead of the person you’re with or the person who is introducing you. Just know that the person of lower status bows first and more deeply than the elder. However, most Japanese people, especially the younger crowd, will not expect you to bow and will instead reach for a handshake. If you’re meeting friends, you’ll want to go for something more casual like ossu, which is like saying ‘hey’ or ‘what’s up’.
The natural inclination for a Westerner when someone does a small favour – holding open a door, returning a jacket left on the subway seat – is to say thank you, or arigatou. But it’s much more natural and Japanese to say sumimasen, or ‘sorry to inconvenience you’ (not a literal translation).
Itadakimasu is a polite expression to say together before meals, but it isn’t common to say this when dining out, especially in younger company. But you can say gochisou or gochisousama (the equivalent would be ‘my compliments to the chef’) to the cook before you leave, especially in a counter-style restaurant where you see the food being prepared.
Westerners are very used to greeting staff, thanking shop workers and leaving tips for the servers when dining out. In Japan, things are a little different. There’s no need to respond to the resounding irasshaimase (welcome) that greets shoppers at every turn or return the early-morning bow that greets the first customers of the day. There’s also no need to leave any tips since service charges are built into the bill.
It’s very helpful to know how to use chopsticks, and it really doesn’t take that much to learn. Many traditional restaurants might not even have alternatives besides the Chinese-style soup spoon, and it could be challenging to eat noodles using that. Never rub your chopsticks together at a restaurant (which is like saying, ‘these are cheap’). And if you’re given disposable chopsticks, place them back in the paper bag and fold the corner back when you’re done eating.
Wear guest slippers whenever they are provided. It is usually quite obvious whenever one comes across a situation where shoes are not allowed because other shoes will be lined up with the toes facing the door, and indoor slippers will be waiting. It’s considered disrespectful to wear shoes into the inner sanctums of a temple, tea ceremony rooms and onsen. In hotel rooms, it’s common to have a separate pair of slippers just for the washroom – be sure not to wear those outside the toilet area. If you’re entering someone’s home, always make sure to swap your shoes for house slippers if your hosts provide them – though some families may opt for sock feet.
Japan drives on the left side of the road, with the driver’s side proportionately on the car’s right. Signage is posted in English or Romaji, and speeds are in kilometres. International Driving Permits are accepted from many countries and will allow the holder to drive in Japan for up to one year. Bike lanes are limited in Tokyo, so be prepared to share the road.
English signage and announcements are not widely available, except in major tourist areas like Yoyogi Park and at subway stations. Many Japanese people do not or are reluctant to speak English. In addition, due to the high volume of foreigners in cities like Tokyo who speak perfect Japanese, local people will often opt to speak in their native dialect first. However, university students studying the language and professionals who use English for work will be more than happy to practise with visitors.