When we hear the word Japan, we think of next-level food, incredible landscapes, ancient and modern cities, and of course, pop culture! This country is truly a winner in our books and we highly recommend everyone to hightail it over there. What more could we ask for from a vacation than eating our weight in sushi, checking out the latest manga comics, and relaxing in an onsen?
While we’re sure you probably want to get busy looking up the best itineraries, the must-eat ramen joints in Tokyo, and how to conquer Mount Fuji, learning about local etiquette and the things to avoid in Japan before you go is probably a good idea!
We’re all guilty of heading to a new place and not even thinking about the different customs, laws, and unspoken rules each country has. Japan is no different, and there are quite a few things that you could unknowingly do that could lead not only to embarrassment but offending or angering the locals! Fear not though, as we’ve put together this quick little guide so you can familiarize yourself with local customs, and be confident you’re being respectful whilst living your best life!
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In some countries (like the US), you wouldn’t even dream of dining out without leaving a tip. However, in Japan tipping isn’t customary and can actually be considered rude or even insulting! In fact, it isn’t unusual for your server to chase you outside of the restaurant to return the tip you’ve left on the table. It’s not only servers you shouldn’t tip either, this unspoken rule applies to hairdressers, taxi drivers, and hotel staff.
The Japanese culture has a strong sense of dignity and respect and workers consider their hard work and excellent service to be a part of their job. There are of course exceptions to every rule. When it comes to tours, tipping isn’t mandatory, and you can tip if you feel like they’ve done a good job. BUT, there are still some rules to follow here to make sure you tip in the correct way! You should never give cash directly from your purse, wallet, or pocket. The correct thing to do is to place it in an envelope, and give the envelope using both hands to your guide/tour staff while your head is slightly bowed or inclined.
Wearing your shoes inside
This unspoken rule is common in many countries in Asia, but in Japan, it’s taken to a whole new level! Not only do homes have a strict no-shoes-indoors policy, but some workplaces, schools, restaurants, and hotels, may even ask guests or staff to remove their footwear and put on indoor slippers or shoes. Of course, as a tourist, there’s a slim chance of you hanging out at an office or school, but a lot of izakayas (Japanese taverns) will have shoe lockers at the entrance for customers to remove their shoes. This is especially common in places with tatami mat flooring.
The reason Japanese people remove their shoes indoors is kind of a no-brainer… It’s for cleanliness. Traditionally, meals were eaten sitting on tatami mats and people slept on futons on top of the tatami floors. Since they were spending a lot of time on or close to the floor, it kinda makes sense that they didn’t want to bring dirt and muck into the house on the bottom of their shoes! If you think about it, it makes sense in a modern household too. Other places where you should remove your shoes indoors may include hostels, capsule hotels, or ryokans (a traditional Japanese inn). You should also 10/10 take off your shoes before entering a shrine or temple too!
Another thing to note is that the correct way to place your shoes is facing outward so you can easily put them back on when leaving. You should also leave your indoor slippers facing inwards. This one isn’t exactly at the top of the list when it comes to things to avoid in Japan, but it’s a great way to show your hosts that you’ve done some extra research on their customs.
Talking loudly on public transport
When it comes to riding on trains and buses, there are actually quite a few rules to follow. One of the most important things to avoid in Japan is talking loudly on public transport! You’ll actually notice that a lot of Japanese people sit in silence on the train and chatting loudly or any other disturbances is considered to be rude. If you have to talk, you should be discreet and quiet.
You can use your mobile phones, BUT, you need to make sure what you are doing doesn’t disturb any other passengers. This means using headphones to listen to music or watch videos and not taking any calls! On a long-distance train (A.K.A a Shinkansen), there are designated phone areas if you need to take a call. Another important thing to remember with phones is to switch them off if you are sitting near the priority seating area. Your phone has the potential to interfere with pacemakers (and so do smartwatches), so you gotta power them down.
Using chopsticks incorrectly
Okay, it’s time to talk about chopsticks. Picture this, you’re sitting at a restaurant or in someone’s home and you’re taking a break between eating. You don’t know what to do with your chopsticks… so you just stick them into the rice. DON’T DO IT! This gesture symbolizes death, and is done during funerals in Japan, it is also a symbol of bad luck. Either place your chopsticks onto the provided rest or next to your bowl. You can also rest them on your bowl, but this can indicate you’re finished eating.
While we’re on the subject of the very important chopstick etiquette, here are some other things to avoid in Japan while using chopsticks. Don’t rub your chopsticks together to get rid of any splinters, this simply isn’t done and you could get more than your fair share of weird looks. When sharing or serving food, never pass the food directly to another person’s chopsticks. The correct way is to use your chopsticks to transfer the food to another person’s plate. This taboo also stems from funeral rituals, as traditionally, families use their chopsticks to pass bone fragments from person to person after cremation.
Cutting in line
This one seems pretty obvious, but in many countries cutting the line is perfectly normal (and may be the only way to reach the front!). However, when it comes to things to avoid in Japan, this is definitely one of them. Japanese people are very polite and disciplined, and will line up in an orderly fashion for everything from the train, bus, a seat in a restaurant, or a ride at Tokyo Disneyland… They just love a good queue. There are even markings on the floor to show you where to line up while waiting at the train station. Talk about good organization!
It’s also good manners to allow people to exit before you enter in an orderly single fine manner. So when getting on the train or bus, make sure to let every last passenger leave before attempting to board.
Trying to open the taxi door yourself
We are NOT going to judge you if you’ve never even heard of this rule! Many visitors to Japan don’t have an inkling that the taxi doors are opened automatically by the driver. When you wave down a taxi, you need to wait until they open the back door before you can hop in. This is for a) safety of the driver and b) the Japanese just can’t get enough of technology. When you exit, the driver also controls the opening of the doors and will open them after you’ve paid.
If you’re traveling in a group and someone needs to sit in the front, you will need to open the door yourself as the driver only has control over the back doors.
Calling yourself “san”
In English, it’s pretty normal to introduce yourself as Mr., Mrs., Ms., or Miss. In Japan, their equivalent is using the word “san” at the end of a surname (you may recognize this from Japanese movies or TV shows). It is polite and shows respect to address others in this way. Don’t make the mistake of introducing yourself as *insert your last name here* san though. It’s not exactly rude, or one of the top things to avoid in Japan, but it is a huge rookie mistake and you may hear a few laughs around the room. #embarrassing
There are actually quite a few suffixes in Japanese that show varying levels of respect or affection. For example, elderly people refer to young children or people by “kun” (male) or “chan” (female). These are quite informal, and we do NOT expect you to learn all of the Japanese suffixes (YIKES). So sticking with just “san” is perfectly acceptable.
Taking the last piece of food
This seems like the norm in most cultures, but this is definitely one of the things to avoid in Japan. When sharing a meal with friends, everyone usually takes their turn to make sure there is an even distribution of food. Slowly but surely things will get eaten until there is a single piece on the plate. It might seem like no one wants it because it’s just sitting there, but trust us, everyone wants it. They’re just too polite to say so.
How it normally goes is that everyone is offered the last piece/pieces on the table, and eventually the leftovers get shared out fairly. It’s polite to refuse the last piece the first time around, but you should accept it if they keep insisting.
This may seem like a trivial thing (it’s only the last piece right? Big deal…) but it’s like we mentioned earlier, it’s these little details that show you have taken the time to learn the customs and etiquette of the locals, and they will appreciate it for sure.
Eating and drinking while walking
We’re not gonna lie, this particular custom could be hard to follow! What’s better than exploring a new city with a tasty treat in hand, eating and taking in the sights as you go along? Unfortunately in Japan, this is not the norm. You will be hard-pressed to spot a local eating and drinking while walking around, and there are designated areas to eat in public.
That’s not to say you can’t purchase food while you’re out and about, like at a convenience store for example, but people normally eat their food in or in front of the store, or find a bench or pack nearby to sit and eat. Littering in Japan is punishable by law, you could get a MEGA fine or even up to five years of jail time! So take your trash home or find a public garbage can (heads up – there aren’t a lot of these in Japan).
A big exception to the eating/drinking while walking custom is at festivals. Here you will see people happily walking around while munching on some delicious food. But, you’ll notice that many Japanese people still prefer to stand somewhere to the side to finish their food!
Getting into an onsen without showering first
Having a nice relaxing soak is a popular activity in Japan, and with so many incredible onsens around, we’re sure this is high up on your to-do list! There are quite a few unspoken (and some strict) rules when it comes to onsens. One of them which could be easily overlooked is showering before you get into the water! Think about it, who wants to stew in a hot bath of other people’s dirt? Ew. You should thoroughly clean yourself (soap and all) before getting in. The same is also expected when you get out.
Most onsens are separated by men and women, with a few co-ed hot springs. Generally, most establishments require you to be naked to enter, but be aware that if you have tattoos you may be refused entry! In some places, they will provide you with a skin-colored patch to cover up your tattoo, but this isn’t always the case. There is still a lot of stigma in Japan surrounding tattoos, and while entering with one isn’t illegal, unless you can find a tattoo-friendly onsen nearby like one of these, you may have to strike this particular activity from your bucket list.
Things to avoid in Japan – the verdict
Well, there you have it. Clearly, Japan is an orderly and efficient country where manners are KING (or queen). It might seem like there are quite a few things to avoid in Japan, but luckily, the consequences of breaking most of these “rules” are nowhere near as severe as some other countries. We do always recommend making a good impression by following the local customs as much as you can though. No one wants to give tourists a bad name and now you’ve read this guide, you definitely won’t!