Japan is a place where you can feel the past in every footstep. The culture is steeped in tradition and rooted in ancient customs. Politeness is a way of life in Japan, and the general foundation for behavior is that if, in any way, what you are doing could offend or inconvenience someone else, you don’t do it. So, before you pack your bags and board your flight to Japan, here are a few of the cultural do’s and don’ts in Japan – simple rules of etiquette that’ll help you move through the country with ease.
1. Don’t eat or smoke and stroll.
Walking down the street sipping a hot coffee may be part of your daily life, but in Japan, if you’re drinking that coffee outside, stop and pull off to the side. It comes from a place where if you, say, drop something on the ground while eating it, someone else might step in it, inconveniencing them, so you step aside and eat while standing still.
Ditto this to smoking. It’s generally preferred that you smoke standing still, and in a designated area if you are near one to limit the amount of non-smokers being exposed to your smoke.
2. Do Slurp your Soup.
Most other places in the world, slurping your soup is a major faux-pas, but in Japan, it’s considered a compliment to the chef. So slurp away on that delicious ramen!
3. Do Learn the Etiquette of Chopsticks.
The core utensil of Japanese cuisine carries with them centuries of tradition and a language all their own.
- Don’t stab your food with chopsticks, as that is considered poor etiquette.
- Don’t stick them in your food vertically. This is a ritual performed at funeral services, and it’s considered a very disrespectful move.
- Never rub your chopsticks together. Only the cheapest of the pull-apart chopsticks should splinter, so if you’re rubbing your chopsticks together, you’re sending a message to the restaurant that you don’t think their chopsticks are of good quality.
- If you’re sharing food with someone, never use a part of the chopsticks that has been in your mouth. Use the top end of the chopsticks instead, or a fresh set.
4. Be Conscious of Your Phone Use.
Using your phone in Japan can be a cultural hot-button. Going back to the consideration for others, if your conversation is loud enough to disrupt anyone else in any way, lower your voice. Talking on the phone on the train is considered rude, so silence the ringer, and call back once you’re at the station. If you’re on the Shinkansen, you may take calls in the loading/unloading area between the cars.
Likewise, if you are in a sacred place like a temple, put that phone on silent, and don’t answer until you’re off the premises.
5. Don’t Tip.
The Japanese culture is one that is deeply connected to service, so tipping is like telling someone that you’re paying them for their politeness, instead of their politeness being offered as a matter of standard.
On the same note, counting your change in a shop implies that you do not trust that the cashier gave you correct change, and can be considered insulting.
6. Do Learn the Drinking Customs.
Having a few drinks at the end of a day is a part of everyday culture in Tokyo, and with it comes a few local customs. The general rule of thumb is to never be drinking alone. The Japanese drinking traditions revolve around bringing your group together over drinks.
- Don’t take a sip until everyone has received their drink.
- Kanpai is the Japanese toast – like “Prost” or “Cheers”. The literal translation is “dry glass”. Before your first sip, be sure to clink glasses and toast with “Kanpai!”
- Never pour your own drink or sake.
- Keep an eye on each other’s glasses – once they get to about 1/3 left, it’s polite to offer to refill other’s drinks.
7. Don’t Blow or Wipe Your Nose in Public.
One of the more surprising cultural rules in Japan is that you shouldn’t wipe or blow your nose in public. The Japanese are generally quiet and reserved people – at least in public. If your nose starts to run, it’s OK to discreetly duck away and wipe your nose, but if you need a full nose-blow, best to find a bathroom to do so. Doing so in a public area is definitely frowned upon.
8. Stay to the Left.
When walking, taking escalators, driving, and riding bikes, stay to the left side, not the right. If you follow the flow of people, for the most part, they’ll keep you on the right track. Always be courteous when you’re on the move. Don’t block sidewalks or stairwells or otherwise clog up the flow of people.
9. Don’t Litter.
Japan is an exceptionally clean city. Strangely enough, though, you’ll find that trash bins are few and far between on the streets. Hold on to your trash until you find a bin (pro-tip – trash bins can usually be found at most convenience stores like Lawson’s and 7-11).
10. Bow like a pro.
Bowing should be done from the waist with your back and neck straight. There are different bows for different occasions, but as a tourist, you’ll want to at least bow properly, when you’re greeting or meeting someone, thanking someone, and apologizing. This is worth a deeper dive – read more about bowing in Japan here.
Following a few of the cultural rules in Japan will ensure you have a smooth transition to the city. It is a place where the people will go out of their way to make sure you’re comfortable and not inconvenienced, so a little effort to returning the favor will be appreciated by all! If you’re ready to get started planning, check out our Ultimate Guide to Travel for Tokyo!