How not to be rude in Japan: Japanese manners and etiquette

Izakaya in Tokyo, Japan

An izakaya in Tokyo, Japan (Source)

What I love about Japan is how friendly the people are to visitors. As a traveler, it is a great idea to know about simple Japanese manners and etiquette. Respecting the local culture and customs is something you should try to practice, no matter what country you may visit.

This list may seem intimating to first time visitors to Japan, but the list is not set in stone. While some of these social customs are expected during business situations, many are done away with all together between close friends and family.

Either way, whether you will be traveling to Japan for tourism, business, or to live, it is good to know and practice as many of these Japanese manners and etiquette as possible.

Tipping

Tipping at restaurants in Japan is not customary or expected.

It might seem strange to some, but there is no tipping at restaurants in Japan. Tipping in Japan can often be considered rude and confusing to the recipient. If you leave money on a table, the server might run after you to return your money thinking you accidentally left it.

Remember to pay your bill at the register and not directly to the server. After paying your bill, do not count the change in the restaurant.

Pouring your own drink

In Japan, it is considered rude and greedy to pour your own drink.

Drinking in Japan is a social event. You will often see a group of people at a table with small glasses sharing a large bottle of beer.

When someone pours you a drink, it is considered a humble gesture to hold your glass with both hands at a slight angle to help with the pour.

After your drink is poured, you should reciprocate the gesture and pour a drink for someone else in your group.

If you are finished drinking, you should leave your glass full. I always forget to do this one.

Walking while eating or drinking

Being an American, it is not unusual to see someone walking down the street with a drink or snack in hand. In Japan, this is considered impolite. Would you really want to try to eat that bowl of ramen while you walk down the street?

Ironically, stand-up dining, known as tachigui, is very popular all across Japan.

If you grab a drink or snack from a store and want to consume it immediately, stand and consume the drink or snack on the spot or find a place to sit such as a park bench.

Next to vending machines, you will notice small plastic recycling bins. It is not uncommon to see a group of people standing and enjoying a drink from a vending machine. After you are done with your drink, place the empty container in the recycling bin.

Hot and cold towels

If you have flown to Asia or been in any restaurant across Japan, then you have most likely been offered a small, rolled up towel known as oshibori.

In the summer, these towels are offered cold while in the winter the towels are offered hot.

These towels may be offered to you before eating a meal, whether in a restaurant, on a plane, or elsewhere. The towels are used to clean your hands before or during the meal.

It is considered impolite to wipe your face with the towels, though in less formal places, it may be acceptable.

Chopsticks

Now, I don’t think you would ever just randomly do this, but if you are ever eating rice at a restaurant or in a Japanese home, you should never stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl a rice.

Another thing you should avoid is passing food from your chopsticks directly to someone else’s chopsticks.

Both of these acts are connected with Japanese funeral rites. At Buddhist funerals, rice is offered to the dead by placing chopsticks vertically in a bowl of rice. Also, after a body is cremated, bones are transferred into an urn from one family member to another using a special set of chopsticks.

You probably would never do either of these, but it’s a good thing to know to avoid.

Blowing your nose in public

This is one you really want to try to avoid anywhere in the world.

In public areas of Japan, such as a train or subway car, it is better to sniff than to blow your nose into a tissue or handkerchief. You will witness many people sniffing in public areas all across Japan.

If you can’t avoid it, face away from anyone nearby, and do it as discretely as possible into a tissue.

Shoes and slippers

Indoor manners are very important in Japan.

As a tourist, it is important to know that you may be required to remove your shoes and step into slippers at many places including homes, ryokan, restaurants, temples, historic buildings, and castles. Slippers are supplied by the host.

When you walk through the doors of these places, you will enter the genkan, or entryway. It is here where you will take off your outdoor shoes and step into indoor slippers. It is also a good idea to have clean, neat, and hole free socks.

The indoor space is often elevated and a different type of flooring than the genkan. It is considered rude to step on the elevated indoor flooring with your outdoor shoes.

Once you have your indoor slippers on, you can walk almost anywhere indoors except on tatami floors or inside the toilet room or washrooms. Tatami floors are usually made of rice straw and should only be walked on with your bare feet or socks. Toilet slippers are often supplied by the host for use inside any toilet room or washroom.

Onsen

Japan is home to over 25,000 natural hot springs known as onsen.

Onsen bathing is very important to Japanese and proper etiquette must be followed by both Japanese and Westerners.

Almost all onsen in Japan do not allow swimsuits. This means you will have to enter the water completely nude. Some onsen are gender separated while others are mixed gender. It is probably a good idea to know beforehand.

Before entering any onsen, you will need to rinse off with soap and water. Most onsen have a separate area with small stools to sit on while you wash your body off. Unless you are staying at a ryokan, or hotel, you will most likely need to bring your own soap and towel. You can wrap yourself in the towel until you are ready to step into the water.

While in the water, you can place your towel on your head to hold back any sweat. Never wring your towel over the water, even if you see Japanese doing it. This is considered rude.

Also remember that onsen are for soaking and relaxation. Never use the water for swimming.

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