Japanese culture is famous for its politeness and every foreigner that comes here makes their share of social gaffs, or gaijin faux paxs (GFP).
Here is a must have list of Japanese Do’s and Don’ts for anyone going to Japan.
Note: And don’t forget to grab a Japan Rail Pass before you head off to Japan.
Image courtesy of Wiki Media
- DO bow when people bow to you.
- DON’T come up until they do.
- DO come up before them if you happen to be their superior – otherwise, you may be there forever.
- DO bend from the waist and keep the back relatively straight.
- DO bow with your hands at your sides for men & boys or clasped in the lap for women & girls.
- DO bend lower than the other person when bowing to older people or those of higher rank (ie your boss).
- DO bow again if you are bowed to a second time – sometimes it will take 3 or 4 progressively less deep bows to make it back to full standing.
- DON’T bow to children or after purchasing something at a store – foreigners bowing to the 16-year-old kid at the 7-11 cash register after buying a sandwich is an all too common GFP.
- DO put your palms together and say “Itadakimasu” before eating – it is a polite way of expressing “Thank you for the meal I am about to receive.”
- DON’T burp at the table – unlike some Asian countries, burping is rude in Japan.
- DO lift bowls of rice, noodles, and small plates off the table to make eating with chopsticks easier.
- DON’T lift large plates off the table to eat out of them.
- DO be adventurous with trying new kinds of food.
- DON’T blow your nose at the table – do it in the restroom.
- DO cover your mouth with your other hand when using a toothpick.
- DO put your palms together and say “Gochiso sama deshita” after finishing a meal – it is a polite way of expressing “Thank you for all the effort in creating this the feast”.
- DO slurp noodles with broth, especially hot ones and those that are dipped in sauce.
- DON’T over-slurp broth with every sip.
- DON’T slurp noodles like spaghetti that don’t have a broth or dipping sauce.
Sushi & Sashimi
- DON’T pour soy sauce directly over sushi or sashimi.
- DO pour soy sauce into the little soy sauce dish and dip your sashimi in it.
- DON’T pour too much soy sauce into the soy sauce dish – wasteful is rude and you can always add more.
- DO dip most kinds of sushi in soy sauce – topping side down.
- DO try and use chopsticks.
- DON’T noisily rub disposable wooden chopsticks together in your palms to remove splinters – this GFP is especially rude at sushi restaurants.
- DO feel free to rub one disposable wooden chopstick against the other to remove splinters.
- DO ask for help in how to use chopsticks if you need it.
- DON’T be afraid to ask for a fork if you still can’t use chopsticks.
- DON’T point at things with your chopsticks.
- DO use the opposite end of your chopsticks to put food on your plate from a shared dish in the middle of the table.
- DON’T stab food with your chopsticks – OK to do when with younger people.
- DON’T pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks – this is done with cremated bones at a funeral.
- DON’T leave your chopsticks sticking up in rice or other food – this is done to offer rice at a family altar.
- DON’T wave the chopsticks around as you talk – common GFP.
- DON’T use chopsticks to move around bowls or plates.
- DO fill the glasses of people around you.
- DON’T drink until everyone has been served and others around you raise their glasses for a toast.
- DO pay attention to the glasses of people sitting around you and top them off when they get around 1/3 full.
- DO say cheers or “kampai” when making a toast.
- DON’T say “chin chin” when making a toast – this means “penis” in Japanese.
- DO hold your glass when someone offers to fill it – finish quickly if there is anything remaining before holding it up.
- DON’T finish what’s in your glass if you don’t want another one – someone will fill it up.
- DO say “Ojama shimasu” when entering a house – it means something like “I am going to disturb you.”
- DO take your shoes off when entering a school, house, temple, or shrine – if you see shoes at the entrance, take yours off too.
- DO arrange your shoes nicely with toes facing the door after taking them off when visiting someone’s home.
- DON’T forget to put on slippers after taking off your shoes – they will be visible at the entrance.
- DO take off your slippers when entering a tatami mat room – the mats are made from the dried rush and are delicate.
- DO bring a small gift of food, drink, or flowers when visiting someone’s home – make sure to tell the store it is present so they wrap it for you.
- DO say “Ojama shimashita” when leaving someone’s home – it means something like “I have made a disturbance.”
- DO accept business cards with both hands and read them over thoroughly.
- DO put business cards in your shirt pocket or wallet after looking at them for a few seconds.
- DON’T put business cards in the back pocket of your pants.
Image courtesy of Wiki Media
- DO try and use Japanese-style “squat” toilets.
- DO face the wall and pull your pants down past your knees.
- DON’T fall in!
- DO use toilet slippers when at someone’s house – they will be just outside the toilet door.
- DON’T forget to change back into the house slippers after leaving the bathroom – countless foreigners in Japan unknowingly waltz around houses in bathroom slippers every day.
- DO play with the cool buttons on futuristic Japanese Western-style toilets.
- DON’T play with toilet buttons while sitting on the john, especially the one next to the picture of water spraying into an ass.
- DO wash yourself with soap and water at the shower area before getting into the bath.
- DON’T get into the bath until you rinse all the soap off your body.
- DO try a sento (public bath) or onsen (hot spring) while in Japan.
- DO learn the Japanese character for men (男) and women (女) – most public baths rotate men and women areas so yesterday’s section for men may be the women’s section today.
- DON’T freak out if you walk into the wrong section – just cop a couple of peaks, show a look of surprise, and calmly make your way to the exit!
- DON’T use the word “shi” when counting people – the word for death has the same pronunciation.
- DO hide your thumb if a funeral car goes by.
- DON’T whistle at night, unless you want a snake coming for you.
- DON’T lie down right after eating unless you want to turn into a cow.
- DON’T lie down to the North when sleeping – that’s how the dead are laid down to rest.
- DON’T cut your nails at night – unless you don’t want to be with your parents when they die.
- DO try and use the limited Japanese you know – even a little effort is greatly appreciated.
- DO use “san” after someone’s name.
- DON’T use “san” after a child’s name.
- DO use someone’s title after their name, such as “sensei” for a teacher or doctor and “kaicho” for a company president.
- DO say “Ohayo gozaimasu” in the morning until 11:00 am – or when you first walk into work.
- DO say “Konnichiwa” from 11:00 am – 5:00 pm.
- DO say “Konbanwa” after it starts to get dark.
- DO say “Sayonara” when you part with someone for the day.
- DO say “Oyasumi nasai” when you part with people at night.
- DO wait to be told where to sit at meals or formal occasions.
- DO sit cross-legged on the floor if you are a man.
- DON’T sit cross-legged on the floor if you are a woman – sit with both legs bent and to the side.
- DO sit in seiza style (legs tucked behind with shins touching the floor) when someone makes the first toast or gives a speech.
- DO watch how other people are sitting and follow what they do.
- DO give gifts to co-workers, friends, and relatives in December (called Oseibo) and in June (called Ochugen) – you will find gift boxes in all kinds at all supermarkets during this time of year.
- DO use both hands to give and receive gifts.
- DON’T be offended if the gift is not opened in front of you – Japanese traditionally don’t open gifts until the giver has departed, though many young people no longer observe this custom.
- DON’T open a gift until you leave unless you are encouraged to do so.
- DO open a gift if you are encouraged to do so.
- DO give Christmas and birthday gifts if you want to – most Japanese people do so these days.
- DO give chocolate to your boyfriend or male friends on Valentine’s Day.
- DON’T forget to return the favor on White Day (March 14) if you receive chocolate on Valentine’s Day.
- DO bring a local snack back to friends or the office when you return from a trip.
- DON’T tip – it can be insulting.
- DON’T open taxi doors – drivers open them with an automatic button.
- DON’T close the taxi door – see above.
- DO remember to close taxi doors when you leave Japan – walking away from a cab without closing the door is a great way to make a NYC cabbie angry.
- DON’T worry if you see people wearing surgical masks – they are just trying not to pass on their cold to others.
- DO bring money in a sealed “wedding envelope.”
- DON’T use an odd number of banknotes.
- DO bring money in a sealed “funeral envelope.”
- DO wear black clothes or dark clothes with a black necktie.