Every nation has its own laws, traditions, cultures and customs that diverge from our own, and Japan is no exception. Many foreign travelers that visit Japan may not be aware of some aspects of the country, which could cause them to unintentionally disrupt, annoy or even enrage the locals.
It’s a good idea to learn as much as you can about a country’s customs and culture before visiting. Even though many “minor” things may seem insignificant, or seem unimportant because you are “only a visiting,” they can be in fact be very sensitive issues for nationals of any country. Being kind, considerate and educated about the country you visit will go a long way as a representative of your own country and most likely make your trip that much more enjoyable.
To help you better understand and enjoy your visit to Japan, here is a list of things that many foreigners may do that one should try to avoid!
Shoes are always removed when entering a home, and many times at work, restaurants and schools (and they should face the correct way when left at the entrance).
You might not be aware that many companies, restaurants, schools and even many hotels require everyone to remove their shoes, and then wear slippers or indoor shoes. Many Asian countries also have a no-shoe policy within the home.
While it is unlikely that a visitor to Japan will attend a workplace or a school, there is a significant probability that one will eat at an izakaya or restaurant with a Japanese theme, especially a restaurant that has tatami mat (straw mat) flooring. Most of these establishments include a shoe locker at the entryway where patrons can store their shoes before entering the eating area.
By far, the majority of hostels, capsule hotels, and ALL Japanese-style ryokans request that guests take off their outside use shoes at the door entrance and put on the slippers that are most of the time provided. Always take care to not step in the outside shoe region with slippers and vice versa.
Always remove your shoes at the door or genkan (entry way) while entering a Japanese home. If no slippers are available, it is OK to enter with only socks, but slippers are frequently provided. If slippers are provided, it is customary to wear them inside the house, but to take them off when entering a room with a tatami floor.
When using the toilet in a home, and in most shops and facilities, toilet specific slippers are used. So in the case of a home, one would remove outside shoes at the entrance, put on indoor slippers, but then remove the indoor slippers and put on toilet slippers when needing to use the WC.
Most establishments like sports gyms, fitness centers and pools also follow the “no outside shoe” rule. Outside shoes will be placed in a shoe box area or in a locker. Therefore, one must bring separate indoor sports shoes to participate in their activity.
Note: Shoes facing the correct way is actually a small detail that many Japanese even forget about themselves, but can show your Japanese hosts that you are considerate and have done your research. The proper way to leave shoes is to have them facing outwards (towards the entrance) so they are easy to put on when exiting and to leave slippers facing inwards (towards the inside of the home) so they are easy to slip into when entering. This custom interestingly enough is not just for oneself, but primarily is thinking about others.
Chopstick Etiquette in Japan
Chopsticks in same area
The Japanese will be impressed if you’re comfortable using chopsticks. But making the following faux pas will definitely raise eyebrows:
Never use your chopsticks to receive food from someone else’s chopsticks, nor never have two sets of chopsticks grabbing food from the same plate at the same time.
If a person passes food using chopsticks from a main plate, they will put the food directly onto your plate; you should never try to grab the food from their chopsticks with your chopsticks. For when two sets of chopsticks are in the same “area” this is very taboo, because it conjures up images of death and funerals. In the traditional ceremony following a burial, family members pass charred pieces of bone to one another while using chopsticks.
* Note: most people will commonly use communal chopsticks, and not their own chopsticks to pass food. If they use their own chopsticks, a polite way to pass food to others is to use the back end of their chopsticks, as not to share the same side as they would eat with.
Don’t poke your rice with chopstick
To avoid dropping them or having them roll away off one’s plate, it could seem practical and even useful to stick your chopsticks into one’s bowl of rice. However, this is likely the most inappropriate and taboo manner to handle chopsticks, because it specifically represents death. Chopsticks are inserted into a bowl of rice at burial rites in Japan, facing upward to serve as a reminder of mortality. It is also a sign of misfortune; thus, it should be avoided when dining out at all times.
Don’t rub the chopstick
Many people outside of Japan often rub chopsticks together to ensure that any splinters are brushed away, but in Japan most Japanese people don’t do this and it may get you many awkward glances if you do. It could even be construed to the shop owner, “why are you providing us cheap chopsticks?”.
Bonus: Don’t be surprised or consider it rude when people make slurping noises while eating soba, udon or ramen noodles, because it is a part of Japanese culture. You do not have to make a slurping noise yourself, but it is not a bad manner in Japan. In Japan, slurping noodles is a sign of appreciation, as well as cools down the hot noodles and enhances flavour by adding the inhalation of oxygen to the mix.
Lining-Up and Public Behavior
Given how well-organized Japanese people are, you should anticipate seeing single-file queues wherever you have to wait, including restaurants, cash registers at stores and supermarkets, public restrooms, taxis and public transportation areas. Cutting lines is quite disrespectful, so make sure you check where the back of the line is (because it’s not always so easy to see in crowded metropolitan areas) and line up accordingly.
Even though there are many people waiting in line at the train station, especially in Tokyo, they do so in an orderly fashion. Usually, lines on the ground mark where you should stand to wait for your train. When the train arrives, wait until all the passengers come out before boarding.
When you visit Japan, you’ll undoubtedly note how quiet everyone is in public places, specifically on trains, subways, and buses. In general, Japanese people speak in a much quieter voice than other foreigners. In addition, talking on the phone or speaking out loud to others is frowned upon especially while riding public transport; so keep your voice down and discussions brief. Also don’t forget to switch your phone to silent mode, or get off the train at the first station if you must talk on the phone while using public transportation.
In general, Japanese people like rules, order and formality, so small things like jaywalking are often not done, despite no cars being around or approaching. There are exceptions however, in cities like Osaka, people often jaywalk.
Bonus: Eating while walking or on the street, may not be “rude” but may definitely be considered strange. Japanese people like the finer things in life and food is no exception. So when eating, it is more enjoyable to saviour the moment, sit and enjoy one’s food.
Not showering before getting into the onsen
Another mistake many foreigners make when undressing and heading into the hot spring area is to go directly from the changing room to the hot pool of water. However, since everyone uses the same water, it is imperative to keep the hot spring water as pristine as possible. Before using the public hot springs, everyone must thoroughly wash their bodies, faces, and hair with shampoo and soap. Also, be sure to thoroughly rinse. Similarly to this, taking a shower with soap and shampoo after your long bath is customary.
Dipping towels into the hot spring water
The majority of Japanese people cover themselves with tiny towels when changing, leaving their clothes in baskets in the changing area. They carry their towels as they transition from the changing room to the shower area, then to the hot spring pools. When entering the hot spring area, you can bring the tiny towel with you and use it to cover your privates until you enter the pool. When bathing in the hot spring water, you can also place the towel on your head. You must always keep your towel above water and it is not acceptable to rinse your towel in the hot spring water.
Wearing bathing suits in the hot spring
Over 138 million people visit an onsen or hot springs annually, making them a traditional and well-liked pastime in Japan. There are few co-ed hot springs, but the majority are divided into male and female areas. Wearing a towel or bathing suit is typically required at co-ed hot springs. Although most hot springs require that you be naked to access, there are certain public onsens for families or groups that permit bathing suits. Although the idea of taking a naked bath in front of strangers may seem unsettling, it is actually quite a liberating and rejuvenating experience.
Don’t expect to use onsen, pools, or gyms with visible tattoos in Japan.
In many western countries, tattoos are nearly the norm rather than the exception, although they are still highly frowned upon in Japan. Although their previous association with organized crime is primarily blamed for this, the government response is not clear. In any case, you should anticipate possibly being denied access to traditional Japanese onsens if you have numerous visible tattoos (or to pay for a pricey private session in your hotel’s onsen, though this isn’t always a guarantee either). Any pools or gyms should be avoided if you have any visible tattoos. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, but if you plan to use a pool, gym, or onsen and have a lot of tattoos, it’s a good idea to ask ahead of time.
Overall, being able to travel is a blessing. Many people do not have the privilege to do it. For those who get the chance, it brings excitement into their lives and teaches them new things. Any trip experience, no matter how positive or negative, will undoubtedly teach you something.
Similar to this advantage, travel makes it simpler to comprehend others. You’ll discover more about how other people think, live, eat and speak. Your sensitivity to various cultures and individuals will increase as you step outside of your comfort zone.
But keep in mind that privilege comes with responsibility. It is safe to say that Japanese people are very hospitable though we should always repay them with respect for their culture and traditions as well as how they do things in their own country.