Japan is an exciting and pulsating country, filled with historic and religious sites, a modern heart, high-tech gadgetry, and an interesting culture. Whilst most Japanese people are pretty understanding of mistakes made by a foreigner, there are some cultural dos and don’ts in Japan that can easily be avoided.
The concept of face, especially losing face, is very important within Japanese society. To show respect, avoid causing offence, and to make new friends with ease, here are some common cultural dos and don’ts in Japan to be aware of:
Wear Shoes Indoors
It is incredibly impolite, and seen as dirty and loutish, to wear shoes inside many places in Japan. It is especially important that you take your shoes off when entering a person’s home or a revered place. A good indication of whether or not you need to remove your shoes is to look outside – if there is a pile of shoes outdoors, it is safe to assume that you must also remove yours. Some places provide slippers for people to use. If these are available, use them. Also, you will probably see slip on shoes for use within a bathroom – do not wander out of the bathroom whilst still wearing the designated footwear as this is viewed as being very dirty and offensive.
Stab Chopsticks Upright into Rice
Leaving your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice is seen as being extremely rude and unlucky. In Japanese society it is seen as a bad omen and a foreboding of death, as upright chopsticks in food is a symbol of offerings to the dead. It can really upset people around you, and they will likely chastise you for doing so, which will in turn cause you to feel embarrassed and ashamed.
Have respect for others around you by keeping your speaking volume in check. Bear in mind that on long journeys, other people may be trying to sleep, and do not want to be disturbed by your dulcet tones. It is polite to leave a train carriage, for example, when talking on a mobile phone so as not to bother other people in the carriage. Japanese people are generally quite softly spoken – when in Japan follow suit and do the same.
Leave a Tip
Tipping is not a part of Japanese culture. It is seen as strange, and in some cases offensive. Save yourself money and save causing offense and confusion, and no matter how rude it may seem to you, do not try and give tips. This applies to serving staff in bars and restaurants, taxi drivers, porters, and similar.
Accept That Things are Different
There are many things that are different in Japan than in other countries. This is part of the beauty of visiting and discovering a new culture and way of life. Hotel rooms are generally smaller than what you are used to – it is pointless complaining about the size of a hotel room. You must accept that this is how things are in Japan. A further example is food. It is not expected nor accepted that customers will try to customize food orders. In a society that values consistency and structure, it can be very confusing if somebody asks for a menu item to be changed slightly.
Avoid Hot Topics
Some conversation topics are contentious, rude, and downright impolite. Avoid discussing the World Wars and island issues with China and Korea.
Ask Before Taking a Photograph of Somebody
Not only is this good manners everywhere, but Japanese people are very suspicious of anyone who they feel is trying to covertly take photographs in a public place. Always ask before you snap away at strangers. In addition, if there are no photograph signs in a place, you should respect these.
Learn a bit if the Local Lingo
It is a common error to assume that everyone you meet in Japan will speak some English. Whilst many people can, you will also likely encounter some people who cannot. As well as being useful, a few words of Japanese can really endear you to the local population and make you stand out as a polite visitor.
Wash Before Swimming
People in Japan will always wash before using a public pool / bath – you should do the same. If you do not, you will be seen as dirty, disrespectful, and uncouth.
These cultural dos and don’ts in Japan should stand you in good stead for your trip and help you to make the most of your time in this fascinating country.