Japanese culture is extremely rich with history and customs. And with a culture so rich comes unique mannerisms only prominent in the country. A lot of these customs are extremely new to us, and that’s okay. I bet the locals don’t expect us to know all of their culture anyway.
But it’s always a good idea to prepare yourself before your trip to Japan. We wouldn’t want to accidentally disrespect someone. To get you started, we’ve compiled a list of 7 top survival tips for Japanese manners. If you learn them by heart before you go to Japan, it’s a pretty safe bet you’ll be more than respectful towards the local culture.
1. Learn the basics of the language
When going to a foreign country, it’s no guarantee that everyone can speak English. Don’t assume and learn the local language – or at least the basics of it. In Japan, the first language is Japanese. And while the people here learn English in school, not everyone can speak it. To make your trip go more smoothly and just for the sake of convenience, learn basic Japanese. Or what I would call, survival Japanese.
Pick up a cheap Japanese learning book and learn how to introduce yourself, how to order, how to ask questions, and how to ask for directions. Heck, you should subscribe to Nihongo Master right now. We have the best of the best materials to help you learn Japanese!
2. Be cautious of footwear
In Japan, footwear is a big issue. You might find yourself taking off your footwear quite often. Traditional places like shrines and temples, ryokan and izakaya, and even restaurants would require you to take off your shoes before entering. If you don’t know if you need to take them off, ask a staff member. You could also observe the people around you to see if they’re taking off their shoes.
A lot of tourists don’t know this about Japan, so this is a common mistake. I’d recommend wearing cute and neat socks – they’ll be on display quite a bit. I have holes in my socks…and it gets embarrassing having people see them…
3. Take note of paying etiquette
While Japan is moving towards a cashless society, a lot of the country is still pretty much cash-based. Local restaurants and shops might not accept credit cards, and some taxis would require you to pay cash, too. This is especially so in smaller towns and countryside areas.
Another thing to take note is that money and cards are not passed from hand to hand. There’s a cash tray where you should put your money or card down and the cashier will take it from there. It might be a bit weird at the start, but it’s how it is here. You’ll get your change and receipt from the cash tray, too.
Oh, and there is no tipping culture here. If you do leave a tip, the cashier might think that you forgot your change and chase after you to return it!
4. Learn basic chopstick etiquette
Chopsticks are the go-to utensil here. Don’t expect to find forks in any restaurant here, unless you ask for them. Even if you can use the chopsticks pretty well, there is specific etiquette you gotta abide by.
For one, never play with your chopsticks. Don’t point your chopsticks at people. Don’t wave them in the or. Don’t pass food from one pair of chopsticks to another. Don’t stick your chopsticks in a bowl of rice upright – this is like a funeral ritual.
There are more chopstick rules, but those are the basics. Just don’t play with them, period.
5. Know the rules of street drinking and eating
Japan is pretty known for street food, although it’s not the same as some other countries in Asia like Thailand. In fact, the rules of street eating and drinking are different. In Japan, eating and drinking on the streets are frowned upon. Even on buses and trains, you’re generally not supposed to do that.
However, it’s pretty common to see locals munching on a snack before going to work, especially from a konbini (コンビニ). You would notice that they would be standing outside the store and finishing their food before walking. This is the same for cans from the vending machines. Finish up your food or drink before continuing walking.
If you’re on a long-distance train ride like a Shinkansen (新幹線), the bullet train, you’re actually encouraged to eat. There are even workers pushing food trolleys down the alley throughout your ride.
6. Mind your volume level
The Japanese people are really mindful of their space, especially when out in public. Speaking in a high volume is not encouraged in Japan, as you would affect others around you. This is like respecting the space that you share with other strangers.
When you’re with a group of people, try to keep your volume down, especially when on public transport like trains and buses. If you’re on the phone, speak quietly – but not on the train, because you’re not allowed to speak on the phone when on the train.
7. If you don’t know, ask
Last but not least, if you don’t know something, ask. Don’t assume something, because it might be completely opposite from what you expect. The locals wouldn’t be offended if you don’t know something. In fact, they would welcome any questions you might have about their culture and mannerisms!
You’re good to go to Japan!
These seven survival tips will definitely help you to learn about the local Japanese culture. As mentioned earlier, you’re not expected to know every aspect of local mannerisms, but it’s always good to know a bit. And showing interest would score you brownie points, too