How to Act When You Go to Japan - Cultural Etiquette and other Practical Notes: EDITED

cultural etiquette for Japan

Edit: check out my post on One World 365 for more tips! 

I'll admit, I'm an etiquette nerd. I like to know the rules of the game before I decide to break any. And traveling to a culture so different from the western culture I'm accustomed to makes me nervous. So I've been researching etiquette rules for Japan and keeping them in a journal with me. (BTW, what's the primary way you keep track of your travel research? I'd love to know how others do it!). This is the research I did ahead of us going to Japan, afterward (or during the trip) I will come back and mark which are useful and which were not.

I was also interested in putting this all in one easy-to-find place, so you'll only have to read 1 article instead of many. Sorry if my Japanese phoenetics are a little off! feel free to correct.

EDIT: Since coming back from japan, I have decided to edit the original list below so I can share what I learned

Eating and Drinking

There is so much information on Japanese food - and a lot of do's and don'ts!

Let's start with the DONT list. Do not: 

photo courtesy of -click picture to visit his site

photo courtesy of -click picture to visit his site

  • leave chopsticks standing upright (done at funerals)
  • pass food to another person's chopsticks
  • play with your chopsticks
  • use chopsticks to point
  • cross chopsticks (symbol of death)
  • pierce food with chopsticks - if needed, use a fork
  • use unmatching chopsticks
  • rub your chopsticks together (implies cheapness of business)
  • eat food directly from a shared plate - transfer it onto your own plate first
  • hover your chopsticks over the shared plate - make the choice before you go in
  • swirl your chopsticks in your soup
  • pour your own drink - you pour others, and others pour for you

EDIT: these are all more or less true, but I find that the rules are a little more flexible for people who are obvious foreigners. I did follow these, and I did not see natives deviate from these tips

Other practical notes about eating and drinking

EDIT: see italic comments below

  • if a serving utensil is available, use it instead of your own chopsticks when taking something off a shared plate
  • if the waiters don't lead you to a table, you can sit anywhere
  • it's ok to slurp your noodles!
  • everyone's food may arrive at different times - eat when it arrives, don't wait!
  • food is expensive, so buy from local shops if possible - Food is expensive, but we went when the yen was weak so we didn't notice it as much. 
  • clean up after yourself when eating out - depends on the restaurant, just like in North America
  • the water is generally safe to drink
  • meals are big and meant for sharing
  • Japanese people (mostly of the older generation) do not eat and walk - there were signs in Asakusa that eating and walking was prohibited, but that did not stop people from doing it. They did provide seating to help encourage people not to, but I get the feeling it's more to avoid littering
  • some bars are for locals only - make eye contact with the staff and wait for "irrashai" (welcome!) before entering - if we weren't welcome, they made a cross with their arms across their chest and said "sorry". There was never any confusion on whether we were wanted or not.
  • Most, if not all, restaurants and bars were closed in the afternoon between lunch and dinner. 
  • in the evening, restaurants fill up fast! It's better to eat early, especially when in a group of more than 2 people.

Japanese phrases related to food

  • Kam-pah-ee = cheers before drinking
  • ee-tah-dah-kee-mas = bon apetit
  • goh-shee-soh-sah-mah deh-shee-tah = appreciation when the meal is finished
  • oi-shii = delicious
  • ir-rash-ah-ee = welcome
  • Koh-reh-oh Koo-deh-sigh = please may I have this one


Japanese currency 1000 yen

Japan is still largely a cash economy. Some places will not accept credit card. Remember these things when paying for items.

  • use both hands when giving money or accepting money

  • cashiers do not like to take money from your hands - place money in the tray on the counter - very true, if you forget, they will gesture towards the tray. Take your change with both hands and bow slightly.
  • tipping in Japan is not expected and can even offend people if you leave money behind
  • when ready for the bill, cross your forefingers to form an 'X'


Tsurunoyu Onsen  photo courtesy of, click picutre to visit website

Tsurunoyu Onsen

photo courtesy of, click picutre to visit website

An onsen is a Japanese hot spring. Bathing facilities and inns usually surround the natural hot springs. There are over 2,000 hot springs areas across the country. Onsens are integral to Japanese life and an ideal way to relax. Keep these things in mind below to have the best time.

  • bathing is segregated because bathing is done nude
  • it's considered unclean to have ANY fabric touch the water (like a swimsuit or a towel)
  • clean yourself with soap before entering the onsen at a tap or shower station
  • Tattoos are rarely if ever accepted in an onsen. They represent gang-life as many Yakuza have tattoos. If your tattoo is small, it's usually accepted to cover it with a waterproof bandage. 
  • do not talk in an onsen!

EDIT: we did do a traditional onsen. I asked prior to using the onsen if I could use a bandage to cover my tattoos and she indicated this would be ok. The cleaning rituals before and after bathing in the onsen are very rigorous! the Japanese are very thorough in this. Also, even though you are nude, there is a lot of modesty; people do not look at you or watch you and they turn their eyes away if you approach. 


Photo courtesy of  KNP GREEN LIFE  and - click photo to visit and purchase these stylish slippers!

Photo courtesy of KNP GREEN LIFE and - click photo to visit and purchase these stylish slippers!

Shoes are usually removed when going indoors and it's a clear sign you need to remove your shoes if the building has a sunken foyer (genkan) and there are rows or shelves by the door. Or you see other people's shoes - when in Japan, do as the Japanese!

  • always take off your shoes if entering
    • a private home
    • a traditional accommodation
    • temple
  • You will usually be given slippers unless the place has tatami mats, then remove all shoes and slippers and place them at the entrance to the room
  • wear nice socks, without holes.  

EDIT: because we did not visit any private residences, and we did not go in any very traditional shrines or temples, we did not have a problem with this at all. We were given slippers where they were expected (for the onsen and at the airport if shoes were required to be removed) and did not need to carry them with us.

Lifestyle and being Out-and-About

Here are some other tips I read about that might help out too

  • have all destinations written in Japanese for cab drivers - we did not take a cab, public transit in Tokyo is very convenient.
  • subway lines in Tokyo operate by 2 different companies and it's important to know which group of lines you're on, as tickets are different - we made this mistake once, and after that, we looked for the correct line. JR lines are all labeled JR, to tell them apart. 
  • subway shuts down at midnight
  • public transportation is generally quiet or silent - this was true, but some quiet talking and discussions were fine. Mornings are usually quieter than the evenings.
  • deciphering taxi lights: red light means vacant, green light means occupied
  • no need for power converters in Japan - true, everything charged normally
  • people generally wear surgical masks when ill or have allergies to avoid coughing on others - it was never evident why one chose to wear a surgical mask but about 1/3 of people did
  • it's considered uncouth to blow your nose in public - not necessarily true, I saw a handful of men in varying public places blow or wipe their nose. perhaps this is for women? 
  • there are very few public trash cans - just put the trash back in your bag and throw it away later
  • most Japanese people do not wear sunglasses
  • bowing:
    • if someone bows to you, return an incline of the head.
    • you can bow as many times as you want
    • only shake their hand if they offer first
    • bow when you meet someone, say thank you or goodbye
  • instead of tips, give small gifts from your home country, which are much appreciated
  • use two hands when accepting gifts
  • temples and shinto shrines are religious sites: speak quietly and dress respectfully 
    • Temples are Buddhist
    • Shrines are Shinto
  • earthquakes are common in Japan
  • driving is done on the left side of the road
  • most public bathrooms don't have toilet paper or hand drying facilities - this is only really for bathrooms in parks, most public bathrooms have toilet paper.
  • don't point with a forefinger, use an open hand
  • men sit cross-legged, women fold their legs under their hips
  • it is proper custom to notify the clerk before trying on clothes
  • Shinjuku station is the busiest train terminal on Earth
  • no official dress code, but men often wear collared shirts when going out at night
  • smoking on the streets is prohibited

Other useful Japanese phrases

Japan written in Japanese script - Photo courtesy of erepublik, click to visit website and learn some Japanese!

Japan written in Japanese script - Photo courtesy of erepublik, click to visit website and learn some Japanese!

  • Soo-mee-mah-sehn = excuse me, sorry
  • ah-ree-gah-toh = thank you 
  • Eh-ee-goh wah deh-kee-mah-soo kah? - do you speak english?
  • wah-kah-ree-mah-sen = I don't understand

Check out this site for more! 

EDIT: all in all, the information I found on the internet before going were good guidelines to follow. I found that people were more lenient with foreigners and willing to laugh off silly things foreigners did. I was worried about fitting in, and realized when I got there, that would never be possible anyway. I focused instead on being respectful. 

Let's get lost in Japanese etiquette!