Customs and Etiquette in Japan: 15 Things Every Visitor Should Know

Posted by Fodor's Editors on May 04, 2010 at 2:08:19 PM EDT | Post a Comment
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From chopstick faux pas to respectful forms of greeting, here are the top things you need to know (and avoid) on your next trip to Japan.

Customs

1. In the United States, being direct, efficient, and succinct are highly valued traits. In Japan this style is often frowned upon.

2. Make sure you don't express anger or aggression. These traits are equated with losing face in Japan, something you do not want to happen. Also stick to neutral subjects in conversations; private lives are kept private.

3. Most Japanese do not use first names casually, so use last names with the honorific –san after the name in social situations.

4. There is no "fashionably late" in Japan, so be on time. Eating in public and overt physical affection is also frowned on by older Japanese.

Greetings

5. Japanese of all ages and backgrounds bow in greeting each other (even on the telephone!), and foreign visitors who at least bob the head will get a smile of recognition. However, Japanese know all about handshaking as well, and the visitor's head may crash with an outstretched hand.

Sightseeing

6. There's no strict dress code for visiting temples and shrines, but you will feel out of place in shorts or outfits with modest skin coverage. Casual clothes, including jeans, are fine for sightseeing. Remember to remove your shoes when entering temples. There are usually slippers by the entrance for you to change into.

Out on the Town

7. Men are expected to wear a jacket and tie at more expensive restaurants and nightclubs. Women should wear a dress or skirt. If you've been invited out to dinner, either in a private home or restaurant, it's customary to bring a small token for your host. If you are in a home, remember to remove your shoes and put on the slippers that are usually waiting for you.

8. When eating, it's okay to ask for a fork if you're not comfortable with chopsticks. If you do use chopsticks, do not use the end of the chopstick that has been in your mouth to pick up food from communal dishes. And never leave your chopsticks sticking straight up in your food. This is a big no-no. Rest them on the edge of your bowl or plate instead.

9. Drinking is something of a national pastime in Japan. If you're not up to the task, never refuse a drink (it's considered very rude). Instead, sip away, making sure your glass is half full.

10. Whatever you do, do not pour your own glass. Companions traditionally pour drinks for each other and pouring your own is pointing out that your companions are not attentive. In the same vein, if you see an empty glass, fill it.

Doing Business

11. Make sure you allow adequate time for travel—being late for a business function is not appreciated.

12. Wear conservative-color clothing and bring along meishi (business cards). Meishi are mandatory in Japan, and it is expected that when you bow upon meeting people you will also hand them a card, presented using both hands; only English is okay, but if you have one side in Japanese and one in English, your business associates will be very impressed.

13. Remember to use last names with the honorific –san when addressing people. Also, hierarchy matters to the Japanese, so make sure your job title and/or rank is indicated on your card.

14. You may see your associates putting the cards on the table in front of them. This is so they can remember your name easily. Follow suit; never shove the cards you have just received in your pocket or bag.

15. It's not customary for Japanese business people to bring their spouses along to dinners, so never assume it's okay to bring yours. If you want to bring your spouse along, ask in a way that eliminates a direct refusal.

Photo courtesy Jay_Sottolano, Fodors.com member.

Posted in Travel Tips Tagged: Japan

Member Comments (18)  Post a Comment

  • thursdaysd on Sep 24, 10 at 05:24 PM

    I am posting back to this thread, as I am now in Japan, without a skirt, and the suggestion that an average female tourist needs to take a skirt turns out to be just as silly as I thought it was to start with. (And I'm a Brit by birth, so the "Ugly American" crack is off base, and I never said anything about taking shorts.)

    Yes, just as in the UK you will see more women wearing skirts than in the US, but the vast majority of women, of all ages and apparent socio-economic class, are wearing trousers. I mentioned this discussion to my Welcome Guide in Kyoto (a woman wearing trousers) and she had a good laugh - a real laugh, not the embarrassed titter kind. She said that she thought that fashion was now global.

    If you are going to a high-powered business meeting, or a really expensive restaurant, you might want a skirt (but consider how you will sit in it if the restaurant doesn't have chairs). But for the average tourist - if you don't wear a skirt at home you don't need one in Japan.

  • thenetimp on Jul 24, 10 at 12:47 PM

    I personally have to laugh at this article. I have been to japan 11 times, lived here for 3 months in 2002 (I say here because I am again living here now.) While some of the above hold some truth the Japanese are not as rigid as everyone seems to think they are. They also give foreigners a lot of slack. They don't expect you to know all the customs, and they always appreciate what you do know. You could know 10 words of Japanese and they'll call you an expert. Eating with Hashi (chopsticks) is really impressive to them. Take the article with grain of salt.

    I have not dealt with japanese business yet, so I can't comment on that section, but I think that advice makes sense. You are trying to impress them there, don't be a fool.

    As for the comments on whether to dress nice or not, it really depends on who you are with and what you are doing. If you're a 20 something year old hanging out with 20 something year olds in Japan and going out for dinner at the local joint casual is fine. If you are going to a fancy restaurant then dress up, it's no different than if you are in any other modern county in the world. Japans more westernized than this article gives it credit for.

  • thenetimp on Jul 24, 10 at 12:41 PM

    Caroline yes, most restaurants and households if they normally serve communal dishes will have serving utensils, but it is also common for Japanese people to share food that is normally non communal. For this they usually ask for a 2nd pair of chopsticks, or if the restaurant uses disposable chopsticks then you just grab another from the container on your table. Also they are not called chopsticks in Japan they are called Hashi.

  • caroline26 on Jul 22, 10 at 10:29 PM

    I am planning to travel to Japan next month. Question about the advice: If you use chopsticks, do not use the end of the chopstick that has been in your mouth to pick up food from communal dishes. Of course, I would use the same rule with my fork or spoon here, but would expect to find a serving utensil in a communal dish. Can I expect the same there?

  • 5alive on Jun 8, 10 at 02:27 PM

    Just came across this post. Everything said here about the formality of the Japanese is true. One addition: When we hosted Japanese business people, we were advised more about the business card etiquette than is posted here. Once it is time to put the card away, really think about where and how you do it. If you keep your wallet in the back pants pocket, it is considered offensive to put the card in your wallet because then you are sitting on their card. Best to wear a suit jacket and put the wallet with the card into the inside chest pocket of the jacket. Otherwise, purchase ahead of time a small case to keep business cards in, again, to show that it is valued and kept special. These instructions were given to us by people who spoke Japanese well and lived and did business extensively in Japan.

  • lek523 on May 11, 10 at 01:22 PM

    I for one appreciate these helpful hints. I am leaving for Japan next week and this is precisely the type of information I find useful in order to be polite. As an avid traveller I have found these types of hints help to make my visit better. There is nothing more embarrassing than the ugly American. It's tacky. If you immerse yourself in the customs of the country you are visiting you will generally find a friendly, warm people willing to go out of their way to ensure you have a good time. When you are open and receptive you tend to have a much more positive experience.

  • farmer_annie on May 10, 10 at 01:26 PM

    Hopefully, anyone visiting on business will have been briefed by their company on the extensive hierarchy/etiquitte/business practices in Japan. I have to agree, just becaue it was not commented on does not mean that the Japanese were not offended. As a former exchange student, a major faux pax I made was totally overlooked by my host or so I believed, until years later when I heard it STILL being discussed! One thing I didn't see that in the advice that I would add is I found was that the Japanese are very uncomfortable with direct eye contact, that is considered rude as well as being direct. Also with the meishi, it is customary small talk to make some sort of comment like "is this your extension number" re the phone number. just to show that you've actually read the card. Japanese are fabulous hosts, I have rarely been treated better even with my big lapse. But they will remember. And as far as the response on what they have seen the people on the street wearing, you see a lot of Goth in some neighborhoods, does that mean it's appropriate to wear for someone who wants to make a good impression? We should all be ambassadors for our culture. When I traveled to an Islamic country I covered my head and arms not because I shared their religious belief but because I respected the culture. My hosts appreciated it too.

  • AdamT Fodor's editor on May 10, 10 at 08:38 AM

    Thanks for the catch. Typo fixed.

  • totorosan on May 9, 10 at 12:04 PM

    Thanks for the useful information! But it's hard to receive advice from someone who doesn't know the difference between "you're glass" and "your glass".

  • frequentflier on May 8, 10 at 02:30 AM

    I also agree with George. When we visited Japan a few years ago we were fortunate to have a friend who had lived in Tokyo for about 5 years and his advise was very helpful.
    Finger pointing or citing your singular experience misses the point of respecting a foreign culture.
    I'm a little surprised by Thursdaysd's comments. I find dresses/skirts far more comfortable, versatile and fashionable than shorts.

  • Vermicelli on May 7, 10 at 01:23 PM

    I tend to agree with George. I have family who have been to Japan many times. As visitors to Japan, we should respect their customs and traditions, just as I would want visitors to the US to respect ours. If I were to visit Japan, I would pack a nice skirt or dress that I would wear when dining out at a nice restaurant (if I could afford it). Many companies make "travel" clothes that are lovely and don't wrinkle.

  • leobroces on May 7, 10 at 08:48 AM

    Hmmmm I think this post really helps when planning your visit to Japan. It's worth reading. Very informative!

  • GeorgeR7110 on May 6, 10 at 10:24 PM

    @hknack:
    The point of my comment was NOT that Japanese are better. I am not Japanese, how they behave in their own country (or ours) is their concern, not mine.

    My point is that we have an image that could stand improvement, and it is the responsibility of every one of us to behave in such a way as to make us all proud (or at least, not cause any further embarrassment). What one person does reflects on all of us. Let us not forget that the common expression is "Ugly American". It is not Ugly John/Jane. (Just like in Lancaster, you did not see Mr or Mrs Hayashi, you saw Japanese.)

    BTW, endangered poppies??? I hate to see flower beds trampled as much as the next person, but there are places in the world (I'm specifically thinking of central Turkey) where you can find poppy fields as far as the eye can see.

  • Bill_T on May 6, 10 at 08:13 PM

    Always pack a simple dress,skirt, and scarf. George is right on. I was lucky enough to live in Japan for a year. They will not indicate that one is not appropriately dressed. Why not have some self respect and look good in public at all times? Vacation or not!

  • hknack on May 6, 10 at 06:51 PM

    I was on vacation in Tokyo just last year and found many of the Japanese women wearing less clothing (and in quite poor taste) than any tourist I saw there. I was actually quite shocked at the short skirts and sky high heels given the culture there. And in regard to George's comments about the actions of American tourists bringing shame on all of us I have this story to share. I live in Los Angeles and just last week was in Lancaster, CA to witness the annual poppy fields in bloom in the preserve there. Sadly, I can't even begin to count the number of Japanese tourists who despite the signs and warnings by the rangers to stay on the trails, were stomping all over the endangered poppies in order to have their pictures taken with them. We were horrified that they would deliberately disobey the rules for a picture. So before you start pointing the finger at Americans and making sweeping generalizations, realize that every country has its share of idiots. Americans, unfortunately, are not the only ones.

  • GeorgeR7110 on May 6, 10 at 02:50 PM

    I am looking at the two above comments with amusment and embarrassment. Japanese people are very polite and tolerant. That does not mean your behaviour is proper. The expression used to be, "When in Rome do as the Romans do." Apparently now it has morphed into "I'm an American and I will d*mn well do whatever I please!" I say shame on you for bringing shame on all of us.

    > I'm a tourist, not on business.

    Who cares? Does being a tourist give you license to be a slob? We are all ambassadors of our countries when abroad. If there is the remotest chance of being invited to a home or an upscale establishment pack a nice simple skirt.

    > and have worn pants at many meetings

    And how successful were the outcomes of those meetings? No Japanese businessman would be so rude as to comment, but you certainly lost a lot of face when you showed up in your pant suit or whatever you wore.

    But then, ignorance is bliss, ne?

  • mkk4050 on May 6, 10 at 10:29 AM

    I have traveled to Japan several times for business and have worn pants at many meetings. This is absolutely acceptable practice in modern Japanese business settings, While you may not see shorts on men or women in Tokyo it is common outside the city, especially when it is hot/humid.

  • thursdaysd on May 4, 10 at 09:25 PM

    "Women should wear a dress or skirt." Seriously??? I'm a tourist, not on business. I don't usually travel with a skirt & certainly not a dress (don't remember the last time I wore one). A sarong, maybe...

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