The Japanese culture is an intriguing mix of both openness and ritualistic propriety. While we share some taboos, much of what seems familiar to us would be unthinkable or outright insulting to them. So it’s essential to know the Japanese culture’s do’s and don’ts to prevent awkward moments or insulting a host, especially as a first-time traveler.
Contrary to what some people would like to believe nowadays, as a visitor to a foreign country, the onus is on you, not the locals, to conform. As a foreigner, you’re granted many leeways because you’re not expected to know all of the social no-nos. But it’s still in your best interest to learn them as it shows a level of respect towards the Japanese people. Most of these are very simple and won’t cause you too much hassle. Some are a bit harder for foreigners, particularly Americans, to adjust to our Quaker roots’ physical modesty. But, now that the introduction is out of the way let’s get started.
Here are the dos and don’ts for first-time tourists in Japan:
Don’t stick chopsticks in rice.
In Japanese culture, sticking chopsticks into the rice is reserved for funerals. Doing so outside of that circumstance is viewed as very disrespectful. When you’re done eating or want to rest your chopsticks, lay them across the top of the bowl. If you’re eating a set meal, there is sometimes a hashioki (chopstick rest) included. If so, place them there instead.
Other things that are considered lousy manner regarding chopsticks include:
- Pointing with chopsticks.
- Moving bowls or plates around with them.
- Spearing food.
- Using the same end to eat and take shared food with.
- Passing food to another person’s chopsticks. This is also only done at funerals.
- Playing with them.
You might be surprised how much this one annoys foreigners. I remember the first time my mother visited me in Japan. Out of everything about the culture, this is the one she just couldn’t get over. Ramen is the most perfect food ever devised by man. But one look at chopsticks will tell you that they aren’t made for soup. This is where slurping comes in! Slurping noodles allows the noodles to bring the soup to you. Slurping cools the noodles, as ramen is intended to be eaten immediately upon being served. Slurping also lets the cook know you enjoy the meal. More sound means you can’t get enough! Go ahead and slurp all you want! Just try not to be messy about it.
Don’t pour your own drink.
This is a common courtesy that even I find myself forgetting from time to time. Particularly after a trip home where it’s not a thing. Now, this doesn’t mean you should pick up your glass and start waving it at someone saying, “I want more beer!” Instead, this one is something of a game of subtle clues. It’s usually best to be the first to offer, as Japan is a very status-driven culture. And as a foreigner, you are generally just above children in status until you integrate yourself into a group. Keep this in mind, especially when joining a food tour or a bar-hopping tour in Japan.
Do accept gifts when given.
In Japan, there is actually sort of a tradition in gift-giving and receiving. The best way to accept a gift is to politely refuse it once or twice, but no more than three times. Then, take the gift with both hands while bowing and say, arigatou gozaimasu (thank you). Unless specifically asked to do so, never open the gift in front of the giver; it gives the impression that it is more important than the person.
Other things to remember with gifts include:
- Give gifts at the end of the visit, privately, if possible.
- When giving gifts, as with receiving, pass the gift to the person with both hands while bowing slightly.
- When giving the gift, it’s common to say, tsumarainai mono desu ga. Which translates to, “it’s boring, but please accept it.”
- Avoid giving gifts in groups of 4 or 9 (e.g., giving 4 cupcakes). The number 4 (shi) in Japanese sounds like their word for death (shinu), and 9 (ku) sounds like suffering (kurushimi). It’s like you’re wishing death and suffering on the person.
This one is actually one of my favorites. Tipping in Japan is a big no-no in almost all situations outside of foreigner-owned bars. In fact, tipping your waiter, hotel, taxi, etc., is considered insulting. As if you’re looking down on them for the job they’re performing. So when you’re done with your meal, thank the person who brings the check, and just pay without trying to figure out what 15% of JP¥3,900 is.
Do drink alcohol in public.
This one is actually my favorite difference between the country’s laws because I feel like it just treats people like adults. Much to my surprise, when I tell people about this law back home, I’m often treated to wide eyes and remarks like, “I can’t imagine how much-drunk driving they have,” or “The streets must be filled with drunks.” The entire concept is ridiculous to them.
Some key differences here:
- The legal drinking age is 20.
- Public consumption of alcohol is legal anywhere.
- Homebrewing of alcohol over 1% is illegal (though rarely enforced).
- Alcohol sales are 24/7.
- 0.03 BAC constitutes Driving Under the Influence (DUI).
- Drunk driving is severely punished.
I bet some of you are sitting there wondering how this could be possible while still having a functioning society. Well, America used to have similar laws, until people with dumb ideas about alcohol took power. This works in Japan because alcohol is so deeply ingrained into their culture that only green tea is a more culturally relevant beverage. This means that alcohol isn’t both glorified and taboo like it is in America. Alcohol, instead, is just part of life here.
Now, there is undoubtedly public drunkenness here, but in a very Japanese fashion. Not directly bothering others, driving, or committing a crime. It’s not uncommon to see a group of friends carrying one of their own back to the train when they’ve had too much. Or, salarymen drinking all night with their bosses can only sleep it off at work the next day.
For those of you worrying about drunk drivers, don’t. Drunk driving isn’t a big problem here. As pointed out above, if you’re caught driving while drunk, you could face immediate revocation of your license, fines in the range of $5,000-$10,000, and imprisonment of 2 or more years. And remember, that’s just for a DUI. If you hit someone, or god forbid, kill someone, it’s over. You’ll be spending the majority of your life in a Japanese prison.
Don’t blow your nose.
Long before COVID-19 struck, the Japanese people wore masks in public for two reasons. To prevent getting others sick and to avoid getting sick from others. This brings us to why blowing your nose in public is rude. If you get sick, be considerate. Go to the nearest convenience store and buy a pack of face masks.
Do be open toward sexual openness.
Without a doubt, this one is the biggest culture shock for westerners, particularly Americans. Suppose you’ve ever seen a Japanese anime or manga. In that case, you have some idea of how the Japanese view sexuality in media. But you may not be ready for some of the other ways they’re more open about it.
For instance, they’re not over-protective of their children when it comes to adult content. It’s not uncommon to find adult manga next to teen or children’s manga in stores. The same goes for adult magazines. They don’t cover them up, as you would see in an American store. They have entire stores dedicated to adult media. Kawasaki has a yearly fertility festival where the participants carry omikoshi (religious palanquins) with giant carved penises for all to celebrate. This festival is also famous for phallus-shaped treats, such as genital lollipops.
Don’t walk on the wrong side.
This one may sound a bit weird, but it is born from the density of cities like Tokyo. When you walk on the wrong side, you impede pedestrians’ flow and mess up the orderliness that Japan loves so much. This is especially true regarding escalators and moving walkways. For Americans, this means walking on the left side. When on escalators and moving walkways, it means standing on the left and passing on the right. Unless you’re in the Kansai region, where it is reversed. If you fail to do this, expect Japanese people to be very angry with you. If you’re ever wondering which side you should be on, just follow the flow of locals.
Do ask someone’s age.
Asking a person how old they are is usually one of the first questions you’ll be asked in a casual conversation with a Japanese national. It’s a good icebreaker question. Another reason is that Japan’s social structure and hierarchy puts a lot of emphasis on respect towards those older than yourself. Just as we have a lot of trouble telling how old Asians are by looks, they also have difficulty describing how old foreigners are. Expect this question to be turned into a game of guessing the other person’s age. You should also be prepared to be assumed to be far older than you really are. I have been regularly thought to be 37 from the time I was 25. To go along with this, you should also prepare to be asked what your job is. That said, never ask someone how much they make.
Handshakes, nudging, or touching to get someone’s attention. We use these physical cues in much of our lives without thinking. But it’s all considered rude in Japan. Instead, stick with bowing and limiting touching to friends who have clearly made their feelings on it known to you. As with most taboos and courtesies, there are different rules for close friends and loved ones and acceptable for the public.
Do take your shoes off.
Removing your shoes before entering a tatami room or in a private home’s entryway or genkan, is an absolute must. It is a cleanliness issue and a holdover from when a home’s flooring is made entirely of tatami mats, where shoes would damage them. Instead, house slippers are worn inside the house. This is also true for toilet rooms, where there are slippers meant only for those rooms. Honestly, this is just good practice for all homes. Think about where you walk each day outside. Do you really want that on your floor?
Don’t walk while eating.
In today’s busy world, you may be used to grabbing a quick bite to eat on your walk to work or while riding the bus or taxi. Well, all of that is frowned upon in Japan. It shows a lack of respect for the food and the work which went into making it. This is a sentiment I can really get behind. Food should be cherished and enjoyed by others. You should savor the food and live in the moment with each bite. This idea seems out of place when you visit Japan as food vendors, and vending machines are everywhere. Even so, you’re expected to go to a designated area. A bench, a table, or just out of the way, and eat there.
Do dress to impress.
Japan has an impressive view when it comes to acceptable dress. And it’s different for men and women. It’s very unusual for Japanese men to wear shorts and open-toed shoes outside of a beach or pool. Basically, if you want to wear them, water should be involved. Stick to jeans or slacks with casual shoes.
Contrary to what you have seen in manga or anime, Japan is more conservative regarding women’s dress. At least, as far as tops go. Exposing too much cleavage or shoulder is considered scandalous, no matter how hot it is outside. If you still choose to reveal cleavage, expect to attract a lot of attention. The rules are totally different from the bottoms, though. Micro-skirts, tiny shorts, and other clothing that leaves little to the imagination are commonplace here, no matter how cold it is. You can basically expose all of your legs, as long as your torso to the neck is covered.
Don’t address someone by their given name (without permission).
In Japan, the family name would be the first name they give you. If they don’t, use the name they gave you. If they give both, use their family name followed by –san until they tell you otherwise. In fact, even if they give you their given name, use –san until they say otherwise as well.
–san is an honorific roughly translated to Mr. or Mrs. It’s a sign of respect. Family honor is still a large part of Japanese and Asian culture as a whole, so they give it before their own name. It represents that the family’s honor comes first, then the self.
Do call your waiter at a restaurant.
One of the most embarrassing things that happened to me in Japan was that I sat at a table for 30 minutes without service and couldn’t figure out why. Well, it turns out, the waiters need to be called before they come to you. The idea is that you are there to enjoy your meal, and you shouldn’t be interrupted while doing so. Don’t expect the waiter to come to ask you how your meal is or if you need anything during your meal. To make this easier, most restaurants come with call buttons on the tables. You press it, and the waiter will come and help you. So if you’re at a restaurant that doesn’t have call buttons, simply call the waiter by saying, “sumimasen,” and they’ll come to assist you.
Don’t get into the tub without taking a shower.
Japanese onsens (hot spring baths) are among the most incredible and relaxing experiences you can have during your visit. If you’re in Tokyo, you must visit the Oedo Onsen theme park in Odaiba for the ultimate Japanese bath experience. There are a few bits of etiquette here to remember: Shower before entering the tub! The reason for this may seem obvious; you’re bathing with others.
Other rules to remember are as follows:
- Don’t dip your hair into the water.
- Don’t touch others.
- Don’t talk loudly in the sauna.
- Don’t splash around in the water, especially for kids.
- Don’t get into the baths soapy, and don’t use soap in the baths.
Do abide by “random” police searches.
The Japanese don’t mess around when it comes to illegal immigration. If you’re doing something even slightly fishy, the police can check to ensure you’re in the country legally. You must have your passport or residency card with you at all times. If not, the police can detain you, and, if you’re indignant about the search, fine you up to $1,000. Police will often wait outside of popular nightclubs to search patrons leaving for prohibited drugs and proper paperwork. Not that I expect any of you to be involved with such nefarious dealings, but Japan is not a country to try it.
Don’t be loud on public transportation.
If you’re traveling in a group, try and keep yourself together and speak quietly to avoid being a nuisance to those around you. This includes phones as well. Avoid making phone calls, playing videos with sound, etc. If you’re listening to music on headphones, keep it from being heard by others. Many people in Japan live in tiny spaces, so the Japanese live by the concept of omoiyari, having compassion, and being considerate of those around you.
While we’re on the subject of public transportation, you should also know these bits of etiquette:
- Always give up your seat to the elderly, mothers, or expecting mothers.
- Don’t use your phone near the designated handicapped and elderly seating areas.
- Don’t speak across from you. Sit next to the person you wish to talk to.
- Don’t eat on the train, bus, or while walking down the street. Drinking is okay.
- Respect the “Women Only” train cars during the designated times.
- Don’t cross your legs. I’ll admit, I’m guilty of this one. But it’s viewed as rude because it’s considered very casual, and it takes up more space on the train.
Do check if your medications are legal.
American tourists are allowed to bring up to a two-month supply of certain over-the-counter medications, as well as a one-month supply of prescription medications. Be prepared with alternatives because the “I had no idea” excuse doesn’t cut it at customs. Those of you who use cannabis or cannabis-related products (CBD or THC), even with a medical prescription, leave it at home. It is entirely illegal in Japan, and you will be charged with a crime. Even if you obtain a doctor’s written permission outside Japan, certain medications that contain pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) and amphetamine (Adderall) are illegal in Japan.
Guidance from the U.S. Embassy regarding prescription medication says the following:
Heroin, cocaine, MDMA, opium, cannabis (marijuana), and stimulants, including some prescription medications such as Adderall, are prohibited in Japan. There are no exceptions in bringing these prohibited medications into Japan, even if it is legally obtained outside of Japan.
~ U.S. Embassy & Consulates in Japan
Make sure you bring a doctor’s prescription and a letter stating the purpose of the drug. If you must get more than a month’s supply, or if you’re carrying syringes (EpiPen) or a CPAP machine, you must obtain a Yakkan Shomei, a type of import certificate. Then present it along with your prescription medicines at customs. For a more complete list and forms for medication approval, be sure to check out the U.S. Embassy in Japan’s website here.
Don’t maintain eye contact.
Unless you are dealing with business, it is considered rude and a sign of Japanese society’s aggression. When speaking, try to only look at the person’s eyes, about 25% of the time, to show that you’re still invested in the conversation. Nodding, along with the conversation, helps alleviate this issue a lot as well. This rule doesn’t necessarily apply to close friends. But as a general rule for speaking to strangers and casual acquaintances.
Do expect to be declined service sometimes.
This one may sound incredible and downright racist to an American. Still, many establishments will actually turn you away from being a foreigner. It doesn’t seem to matter what your race or ethnicity is. These places will turn you away simply because they don’t want to deal with the language barrier. Other reasons for this include a perception that foreigners cause problems and fights in bars, and sometimes the owner is just racist. Another reason is that the establishment is Yakuza-run, and they simply reject all foreigners. If this happens to you, just move along and take your money somewhere else. Don’t waste time thinking about it. After all, do you really want to be served food by people who don’t want you there in the first place?
Don’t go to a tattoo parlor (unless they’re certified).
Many travelers come to Japan to get a tattoo from the many incredible tattoo artists here. Japan has a love/hate relationship with tattoos. And seems to be mostly due to the connection with organized crime in Japan yakuza. According to the court ruling in Osaka a few years ago, getting a tattoo in Japan may be a crime depending on the parlor you get it at. That’s because this court ruling deemed that only medical professionals are legally allowed to ink you up. As with many laws, this one is lax enforcement. But many tattoo artists, particularly in Osaka, have been fined and forced out of business due to this ruling.
Do smoke in designated areas.
Tobacco has a special place in Japanese society, and it’s incredibly popular. So much in fact that the Japanese even write it as とばっこ using Hiragana, a writing system reserved for Japanese words, rather than Katakana, which is usually used for foreign words. Convenience stores have entire walls behind the cash register filled with cigarette selections. Everything from menthol to e-Cigarettes is not to be confused with vaping, they’ll have it. If you’re a smoker traveling here from the states and you’re 18 or 19, prepare to be going cold turkey on cigarettes for a while, as the legal smoking age is 20.
Another significant difference here is that smoking is allowed in most restaurants and bars. Some of which have designated smoking sections. To make things weirder, you can’t smoke while walking down the street or sitting on a bench in a park here. You must instead smoke in designated areas while outside. Of all these laws, this is the one I tend to have the most trouble with because I don’t like being around smoke at restaurants and bars.
Don’t be like Logan Paul, the annoying tourist.
Logan Paul was punished by Youtube for posting a video that upsets many Japanese.
Aside from his shortcomings, here’s how not to be ‘that’ annoying tourist in Japan:
- Don’t disturb, harass, and blatantly take photos of geishas or maiko if you see one.
- Having said that, always ask for a permit if the person you are about to take a photo of is the main subject of the picture.
- Don’t throw litter.
I hope you find the information here useful for your trip to Japan. As you can see, not all of the differences between Japan and America are bad, but it can still be a bit of a shock for first-time visitors. I wholeheartedly believe that we should do our part in being good representatives of our home countries. Be a responsible tourist!