View Full Version : Guide to Japanese manners & etiquette

May 20, 2004, 00:32
Please check my latest article : http://www.wa-pedia.com/culture/japanese_manners_etiquette.shtml

The indispensable basics

Never enter a house with your shoes. This is one of the few rules for which Japanese will not make allowance just because you are a foreigner. This rule is also valid for some establishments like schools. Slippers are usually provided in the entrance hall. If slippers are provided for the toilet, use them instead of the one for the rest of the house.

When you are invited into a Japanese family, bring a small present or "omiyage" (souvenir, usually food). If you are coming straight from your country, it is preferable to bring some local culinary specialities from your home town/region.

Say "o-jama shimasu" (sorry for disturbing) while entering someone's house.

Some shops, cafes or departmement stores provide plastic covers for umbrellas. Make sure not to enter with a dripping wet umbrella without one.

Refrain from blowing your nose in front of other people. Japanese only use paper tissue for this. Like in other Asian countries, it is considered rude to blow you nose in a handkerchief and stuff it in your pocket afterward. Japanese are usually aware of this Western practice, although that might make them feel uncomfortable.

You should not eat while standing or walking in the street. Even inside a house, you should sit down to eat. The only exceptions are for eating at a counter (e.g. ramen) or for eating an ice-cream in the street. This custom is one of the most difficult to adapt to for many non-Japanese, as it doesn't seem to make much sense.

Do not point your finger, feet or chopsticks at people. If you have to indicate an object or direction to someone, wave your fingers with the palm downwards.

Avoid being expressing your opinion too directly. Japanese have what they call "honne" (real opinion) and "tatemae" (public opinion). They will express the latter in most situation so as not to disturb the group harmony. It is of course flexible and consist in agreeing with the people around you as much as possible. This is the reason why Japanese are so bad at debating serious issues in public (including the media). "Honne" is what you really think but do not say openly, or only to close friends or relatives.

Avoid interrupting people when they are speaking or thinkig about an answer. Japanese do not mind short periods of silence in the middle of a discussion.

Avoid fixing someone in the eyes (for men, even, or especially beautiful girls sitting in fromt of you in the train).

Do not use your mobile phone in trains unless it is clearly allowed to do so. Using emails or SMS is fine though.

Money should be given in an envelope, but only about half the Japanese really take the trouble. Most men do not seem to care, except for formal situations. Never forget this rule for weddings. In addition, the number of banknotes given to the married couple should be a odd number, as superstitious people believe that the couple might separate if the number can be divided in two.

Table manners

Do not stick your chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice, as this is used in Buddhist funerary ceremony.

Do not pass food to someone else with your chopsticks for the same reason as above.

At a "nomikai" (e.g. while going drinking with colleagues at an Izakaya), you should (re)fill the glasses of people around you when they are empty, and they should do the same for you. If you want to refill you glass, start by serving other people. If you do not want a refill, do not empty you glass.

It is polite to say "itadakimasu" once before eating or drinking, and "gochisousama deshita" to your host or to the restaurant's staff after eating or when leaving the place.

Contrarily to Western manners, noodles can be and should be slurped. Likewise, bowls or plates should be brought up the the mouth rather than bending one's head toward it.

Business etiquette

"Meishi" (business cards) are exchanged when meeting someone for the first time. They should be given and accepted with both hands in formal situations.
Make sure to observe it carefully and remember your opposite's name. Place the card on the table in front of you if you are sitting, or put it in your wallet. Do not put a proffered cards into your pocket or fold it in any way.

Bathing etiquette

Japanese wash themselves before entering the bath, as they have a customs of sharing the bath water. This is true as well for public baths (sento 銭湯) as for thermal spring (onsen 温泉) and bath in individual homes. The reason is that other people will use the same water after you (except if you live by yourself, of course). Therefore, you should not empty the bath after using it.

Japanese like bathing in (very) hot water (40 to 50 degrees celsius). If it is too hot for you, you can add a bit of cold water, but not as much as it becomes tepid, or the next person won't appreciate it.

In public baths, do not mistake men and women's changing rooms, as it is extremely impolite, even if you really mistook. The men's room are usually on the left, and normally has a blue curtain with "otoko" (男) or dono-sama (殿様) written on it. The women's room is usually on the right, with a red curtain reading "onna" (女). If you are not sure, ask !

Absolutely avoid bathing suits in public baths, as this could create incidents with Japanese customers and you could end up expelled from the premises.

Tattoos are banned in most public baths. If you have one, you should consult the staff at reception beforehand to avoid causing trouble.

Traditional manners

In the most traditional families, you might have to do the following things.

Sit in the "seiza" position. This can be difficult and painful for Japanese themselves, especially taller people. It involves sitting on the floor with the legs folded under your body, with your back resting on your heels.

It is usually said that people should avoid the number "4" for gifts. Like in China and Korea, 4 is pronounced the same way as "death". However, it seems that very few Japanese people really care about this superstition nowadays.

May 20, 2004, 01:21
The other exception to eating while standing outside is at festivals. It is not uncommon to see people doing this. Though you rarely see people walking & eating.

I never paid attention to any prohibitions against walking & drinking from a can or pet bottle. It's not a big enough faux pax to worry about.

I generally wouldn't recommend putting meishi (business carsd) in your wallet (especially if it's the kind you put in your back pocket). I always put meishi in the case where I kept my own meishi. Or I would put it in my shirt or suit pocket.

50C water is almost unheard of. The "hot" baths are usually around 44 or 45. Typical baths are around 42. And rotenburo are usually not very hot at all; not compared to the inside baths anyway. That's been my experience.

May 20, 2004, 08:57
I generally wouldn't recommend putting meishi (business carsd) in your wallet (especially if it's the kind you put in your back pocket). I always put meishi in the case where I kept my own meishi. Or I would put it in my shirt or suit pocket.

Lots of people do not carry their "meishi-cho" (card holder) around. When I meet Japanese business people and exchange meishi, they always keep their meishi and put mine in their wallet or sometimes diary (esp. women). I do the same as I only keep my meishi-cho at home, then move them from my wallet to the meishi-cho when I come back home.

50C water is almost unheard of. The "hot" baths are usually around 44 or 45. Typical baths are around 42. And rotenburo are usually not very hot at all; not compared to the inside baths anyway. That's been my experience.

Sorry, I was also referring to sento and onsen. Anyway, 45 degree is not so hot. :bluush:

May 21, 2004, 09:39
Yes, I know you were referring to sento and onsen and I still say that you will never see a 50C bath. (The water pouring into it might be that temperature but the average water temperature of the bath itself is rarely above 45C). Most places these days display the water temperature digitally on the wall. Typical temperature is around 42. The "hot" baths may be around 45 or 46 on the high side. More than that would be highly unusual.

May 21, 2004, 10:54
Under table manners, I would add that it is polite to hold your rice bowl, soup bowl, or at least touch pates on the side as you take food or eat from them. Not to do so is seen as lazy and unappreciating. I noticed it is slipped in there at the end though...

Don't stab your food with chopsticks to pick it up. Yes, you see people doing it from time to time, but it is not really kosher.

It is very polite to drink using both hands - one on the side to hold it, and one supporting the glass from the bottom with the fingers.

Also, just in case this is not universal, it is polite to try everything once. If you don't like it that is okay, but give it a shot.

Under General, recieve and give gifts with both hands.

The lower the bow, the more respectful. Women with hands lightly clasped in front, men at the sides (most often). Try not to bend the back and make a slouch into a bow. Looks really silly.

Jun 22, 2004, 11:23
This is all very well but it gives no mention of two people in my office. One has a good "Cough up and spit in the sink session each day. The other one blows his nose in the sink.

Worst of all is the custom of not actually saying any thing to them about it!

A few customs I would rather not get used to

Jun 22, 2004, 12:19
A Gaijin was eating a sandwich on a crowded train. The Japanese guy seated in front of him whispered it's not proper to eat standing. The Gaijin asked "Can I have your seat then?" :D

IMO, eating standing up wasn't even the real issue. It's inconsiderate to eat a sandwich on a crowded train in ANY country. What if the train made a sudden stop and the sandwich in your hands ends up in the face of the old lady standing next to you, mayo and all.

He should've eaten while standing or seated on a bench on the platform.


Jun 23, 2004, 03:18
Just a question for you guys. When you visit the schools, is it disrespectful not to wear the slippers? I've been many times, and the slippers just don't fit well at all. Is it considered ok to walk around in sock feet or bare foot? I know that the floors tend to be pretty dirty, but those slippers can really be a pain in the a#$!

Mar 30, 2005, 01:11
Help me pls!!!
I am doing a small study about Japanese wedding. anyway, i don't know what those dos and don'ts are there in such a formal ceremony. And what kinds of dishes for a traditional wedding party????
Thank u !!!!

Mar 31, 2005, 02:55
in places where slippers are appropriate is it ok if you wear chinese cotton slippers (that you didnt wear outside) ?

because i'll hardly find japanese slippers in size 15 (50) :D i accidentaly found the ones in size 15 from china

Jul 24, 2008, 22:32
This post is extremely interesting. However, I believe being open-minded and respectful is more important than knowing all the rules. Japanese etiquette is so complex that you will always commit a faux-pas at some point.

I just wrote a story on my 5 cents about manners for a foreigner in Japan. I warmly welcome your feedback:


Oct 19, 2008, 03:21
I just wrote a story on my 5 cents about manners for a foreigner in Japan. I warmly welcome your feedback:

Hi Uchimizu, i have bookmarked your blog and intend to read it bit by bit when i have time. Is it ok to add to my blogroll?

Aug 11, 2009, 20:11
So much to remember...but I assure you that though the Japanese are strict when it comes to manners, when in doubt if you can do something...ask! For the most part, they will kindly let you know what is appropriate and what's not. Check this blog for more Japanese etiquette tips "happinessisjapan"

Jan 3, 2010, 13:33
Hmm. I don't know if you'll have the info I need but does anyone happen to know the proper etiquette to use for when in the presence of someone of very high stature? Like a Princess for example.