Japan is known for its very polite society, and Japanese people are taught from an early age to follow an unspoken set of etiquette rules. The Japanese don’t expect foreign visitors to know all the rules, but a basic understanding of Japanese customs is certainly helpful. Here are some basic Japanese manners you should know before you visit!
Smoking – Smoking in Japan is still generally accepted in restaurants and cafes, many of which have both smoking and non-smoking sections. However, smoking in public spaces and out on the street is strictly prohibited, and people who violate this rule can be fined. There are designated smoking areas near many bigger stations, as well as smoking rooms inside some shopping malls and even on the shinkansen (bullet train).
Eating and Walking – Japanese people generally don’t eat or drink as they are walking, as its considered to be rude and unseemly. You’ll see most people carrying their takeout in secure bags to eat later, or finishing their drinks while standing at the vending machine. Drinking and eating are also not allowed on public transport. Of course, there are some exceptions to this rule, especially during matsuri, or festivals, which often have pop-up yatai stalls selling street food. But again, rather than eating while they walk, the majority of Japanese people will buy their food and then step off to the side to enjoy it while standing or sitting.
Line Up – When waiting for the train to arrive, be sure to politely wait your turn in line before boarding. If there is a waiting bench on the platform and you wish to sit down, feel free to do so, but make sure to offer it up to any elderly or disabled person should they come by.
Tactile Paving – If you look down while walking down a street or train station, you might notice a path of raised braille-like circles or rectangles running along the sidewalk or platform. This is called tactile paving, also known as “Tenji block” in Japan, and it is there to guide those who are visually impaired. Be careful not to stand on top of the textured lines or cover them with bags. Tactile paving is typically yellow, making it easy to spot.
Priority Seats – Priority seats are the specially marked seats on buses and trains that are designated for passengers who are elderly, have a disability, injury, are pregnant, or are traveling with infants. When taking a bus or train, you may sit in the priority seats if they are open, but be sure to give up your space to anyone who needs it more. If the train is crowded, it’s best to avoid using the priority seats at all, because sometimes people with disabilities may not be obvious at first glance. Many pregnant Japanese women stay quite slim when they are pregnant, and they carry pink tags to let other people know that they are expecting. Be on the lookout for those as well when you are using public transportation.
Women Only Cars – (Jyosei senyousha, 女性専用車) Many trains in Japan have a few Women Only cars, which are easily identifiable by pink signs on the platform as well as on the sides and windows of the train car. For most Women Only cars, for certain hours of the day (usually during busy rush hours), only women can be passengers on that car. If you board a train, then look up and realize you’re on a Women Only car, simply move to the next train car. There are usually signs on the windows stating the designated hours:
Phones – Though it is okay to look at your phone while riding the train, be sure to keep it on silent or manner mode. Further more, speaking on phones should be avoided when using public transportation. You’ll notice that when Japanese people get a phone call on the train, they usually say something like “I’m on the train right now, can I call you back?” Because of this, Japanese trains are usually very quiet and pleasant for all who are riding them.
Carry Cash – Japan is still very much a cash-based society. Most people pay for everything with cash, and few places accept credit cards, especially when you get outside of the bigger cities. Always be sure to carry enough cash with you to cover your expenses.
Tipping – Don’t worry about tipping, as it is not common practice in Japan.
Use the Tray – When you step up to a cash register, many stores and restaurants will have small trays to place the money in, rather than handing it directly to the cashier. If you spot this type of tray, be sure to place the money in there as disregarding it is somewhat rude.
Still confused by Japanese money etiquette? Check out our complete guide to Japanese yen here.
Public Bath Ettiquette
Japanese onsen (温泉: hot springs) or sentō (銭湯: public baths), are are enjoyed by people of all ages. Onsen use hot water taken from a natural hot spring, while sentō use tap water heated by boilers. Both onsen and sentō are very enjoyable to Japanese and foreigners alike, but there is a set of unspoken instructions you should know before you go. Some of these rules include things like showering first before you get in, not wearing swimsuits, tying back your hair, and not drinking alcohol.
For a more detailed guide on how to have good manners in Japanese onsen or public baths, check out our blog entry here!
Shoes Off – Always take off your shoes when entering someone’s home. Japanese see the outside as being quite dirty, so it is expected that you take off your shoes and slide into some slippers when stepping into a house. This custom is practiced in some publicly shared spaces as well, in an effort to keep them clean for everyone’s comfort. Some restaurants, community centers, temples, and schools often require visitors to remove their shoes and use slippers in an effort to keep the place as clean as possible. Therefore, if you enter a new place for the first time, it is a good idea to scan the entrance for any signs indicating whether or not you can wear your shoes from the outside.
Sit Properly – It’s very common in homes, and even in some traditional restaurants, to sit on the floor around a low table to eat rather than in Western-style chairs. And, when sitting in a seat, whether at a home, restaurant, or on a train, never put your feet on the seats, as it is seen as incredibly rude and inconsiderate to those around you. Your legs and feet should be politely tucked beneath you – not spread out – in a way that takes up as little rooms as possible.
Present Souvenirs – When visiting someone’s home for the first time, it’s custom in Japan to bring a gift. When arriving at a Japanese home, bringing along a small gift, called omiyage in Japanese, of snacks or treats are always be much appreciated. Some examples of good omiyage are a basket of fruit, a bottle of wine, or a dessert. It doesn’t have to be expensive or big, but putting it in a nice bag and presenting it in a polite manner will show your hosts that you are familiar with Japanese culture and are thankful for their invitation.
It may seem like common sense, but when presenting the omiyage, be sure not to brag about how special or rare the gift is! While giving a gift, most Japanese people actually play down the gesture and insist that the gift is nothing too extravagant. This is a humble way for them to offer thanks without making it a big deal or showing off that they brought a really nice gift.
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