Top cultural tips for Japan

Posted by Martin Parker on

The island nation of Japan is on many peoples bucket list, and rightly so. For anyone from the USA or Western Europe, the culture of Japan is very different and intriguing. The land of Sushi, Sumo, Emperors and the bullet train is similar in size to Germany but with a much larger population.

Geisha girls in Japan

Japanese culture is very conservative, polite and respectful. Etiquette and customs are very important and are generally followed to show respect for other people. To avoid embarrassing moments, take note of these few things to avoid doing. Make sure you pack a USB travel adapter in your hand-luggage to keep your phone and camera fully charged. Missing the great photo because of a flat battery would be annoying!

Respect and courtesy are paramount!

Don’t stand out as a tourist!

It is normal for Japanese people to dress quite conservatively, with women covering their shoulders and almost certainly not showing any kind of cleavage. If you don’t want to stand out, leave the walking and running clothing for when you are actually hiking or running! The Japanese tend to be smart casual at least and a pair of tracksuit pants and sneakers will definitely mark you as a tourist.

Phone etiquette

Talking loudly on your phone is a very quick way to annoy your Japanese hosts! This includes when on public transport, such as the bullet train, where it’s polite to put your phone on silent. If it’s an urgent call, then move to the doorway between carriages to avoid disturbing your fellow passengers.

The other place to put your phone on silent is in areas of respect such as temples and shrines. This is true of course in most countries, but in the highly respectful culture of Japan even more important.

While we are on the subject of temples, you will often be required to remove your shoes before entering. It should be obvious, by the pile of shoes outside the entrance!

Tipping

Unlike most western countries, the tipping of staff is not expected and can be seen as very rude. Waiting staff in restaurants and bars see it is an honour to provide you with the best service possible. If you try to leave a tip, it will almost certainly be turned down and if you leave money on your table, you may find yourself being chased down the road as they try to return your change! We know it may go against everything you have done in the past, but don’t tip! Thank them for their exceptional service, in Japanese if you possibly can and that will make them happy.

Outdoor etiquette

It may come as a shock to many of us that live busy lives, but the Japanese find eating or smoking as you walk around very rude. For smoking, this is to prevent others from having to breathe in your cigarette smoke and you should either stand in one place or go to a designated smoking area.

The same applies to eating and drinking. Many stores now provide seating areas outside the store for this very reason.

Consideration for other people is the driving factor here, so if you bear that in mind and avoid anything that may annoy, it’s a good start!

Chopstick abuse!

Unlike the humble knife and fork, chopsticks have symbolic meanings and misusing them will quickly upset the locals.

Use your chopsticks to eat your food. Don’t try passing a piece of food to your friend with them, but instead put the food on a separate plate and pass that across.

Standing your chopsticks upright in your rice bowl has a special meaning that is used at funerals. Don’t do it!

There is a holder for your chopsticks when not in use. Remember to use it and prevent them from falling off the table.

Kanpai!

Japanese etiquette is to say a toast, followed by “Kanpai” before sipping your alcoholic drink. Similar to bottoms up in English, it roughly translates to "empty glass”.  

No Jaywalking

For Americans, this is normal, but in many European cities, crossing in between rows of cars is common practice. It’s illegal and true to their strong beliefs in law and order, the Japanese will not do it. 

Before visiting Japan, take a quick look at our blog on suitable travel adapters for Japan and also our guide to dual and multi-voltage equipment. A USB travel adapter will be invaluable, allowing you to charge multiple devices at once so you never miss a photo opportunity.

 


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