The dos and don’ts of Japanese etiquette

10 ways to make a good impression in Japan. Source: Shutterstock.

JAPAN has plenty of beautiful idioms, including one everyone can relate to, “猿も木から落ちる” which literally translates to “Even monkeys fall out of trees.”

Even though Japan is a welcoming nation with great mottos, there are still a few cultural faux pas that could be seen as offensive, and even dangerous, rather than just an accidental blunder.

But because Japanese people are inherently polite, you may never know if you’ve offended someone.

Familiarising yourself with the dos and don’ts of Japanese culture is essential before visiting the country. You’ll not only steer clear of offending anyone unnecessarily, but you’ll also enrich your experience and have way more fun.

Here a few of the biggest no-nos and yes-dos in Japan.

Do learn the basic language

If you’ve ever been to a Japanese restaurant, watched an anime film or conversed with a native Japanese speaker, you’ll probably already be familiar with “konnichiwa” (Good day), “arigatou” (Thank you) and “kawaii” (Cute).

These basics are great, but if you can learn whole phrases you’ll find your exchanges are far more rewarding, especially when seeking hidden dining spots and fun bars. Such as:

  • “Where is the­­­­­­______?” – “_____wa doko desu ka?”
  • “How much is it?” – “Ikura desu ka?”
  • “What’s your name?” – “o-namae wa nan desu ka?”
  • “I don’t understand.” – “wakarimasen.”

Don’t take photos of people

Taking photos of market sellers, people in traditional Japanese wear, or just about anyone without asking is considered rude.

Taking pictures in Japan

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Even if you don’t speak Japanese, use the international “Can I take a picture please?” motion to ask permission.

Do reciprocate politeness

Learning the basic language will undoubtedly help you to reciprocate politeness.

However, in situations where you haven’t the foggiest what someone is saying, simply smile and nod along until they’ve finished speaking and then politely say “wakarimasen“.

Don’t jaywalk

Ignoring pedestrian crossing systems might be second nature at home but almost everyone in Japan waits for the green man to say when it’s safe to cross.

Shibuya Crossing Tokyo Japan

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Even if there’s no traffic, people and bicycles still wait and it’s important you do the same.

Do keep face

This is a big part of many Asian cultures and revolves around maintaining a respectful, courteous and calm demeanor in public and ensuring others have a good impression of you.

The easiest way to do this is by being polite to everyone you encounter and never getting angsty if something or someone riles you.

Do eat sushi the traditional way

Not many people are aware that the correct way to eat sushi is with your hands.

That’s right, leave the chopsticks where they are and utilize the digits nature gave you.

Japanese etiquette

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However, only nigiri sushi should be eaten this way and not sashimi. And the rice should never be dipped into the soy sauce as it’ll disintegrate.

Don’t do things in public

This includes eating, smoking, displaying affection and speaking or laughing loudly.

Doing any of these things in public, including on public transport will get some unwanted looks.

Smoking in public, outside of designated spots is a fineable offense in most prefectures but allowed in most bars and restaurants.

Do slurp as loudly as you can

When you’re eating, slurp to your heart’s content.

Japanese Restaurant

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Slurping food loudly in Japan, especially ramen (noodle soup) is considered polite as it informs the chef that you’re enjoying the food.

Don’t litter

Japan isn’t far behind Singapore in terms of cleanliness and spotless streets have become a noticeable part of Japanese culture.

In fact, most people take their rubbish home with them to dispose of in recycling bins. If you’re unable to do this, keep a firm hold of it until you find one of Japan’s far-and-few-in-between public bins.

Don’t split sushi

This is the most offensive thing you can do to an itamae (sushi chef) except for perhaps spitting it out or asking rudely if the fish is fresh.

Splitting sushi, either into more manageable bites or to share, implies to the chef that it’s not good enough to be eaten whole.

Japanese etiquette

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While the chef probably won’t say anything, you’ll unlikely be welcome back to the restaurant.