Wandering the streets of Japan, your eyes will strain to take it all in—the kaleidoscopic colours, avant-garde fashion, and advanced gadgetry will quite simply blow your mind. You’d never guess that intricate rules based on eons of tradition underlie this glossy modernity. The Japanese don’t expect foreigners to know their rules guiding respectful behaviour any more than they expect them to wear the violet pleather fresh off the Tokyo runway, but learning some of the basic customs and etiquette will go a long way. Here are five tips on how a gaijun like you can show some respect and avoid unintentional insults when travelling in Japan:
Keep Your Hands to Yourself, Mister
Dining at a Japanese restaurant or household can be intimidating. There are elaborate rules around table manners that may seem overly formal, but are important to exhibit to avoid looking like you were raised in a barn. So before you plunk yourself down at a table and start getting grabby, keep a few things in mind.
First, don’t pour your own drink. It is customary to serve the others at the table their drinks, and they will reciprocate. Do not take a sip, even a little one, until everyone’s glasses are full. If you’re drinking an alcoholic beverage such as the oh-so-delicious sake, it is customary raise your glass to “Kanpai!” (cheers) and then take the first drink together. If you jump the gun on the kanpai and drink before everyone, you’ll be perceived as rude and selfish.
As for food, chopsticks are the only utensil you should be using to dine. Don’t ask for silverware, even if that means you struggle to hold those slippery little sticks between your clumsy fingers and barely get a grain of rice in each mouthful. There’s a long list of etiquette on the appropriate use of chopsticks, which could fill a whole other article, so let’s stick to the basics: don’t take food from a shared plate with the ends of your chopsticks you’ve eaten from—turn them upside down; don’t point at anyone or anything with your chopsticks unless you intend to offend; and, most importantly, never ever stick your chopsticks into rice and leave them standing upright because this is only done as a funeral rite. In general, just avoid playing with your chopsticks like they’re a toy.
Sock It to ‘Em
Those yellowed socks with holes in the toe? You might want to leave them at home. It is polite in Japan to remove your shoes when entering a house, restaurant, and some places of business. Your cue will be the rows of shoes lined up outside the door. You will be provided with slippers to wear instead, so don’t bypass the funny-looking sandals thinking they were left by someone with terrible taste in footwear. The only time you should remove the slippers indoors would be when entering a room with a tatami floor (very common in dining areas) or when going to the restroom. There will be special slippers outside the restroom for you to wear. Just don’t forget to switch back into your regular slippers when exiting the powder room, unless you want to gross people out.
Season Your Greetings
You really don’t want to mess this one up: greetings. In Japan, people greet each other with a bow. The more respect or formality you’d like to convey, the deeper the bow. For friends and casual acquaintances, a small inclination of the neck and head will do. If you’re meeting Masako, the Crown Princess of Japan, a sweeping bend at the waist would probably be more appropriate. You’ll also notice that people bow to express thanks, apologize, or make a request, so follow suit.
Keep in mind that the Japanese structure their names in reverse of western tradition—the family name is followed by the first name. For example, John Doe would be Doe John in Japan. It is polite to address a person by their family name (only close friends and children are typically addressed by first name). And people almost always attach an appropriate title to the name. The most neutral and safe-to-use title would be “san.” Going with our previous example, the politest way for you to address someone would be “Hello, Doe-san,” coupled with a bow. If a handshake is offered, it is a sign of respect for your Western customs, so try to execute an elegant bow over your clasped hands without butting the poor guy’s head.
Don’t Have a Foursome
In Japanese, the number four is pronounced the same as the word for death: shi. Because of that, four is considered bad luck and avoided with the same level of superstition (if not more) than the western equivalent, the number 13. Hospitals and hotels skips floors and rooms that would be numbered four and you won’t be seeing any four-packs of green tea lying around. When visiting Japan, be mindful of this superstition and avoid presenting your hosts with gifts in multiples of four and perhaps leave your fourth child at home.
Use Your Gift
If you are being hosted in any way, whether it’s dinner at a Japanese person’s home or a conference with Japanese colleagues, it’s polite to bring a gift and you should be prepared to receive one as well. These gifts don’t have to be extravagant—treats, sake, or small souvenirs from your native city are considered appropriate. When giving or receiving a gift, use both hands and bow. After you receive a gift, don’t rip open the wrapping like a crazed eight-year-old at Christmas—show some aplomb and wait until later.
These five tips shouldn’t be too hard to remember, right? You’ve got the basics down and your trip to Japan will be all the richer if you immerse yourself in its traditions and customs. Properly wielding a chopstick, wearing slippers around the house, and doling out maple leaf keychains may seem odd, but it will demonstrate your travel savviness and respect for a very noble culture.
What is the biggest faux pas you’ve committed while travelling?