In Japan, many everyday events are governed by strict rules of etiquette that are often unspoken and easy for foreigners to get wrong. Here are some tips to prevent you from embarrassment or causing offense.
If you have tattoos, cover them with a bandage or you might be turned away from entering an onsen. Few onsens tolerate tattoos because they suggest gang associations.
Make sure to shower and remove all clothing before entering the main onsen. Even though your hair is clean from showering before entering the actual onsen, never let it touch the water. If you have long hair, do as the locals do – use a small towel to wrap it up into a bun.
This is the most common mistake. There’s a reason the entrance of each house has a spot for your shoes. Some restaurants, shops, or galleries might ask you to remove your shoes before entering, so make sure you're wearing matching socks, and that they have no holes.
Toilets are generally regarded as unclean areas, so many homes, restaurants, and even some public toilets have slippers lined up at their entrances. Just make sure you use these when you’re inside the toilet area only. Toilet slippers are an object of extreme disgust in Japan.
If you make the mistake of going into a bathroom without toilet slippers on, be prepared for a banshee squeal that can break glass. Expect one with double the ferocity if you wear these slippers back out onto the tatami mat.
Believe it or not, sniffling is preferred over blowing your nose in public. If you have to blow your nose, find a private spot, like inside a bathroom. It goes without saying, hold onto your tissues until you find a bin.
Never barge your way onto the train. Platforms have markings that show where to form orderly queues while you wait and always let others disembark before you get on.
Once you’re on board, try to keep noise to a minimum. Loud chatter or behavior is usually frowned upon because it invades others’ space. Avoid talking on the phone (put it on silent) and send messages instead.
Eating and drinking should only be done on long-distance trains.
There are also designated seats for the elderly, injured, pregnant women, and those with young children – don’t be rude and sit in them if there’s someone who obviously fit one of these categories. Some commuter trains also have cars designated for women only. Male travelers should take care not to board those cars.
Do not show public displays of affection. If you do, you will receive discouraging looks especially from older Japanese people.
You might be in a rush, but don’t eat while standing or walking on the street. Sitting while eating shows you have an appreciation for the food.
Smoking on the street is illegal. Instead, find a clearly marked smoking area to light up.
Locals generally follow rules when crossing roads, but occasionally people do cross on red signals, especially in cities. Keep in mind that the rules are there to keep you safe.
Never use your own chopsticks to grab food from a communal dish, unless you have the okay from everyone on the table. Use the cutlery provided or a pair of communal chopsticks instead. If none of those are available, one workaround is to use the non-pointed ends to tuck in, or to serve others.
It’s polite to serve others before serving yourself. Passing food from one pair of chopsticks to another or sticking them upright inside the bowls are big no-no. This is reserved for funeral rites.
Japan is one of the most technologically advanced civilizations on earth. Their innovations continue to revolutionize our society on a daily basis, and their adherence to systems of order, ritual and cleanliness are utterly remarkable.
But for a society that places incredible importance on tradition and system, sometimes it can backfire. For example, in the business world, you’ll see a tradition where nobody wants to leave the office before his or her boss, because this would create great shame. So you get offices filled with people who have nothing to do, yet stay until 9pm, and then commute home for an hour and a half.
But, because this is the tradition, it’s never questioned or examined – it’s just the way things are. As a traveler, from time to time you will encounter these kinds of traditions that defy logic – the best thing for you to do is to accept this is the Japanese way of life.
The Japanese disposition is composed and collected – even if there might be a tumult of emotions bubbling under the surface. Maintaining an even demeanor and preserving harmony is an important factor in Japanese society, so if you are frustrated, it’s the Japanese way to keep it locked away to deal with in private.
Shouting, screaming, raising your voice – it's just not the done thing in Japan, and people who do are considered uncouth or immature.
Despite these tips, you’re bound to commit one or more of these if it’s your first (or even fifth) visit to Japan.
Fortunately, most Japanese locals are very generous and will kindly point you in the right direction. A quick bow, a genuine “Sumimasen” (sorry), and following correct etiquette will soon put you on the right path again.
Get the most out of the healing waters of Japan’s famed onsens with our step-by-step guide – without making a fool of yourself.
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