Culture and Etiquette in Japan

Japan is famous for its complex web of social conventions and rules of behaviour. Fortunately, allowances are made for befuddled foreigners, but it will be greatly appreciated – and even draw gasps of astonishment – if you show a grasp of the basic principles. The two main danger areas are to do with footwear and bathing, which, if you get them wrong, can cause great offence.

Some general pointers

Japan is a strictly hierarchical society where men generally take precedence over women, so ladies shouldn’t expect doors to be held open or seats vacated. Sexual discrimination is widespread, and foreign women working in Japan can find the predominantly male business culture hard going.

Pushing and shoving on crowded trains or buses is not uncommon. Never respond by getting angry or showing aggression, as this is considered a complete loss of face. By the same token, don’t make your opinions known too forcefully or contradict people outright; it’s more polite to say “maybe” than a direct “no”.

The meaning of “yes” and “no” can in themselves be a problem, particularly when asking questions. For example, if you say “Don’t you like it?”, a positive answer means “Yes, I agree with you, I don’t like it”, and “No” means “No, I don’t agree with you, I do like it”. To avoid confusion, try not to ask negative questions – stick to “Do you like it?” And if someone seems to be giving vague answers, don’t push too hard unless it’s important. There’s a good chance they don’t want to offend you by disagreeing or revealing a problem.

Blowing your nose in public is considered rude – just keep sniffing until you find somewhere private. Finally, you’ll be excused for not sitting on your knees, Japanese-style, on tatami mats. It’s agony for people who aren’t used to it, and many young Japanese now find it uncomfortable. If you’re wearing trousers, sitting cross-legged is fine; otherwise, tuck your legs to one side.

Meetings and greetings

Some visitors to Japan complain that it’s difficult to meet local people, and it’s certainly true that many Japanese are shy of foreigners, mainly through a fear of being unable to communicate. A few words of Japanese will help enormously, and there are various opportunities for fairly formal contact, such as through the Goodwill Guides. Otherwise, try popping into a local bar, a yakitori joint or suchlike; the chances are someone emboldened by alcohol will strike up a conversation.

Whenever Japanese meet, express thanks or say goodbye, there’s a flurry of bowing. The precise depth of the bow and the length of time it’s held for depend on the relative status of the two individuals. Foreigners aren’t expected to bow, but it’s terribly infectious and you’ll soon find yourself bobbing with the best of them. The usual compromise is a slight nod or a quick half-bow. Japanese more familiar with Western customs might offer you a hand to shake, in which case treat it gently – they won’t be expecting a firm grip.

Japanese names are traditionally written with the family name first, followed by a given name, which is the practice used throughout this book (except where the Western version has become famous, such as Issey Miyake). When dealing with foreigners, however, they may well write their name the other way round. Check if you’re not sure because, when addressing people, it’s normal to use the family name plus -san; for example, Suzuki-san. San is an honorific term applied to others, so you do not use it when introducing yourself or your family. As a foreigner, you can choose whichever of your names you feel comfortable with; inevitably they’ll tack a -san on the end. You’ll also often hear -chan or -kun as a form of address; these are diminutives reserved for very good friends, young children and pets. The suffix ‑sama is the most polite form of address.

Japanese people tend to dress smartly, especially in Tokyo. Tourists don’t have to go overboard, but will be better received if they look neat and tidy, while for anyone hoping to do business, a snappy suit is de rigueur. It’s also important to be punctual for social and business appointments.

Business meetings invariably go on much longer than you’d expect, and rarely result in decisions. They are partly for building up the all-important feeling of trust between the two parties (as is the after-hours entertainment in a restaurant or karaoke bar). An essential part of any business meeting is the swapping of meishi (name cards). Always carry a copious supply, since you’ll be expected to exchange a card with everyone present. It’s useful to have them printed in Japanese as well as English. Meishi are offered with both hands, held so that the recipient can read the writing. It’s polite to read the card and then place it on the table beside you, face up. Never write on a meishi, at least not in the owner’s presence, and never shove it in a pocket – put it in your wallet or somewhere suitably respectful.

Hospitality, gifts and tips

Entertaining, whether it’s business or purely social, usually takes place in bars and restaurants. The host generally orders and, if it’s a Japanese-style meal, will keep passing you different things to try. You’ll also find your glass continually topped up. It’s polite to return the gesture but if you don’t drink, or don’t want any more, leave it full.

It’s a rare honour to be invited to someone’s home in Japan, and if this happens you should always take a gift, which should always be wrapped, using plenty of fancy paper and ribbon if possible. Most shops gift-wrap purchases automatically and anything swathed in paper from a big department store has extra cachet.

Japanese people love giving gifts, and you should never refuse one if offered, though it’s good manners to protest at their generosity first. Again it’s polite to give and receive with both hands, and to belittle your humble donation while giving profuse thanks for the gift you receive. However, it’s not the custom to open gifts in front of the donor, thus avoiding potential embarrassment.

Tipping is not expected in Japan. If someone’s been particularly helpful, the best approach is to give a small present, or offer some money discreetly in an envelope.

Shoes and slippers

It’s customary to change into slippers when entering a Japanese home or a ryokan, and not uncommon in traditional restaurants, temples and, occasionally, in museums and art galleries. If you come across a slightly raised floor and a row of slippers, then use them; leave your shoes either on the lower floor (the genkan) or on the shelves (sometimes lockers) provided. Also try not to step on the genkan with bare or stockinged feet. Once inside, remove your slippers before stepping onto tatami, the rice-straw flooring, and remember to change into the special toilet slippers kept inside the bathroom when you go to the toilet.


Although you’ll still come across traditional Japanese squat-style toilets (toire or otearai; トイレ/お手洗い), Western sit-down toilets are becoming the norm. Look out for nifty enhancements such as a heated seat and those that flush automatically as you walk away. Another handy device plays the sound of flushing water to cover embarrassing noises.

Hi-tech toilets, with a control panel to one side, are very common. Finding the flush button can be a challenge – in the process you may hit the temperature control, hot-air dryer or, worst of all, the bidet nozzle, resulting in a long metal arm extending out of the toilet bowl and spraying you with warm water.

There are lots of public lavatories on the street or at train and subway stations; department stores and big shops also have bathroom facilities for general use. Note that public toilets rarely provide paper.


Taking a traditional Japanese bath, whether in an onsen, a sentō or a ryokan, is a ritual that’s definitely worth mastering. Key points to remember are that everyone uses the same water, that the bathtub is only for soaking and to never pull out the plug. It’s therefore essential to wash and rinse the soap off thoroughly – showers and bowls are provided, as well as soap and shampoo in most cases – before stepping into the bath. Ryokan and the more upmarket public bathhouses provide small towels (bring your own or buy one on the door if using a cheaper sentō), though no one minds full nudity. Baths are typically segregated, so memorize the kanji for male (男) and female (女).

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