Every society has its taboos and cultural restrictions. Also, every culture has its own unwritten rules which the members understand from a young age, but which have to be explained to a foreigner. Otherwise, the lack of knowing them or the failure to respect them might generate a huge cultural crisis and have you met by horror-stricken looks on the faces of your peers.
Here are some big no-no’s in Japan, and some fun stories from those who actually happened to unwillingly experience them!
I used to live in France for 1 year before I came to Japan, and I really got used to kissing people on both cheeks or at least hugging when meeting them. I must admit I never did this with Japanese people, even though in Europe they tended to blend in and they would be rather tactile. Therefore, I refrained from being too “touchy” with Japanese people when I moved there.
I lived in Kansai for 4 years, and the people over there, especially in Osaka, tend to have more body contact than people who hail from other places in Japan. You could see teenagers/students gently nudging each other in public, girls holding hands or hugging each other, it was nothing out of ordinary and for a while I did not feel out of place because I thought ” well, it’s almost like in my country!”. After that, I went to Tokyo and things were a lot different. I once touched a co-worker on his shoulder (just as I was doing in Osaka, with no consequences) and he just cringed and looked at me like I was a perpetrator.
If you think it’s strange for a culture not to involve any body contact in day-to-day interactions, think about the difference between our way of greeting a person, and the Japanese way. Western cultures have the handshake as a generally accepted greeting in private as well as professional environments. In other words, in Western cultures, the very first time you meet a person you introduce yourself by a form of body contact. Depending on the area, the most common form of greeting another person might be hugging or even kissing.
Everyone knows the famous bowing procedure in Japan. In order to bow properly, you need to be at least 1 meter away from the other person, and this clearly defines your private space. For sure, in diplomatic exchanges, the Japanese also took up the handshake, but the reflex of bowing makes it quite awkward as it results in a bow-handshake greeting and truth being said, whenever I see something like this I wonder if the two persons are not going to collide!
Long story short, you had better wait until you become really close friends with a person before touching them. If it involuntarily happens, they might understand because you are a foreigner, but they would still consider it awkward/unpleasant.
Who would think that there are any taboos involving a piece of cutlery? If you go to Japan and choose to eat local cuisine, don’t expect to find anything besides chopsticks on the table. Whether you are an ace at using them or just a beginner, there are a few things you have to remember regarding chopsticks.
Rule number 1: Never bite/lick the chopsticks. No matter how delicious the food is, this is unacceptable. Let’s say Japanese culture values hygiene more than anything. The chopsticks themselves prevent any direct contact between your hands and the food. There should be no contact between your mouth and the chopsticks either for the same reasons. Don’t worry, the restaurants clean all cutlery after every single guest, and believe me, they clean it thoroughly but biting or sucking on your chopsticks will still be considered rude and unhygienic.
Rule number 2: Never stick the chopsticks in your rice. Oh I know, lacquered chopsticks are so slippery and you can barely find a place to put them when you take a break from enjoying the rice. But be mindful, never stick them in the top of the rice bowl. When a person dies they put a bowl of rice near the head of the deceased with a pair of chopsticks stuck in it. The piled up rice put at the head of the dead resembles the old burial tombs from the ages when burial was actually a practice in Japan. The chopsticks (‘hashi’ in Japanese) are the bridge (also ‘hashi’ in Japanese) through which the soul can access heaven. You can understand why sticking your chopsticks in a bowl of rice would make everyone around you cringe.
Rule number 3: Never pass food from your chopsticks to someone else’s chopsticks. We’re still in the funeral area. This is what they do at funerals, but instead of rice they pass the deceased person’s bones after they scoop them from the ashes. They pass the bones from one’s chopsticks to another’s. Just don’t even try to do this with food. It would creep everyone out.
Everyone knows how Japanese are preoccupied with manners, especially on the train or in other public places. There are regular announcements in the train and on the platform regarding how you should behave during your trip, and this includes the use of phones. In some areas, you will hear the announcement to turn off your phones after you board the train, in others just to turn the manner mode on (meaning vibration mode) so that you don’t disturb your fellow companions of travel. This clearly excludes any conversation on the phone while on a train. In my 4 years there I have literally seen only one person (a gyaru, fashionable girl) speaking on the phone in public transportation. Texting is also frowned upon, but well, as long as it’s not making any noise and not bothering the person next to you, no one will scold you for it.
One day I was traveling from Nara to Kobe and I was on a local train (by mistake) facing a long journey ahead of me, which made me want to listen to some good music. 5 minutes after I plugged my earphones there’s a conductor telling me that I’m rude and asking me to immediately turn off my iPhone music. I looked around a bit disconcerted as all the other passengers were listening to music, but hiding their phones. And then I realized I’m in a phone-free car, and that me showing my iPhone was blatantly stupid. So, take extra care about using your phone on the train/bus. In extreme situations, they can even make you pay a fine.
Speaking of trains, Japan is famous for their crazy rush hour. Have you ever thought how that many people can make it on time to work, when even looking at the crowd ahead of you makes you want to drop it all? Well, that’s because there are certain rules that are respected at all times, and one single person neglecting that rule could cause chaos. And a lot of anger.
I’m referring to the etiquette for using the escalator. It’s common sense in all cultures to leave one side of the escalator free, so that people in a hurry can walk up/down it. In Tokyo for instance, people would stand on the left side and the right side would be free for people to walk. In Kansai, it’s the other way around. Imagine if you would just be standing on the wrong line (let’s say on the right side while you’re supposed to be on the left). Imagine you just don’t realize it in time and you get a line of angry people behind you, probably blaming you already for their being late at work.
Better be safe than sorry, and in order not to interfere with the perfect mechanism that allows people to commute so fast and well organized, stand on the left side of the escalator in Tokyo, and on the right in Osaka, Kobe, Nara, and other cities in Kansai. (I still recommend to look around closely and see what local people are doing, after all, imitation is the only fail-proof way)
This is one more extremely important aspect of Japanese culture. In Western societies, we tend to see tipping as a reward to the nice waiter/waitress who served us a delightful meal. In some cases there are restaurants that clearly specify that service is not included, so you need to pay something extra to the staff.
This is not the case in Japan. Tips are always included in the price, whether you are at a restaurant or using a taxi. It is actually considered extremely rude to leave tips to your waitress for instance. Most of the times she would probably just run after you thinking you paid too much and she has to give you the change. The same thing with taxi drivers, they will give you the change to the last yen, and being like “nah it’s ok, just keep the change” would just embarrass your driver.
The internet is full of images of Japanese people wearing masks whenever they have a cold/have allergies etc. Why do you think they do this? Remember that I said that Japanese culture is very concerned with hygiene. There you got your answer. That’s exactly why Japanese would wear masks when they have a cold, it is because they are extremely aware that when they sneeze they will infect you, and besides that they can catch other germs from the surrounding environment, which due to low immunity would make their cold worse. Smart right?
Therefore, if you caught a cold you know what to do. Buying a pack of masks is the first step. But what happens if you sneeze and you need to blow your nose? Or if your nostrils are reenacting the Niagara falls? In both situations, whatever you do, don’t blow your nose in public!
It’s considered extremely rude to blow your nose in public, and unhygienic too. It’s basically telling everyone around you “I don’t care, I will infect you all”. The only option you have is to go to the toilet and do it there, in a private cabin, without the fear of infecting anyone else. Or just sniffle if you can’t go to the bathroom when you need to blow your nose. That is perfectly acceptable, even though a bit disgusting if you keep doing it. (But again it’s no problem for Japanese, as long as you sniffle behind the mask, you will not be frowned upon)
It’s not like it’s written anywhere, but eating while walking or while on a train in Japan is considered taboo. It might have something to do with the fact that eating on public transportation comes with the fact that you will probably somehow soil the seats or the floor, and as I said before, cleanness is a very important aspect of Japanese culture. Nobody will pull your sleeve and admonish you if you do it, but you will still be considered rude.
You will notice probably people standing in front of convenience stores eating their onigiri or sandwich. You would think that hey look like they are in a hurry, so why don’t they just walk and eat? Well, it’s because this is a total no-no in Japanese society.
So what to do if you’re really hungry and you just bought something to eat? It’s perfectly fine if you just stop somewhere, eat it fast, and move on.
Note that this doesn’t apply to the matsuri (Japanese) festivals when there are plenty of stands where you can buy anything from yakisoba to Frankfurt sausages. In that case, it’s is quite acceptable to eat while walking. Even so, I noticed that Japanese people would still stop in a less crowded area and finish their food, so why not do the same? Anyway, eating and walking is a deadly combo for your stomach.
Stepping into the living room of a Japanese house with your shoes on will cause an outrage. I mean it, the owners of the house will literally draw back and they will see themselves forced to tell you something that in Japan goes without saying: ‘take off your shoes in the hallway’.
In American and Western cultures it’s perfectly normal to walk around the house with your shoes on. It’s even OK to get on the bed without taking them off. I never really understood how this can be seen as normal, even before I went to Japan, but well, each culture has its own rules.
In Japan, it is probably one of the biggest taboos. You go to a Japanese house, they let you in, and at the genkan (the tiny hallway before the main room), you are expected to take your shoes off. Make sure you leave them at the genkan, and with the tips facing the exit. It’s just another unspoken rule, but you get used to it really fast if you watch the Japanese doing it. In a few weeks or months, it will become a reflex.
The same thing applies to most izakaya restaurants. You will notice a lot of shoe boxes near the entrance, and that’s how you know what you are supposed to do, even if there’s no one around.
You would wonder, why all this fuss about shoes? Well, Japanese traditional houses have tatami flooring which has to be cleaned by hand. As you may know, in Japan you will sit on the floor on a zabuton, and the bedding (futon and all) is also placed on the tatami floor. Also Japanese weather can be really annoying with all the rain and mud, so try to picture if everyone walks into the house with muddy shoes on and tramps over the tatami spreading the dirt. Imagine how long it will take to clean it. Also, would you want to sit and sleep on a floor where everyone walked with their shoes on?
Now, I’m referring to Japanese traditional rooms, but the tatami flooring created such a culture of clean and tidy that influenced the mentality and habits of Japanese people so that even in the most Western-style apartment they will still follow this unspoken rule.
Come to think of it, it’s not something that we shouldn’t apply in everyday life wherever we are. You can keep your house clean, and at the same time give a break to your feet from being constrained in that pair of shoes the whole day.
That being said, it goes without saying that you can’t wear socks with holes in them. You are literally showing your socks mostly everywhere in Japan, so you should try to keep them clean and presentable.
If you ever read manga or watched anime, what I am going to tell you now will sound crazy. But the world of animation is, after all, fiction, and the rules that apply there don’t apply in the real world.
In Japan, it’s considered extremely provoking and out of place to show your cleavage, your armpits, and your shoulders. No matter how hot it is, no matter how many strap dresses you own, you need to find a solution not to wear them like that. Most Japanese women would put a t-shirt under the dress and the problem is solved (if you can bear the heat under the layers of clothes). Also, showing your cleavage will instantly make you the object of attention of every male and female that you come across. Some might be nice and tell you your clothes are inappropriate, some might just stare at you, and might simply consider you like to show off and change their opinion about you.
So, what’s the solution? Depending on the environment, a moderate cleavage is considered acceptable. If you’re in a company and the policy is to be as formal as possible, consider covering yourself up to your clavicles. Also, baring out your shoulders in a formal environment is a total no-no.
On the other hand, it is perfectly acceptable in Japan to wear micro-skirts and super short pants. Yes, basically you can cover your torso up to the neck and leave your legs/back in almost full sight. Of course, it goes without saying, you can’t do that at work. But for school, trips, casual walks or meetings with friends it’s not only OK but actually seen as very Japanese from your part.
This is a bonus if you’re into this kind of thing. Unlike in Western European countries, where smoking in public places (such as restaurants, bars, pubs and clubs) is prohibited, in Japan, the legislation is still more permissive. This means that there are smoking areas in restaurants, you can smoke freely in most pubs and clubs, and in the designated areas on the street.
The latter is extremely important if you come from a country where it’s perfectly normal to smoke everywhere. In Japan, you are only allowed to smoke in the specified smoking areas. If you do it anywhere else, you might get a fine or at least get scolded by a police officer (even if you don’t see them they are everywhere). However, there is little to whine about. Because technically speaking, every konbini (convenience store) which has an ashtray in front of their entrance, functions as a smoking area, and if there is no konbini around be sure there are signs to point you to the nearest place where you can smoke.
In some ways, this is exactly how Japan keeps their streets clean of cigarette butts, and makes sure that the smoke doesn’t affect the people walking by.
This was my list of no-no’s in Japanese society, you might want to remember these before going there. Some might seem a bit far-fetched but after all, “when in Japan, do as the Japanese do”, right?