Every country has its own taboos, rules, and cultural restrictions. These can differ enormously from nation to nation or between continents. Western societal norms may seem normal to a western person, but seem completely alien to someone from a different part of the world.
These stark differences can create something of a culture shock for travelers or expatriates who move to different parts of the world. Indeed, ‘culture shock’ is a researched and written-about process which can be extremely challenging for many people.
Japan, as many will profess, is a unique country in terms of its cultural rules and expectations of people in its society. Many visitors from around the world are aware of this fact and are careful to observe some of the customs when they come to Japan. But this can sometimes be a challenge.
Japanese people know these unwritten rules because they learn them and pick them up from a young age. Even from elementary school, children in Japan are taught how to follow the many rules and cultural norms in Japan, so that when they reach adulthood these behaviors are second nature.
For foreigners, however, these rules are not necessarily known. Often they need to be explained to visitors. You will often notice that if you do break a ‘rule’ in Japan in public, you may get a few disapproving looks from people. However, before visiting, you could take some time to check out this carefully compiled list of ten things in Japan you should not do.
Here are some big no-no’s in Japan, and some fun stories from people who have first-hand experience of them!
I lived in France for one 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 then 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, and friends 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 there. 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 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 country in question, the most common form of greeting another person might be hugging or kissing on the cheeks.
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 have also taken up the handshake, but the reflex of bowing makes it quite awkward as it results in a bow-handshake greeting. When I witness this, I wonder if the two people are going to collide with each other!
Basically, 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 probably still consider it awkward or 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 using chopsticks properly!
1. Never bite/lick the chopsticks
Even if the food is so delicious that you just want to savour every last bit of it, licking or biting your chopsticks is seen as rude and unacceptable. Japanese society values good hygiene very highly, which could explain this rule.
The chopsticks are seen as a tool for eating which allows a separation of one’s hand and one’s mouth, and allows for minimal direct contact and less chance of spreading infection or bacteria.
Restaurants and general serviced eating and drinking venues in Japan are known to be extremely hygienic, and you can rest assured that chopsticks are washed and cleaned thoroughly. Despite this, however, be sure not to bite, lick, or suck chopsticks as you are sure to get some looks of disapproval for it!
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.
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’, or fashionable girl) speaking on the phone in public transportation. Texting is also frowned upon, but 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. Five minutes after I had plugged in my earphones there was a conductor telling me that I was 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 such a huge influx of 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 to arrive at their workplace
Better be safe than sorry, and in order not to interfere with the perfect mechanism that allows people to commute so fast and in such a well-organized manner, 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 advise you to look around closely and see what local people are doing, because after all, imitation is the only fail-proof way!)
This is another 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. Waiters and Waitresses wages 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 for your waitress or waiter, for instance.
Most of the time, he/she would probably just run after you thinking that you paid too much and she has to give you the change. The same thing goes for taxi drivers. They will give you the change down to the last yen, and you being like “Nah it’s ok, just keep the change”, would just embarrass your driver.
Basically, tipping is not a thing in Japan, which is one very stark difference between here and in the West. Trying to give a tip may be a nice gesture on your part, but it will create confusion and embarrassment for all involved. The best way to show your gratitude is simply to say, ‘arigato’.
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 have your answer.
This focus on god hygiene is exactly why Japanese people should wear masks when they have a cold. It is because they are extremely aware that when they sneeze they may 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 catch a cold whole in Japan, you know what to do. Buying a pack of masks from the nearest drug store 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.
Alternatively, you could just sniffle if you can’t get to a bathroom quickly when you need to blow your nose. That is perfectly acceptable, even though it might sound 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).
Eating outside is perhaps one of the unwritten rules in Japan which is the most tolerated. It certainly isn’t against any common regulations and you won’t find this written anywhere. However, it is still seen as taboo in many situations.
For example, eating food whilst on public transportation is still frowned upon. The reasons for this include food which might smell and annoy other people, dropping food on the seats or on the floor, and generally disturbing others while munching loudly! You will notice in Japan that trains, stations, and streets are generally extremely clean, and this may go some way to explain why.
However, if you do eat while outside and in public, usually you will just be ignored and won’t get told off by anyone else. But if you want to fit in and help keep the streets and public places as clean as possible, it might be a good idea to try to get into the habit of not eating while in public.
You will notice probably people standing in front of convenience stores eating their onigiri or sandwich. You would think that they 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 do you do if you’re really hungry and you have 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 Japanese matsuri (festivals) when there are plenty of food stands where you can buy anything from yakisoba noodles to sausages. In this case, it’s perfectly acceptable to eat while walking. Even so, I have noticed that Japanese people will usually 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’m not exaggerating about this! The owners of the house will likely not be okay with this, and they will find themselves forced to tell you something that in Japan goes without saying: ‘take off your shoes in the hallway’.
In American and Western culture 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 and norms!
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 of your shoes facing the exit. It’s just another unspoken rule, but you get used to it really fast if you watch Japanese people doing it. In a few weeks or months, it will become a natural 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 to tell you.
You might wonder, why is there 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 that if everyone walks into the house with muddy shoes on and walks 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 keeping houses and floors clean and tidy that it has influenced the mentality and habits of Japanese people. Nowadays, 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 for 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’ve 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 necessarily apply in the real world.
In Japan, it’s considered extremely provoking and out of place to show your cleavage, your armpits, or your shoulders. No matter how hot it is and no matter how many strap dresses you own, you need to find a solution not to wear them without also covering up.
Most Japanese women will choose to wear a t-shirt under their 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 assume you like to show off and hold a negative opinion of 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 lower neck. Also, baring 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. As strange as this may sound, 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 is actually quite normal to wear short skirts and shorts.
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 at the moment. This means that there are smoking areas in restaurants, you can smoke freely in most pubs and clubs and can smoke in the many designated areas on the streets.
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 generally speaking every konbini (convenience store) has an ashtray in front of their entrance and functions as a smoking area. If there are no convenience stores around, be sure that 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 is my list of some of the most important no-nos in Japanese society. You might want to remember these before going to Japan! Some might seem a bit far-fetched but after all, “When in Japan, do as the Japanese do”, right?