Japanese Etiquette: Must or Should?

  • One of the most enduring Western notions about Japan is that of Japanese courtesy and social etiquette. However, with some sensitivity, there is almost no chance of offending anyone, and a visitor should easily take comfort in the knowledge that the Japanese are very forgiving when it comes to the little slip-ups of foreign visitors.

    Of course, there are certain situations were it is important to follow the Japanese rules. Shoes must be removed, for example, when entering a Japanese home or entering a tatami room of any kind, even a changing room – the Japanese will not allow a foreign custom in such a case.

    Bathing in Japan also conforms to fairly strict rules which you should follow. Whether it’s a Japanese-style bath in a private room, a sentou (public bath) or an onsen (hot-spring bath), remember that body washing takes place before entering the water. Showers or taps and plastic tubs are provided for this purpose. Baths and onsen are for soaking in after your have washed.

    Same as in the other parts of Asia, the respectful way to call someone is to wave your fingers with the palm downwards.

    The public use of handkerchiefs for blowing your nose is definitely frowned upon. The polite thing to do if you have a cold is to keep it until you can get to a private space and have a good honk!

    The Japanese don’t eat food on the street (when outside a festival) unless there are seats provided nearby. Ice-cream cones are exception to this rule. It’s up to you whether you want to abide this custom: no one is going to be particularly upset if they see you wandering down the street munching on a sandwich.

    Other than the above, I’d like to separate a few things that are quite important to know about and keep in mind.


    When visiting a Japanese house or eating in a certain type of the restaurants, you will be expected to sit on the floor. In every formal situation, this is done by tucking your legs directly beneath you, a pose that is known as seiza. However, in the ordinary situations it is perfectly acceptable to sit in whatever manner you are comfortable with, as long as you don’t put your feet on anyone. Indeed, the Japanese themselves are unlikely to sit in seiza for very long and are quick to adopt a more comfortable position. If you are unsure of what to do, simply look at your
    Japanese hosts.

    Bowing and Shaking Hands:


    There is a distinct etiquette to bowing. The general rule is that the degree of a bow depends on the status (relative to oneself) of a person to whom one is bowing. Fortunately, no one expects foreigners to do this, and the polite thing to do when formally meeting a Japanese person is to incline your head slightly, and perhaps, bow very slightly from the waist. Nowadays, of course, some Japanese are comfortable with a handshake. But since this practice is still a little rare, it’s probably best not to offer your hand first, let the other party take the lead.

    Business Cards:

    If you intend to find a job in Japan, make sure you get some business cards printed. All introductions and meetings in Japan involve an exchange of business cards. Handing out your cards to the right people can make things happen. Cards should be exchanged and accepted with some ceremony, studied carefully and referred to often. It is polite to offer and accept a card with two hands. Do not simply stuff a proffered card into your pocket, and never write anything on a card you are given.


    The exchange of gifts(as well as the return of one’s kindness or favour), is an important part of Japanese social life (Omiyage Obligation). If you visit somebody’s house, you should bring them a gift. It doesn’t have to be anything big; chocolates, flowers or other small gifts similar to those in the west will do. Ideally, bring something from your home country. If money is ever given, it is presented in an envelope.

    It’s quite likely that you will be sometimes given some small gifts. You may not know how to react in such situations. The polite thing to do is to refuse the gift a couple of times when it is offered lightly (or to show hesitation). The other party will keep pushing as long as you keep refusing. A couple refusals should be enough to ensure that you won’t seem to be grasping for a gift!


    What passes for flattery in the West is often perceived as “natural” in Japan. The foreigner who has made an effort to learn a few sentences of Japanese, or to use the chopsticks correctly, is likely to receive regular dollops of praise. The correct response to praise is to decline it with something like “Not at all” (sonna koto wa arimasen).


    Japanese do not make a virtue of being direct. And directness is commonly seen as vulgar and rude. The Japanese prefer to feel their way through a situation when dealing with others. There is an expression for this that translates as “stomach talk” – where both sides tentatively edge around an issue, feeling out the others point of view until it is clear which direction negotiation can go. This can often result in what is, for many Westerners, an interminable toing and froing that only ever seems to yield ambiguous results. But don’t be deceived: the Japanese can normally read the situation just as if both sides were clearly stating their interests.

    Try to avoid direct statements that may be seen as confrontational. If someone ventures an opinion, however inaccurate it may seem, try not to crush it with a “NO, I DISAGREE COMPLETELY” or something similar. And remember, silence has a very distinct meaning in Japan and it almost never signifies agreement.