Perhaps there are no other countries in the world that are as full of social rules than Japan. If you have a certain general knowledge about Japan or if you have been to Japan before, I am sure that you know that people tend to line up on one side of escalators (typically on the left side, but in Osaka people stand on the right). This is practiced everywhere in Japan so that people can freely run through the escalators whenever they are in a rush. Not to mention that Japanese people are known for their strong adherence to rules. Thus, if you want to buy things during your stay in Japan, keep in mind that it’s important to follow the proper etiquette.
This might seem like a no-brainier to any decent person, but it’s always surprising to see so many people who just don’t get that cutting a line is not acceptable.
In Japan, you are expected to line up for almost everything – buying things, boarding a train, entering a lift, etc. Queuing has been a very common norm in Japan, and you will get death stares if you fail to do so.
In some stores, you may notice that there are sellotape-like lines on the floor near the counters. Obviously, common sense will tell you that you are supposed to queue in those lines and NEVER TRY TO MAKE YOUR OWN LINE. These lines are not only designated to keep the queues in order, but also to prevent the queues from obstructing other customers when the store is crowded. So, after you have grabbed your things, just stay in those lines until it’s your turn to pay.
But what if you are buying something from a roadside stall? Well, even if it is just a stall and there are only a few people, you should line up as well. Remember, cutting a line is a serious violation of social rules in Japan, son don’t be that foreigner!
After lining up, what should you do? Wait for your turn, right? But there is something you should do while waiting: in Japan, you are expected to prepare your money before proceeding to the counter. Holding up the line because you have to count the yen inside your coin purse will be frown upon and could even result in the store clerk having an unfriendly expression.
Same goes when buying things at a stall. Ask for the price, order, prepare the payment, and once the food is ready, you can just pay and go.
This is something more interesting to know. If you have been to Japan before, you might have noticed that there is a small tray at almost every counter, be it in a restaurant or a shop. These trays are for money, and one is supposed to place paper notes and coins there. Some cashiers may find it uncomfortable to inevitably or accidentally touch your fingers when taking the money from your hands, so even if you hand cash in your country, put it inside those trays when visiting Japan.
Another reason is because it’s easier for the cashier to take coins. In Japan, using coins is very common since only denominations of 1,000 yen or higher are available in bills. If you put coins on the flat surface of the counter it can be difficult to pick them up. This is why some money trays are designed with rubbery “hairs” on it so that coins can be picked up easily.
If you have any change, most often, the cashier will show and count the change given, note by note, coin by coin in front of you. There are two reasons why the Japanese do this. First, it is to make sure that the change given is accurate. Second, it is to make things easier for the customers so that they do not have to count the money before leaving the counter. Therefore, make sure you keep your eyes opened wide when the cashier is counting and DO NOT recount it again as it is very disrespectful to the cashier.
While Japan is regarded as a cash society, things have slowly been changing. When the sales tax increased from 8% to 10% in October 2019, cashless payments were promoted as a way to encourage people to use less cash. The incentives were generally very good as people would get a percentage of the transaction back if they paid by credit card, electronic money, or other cashless applications.
However, since Japan is a country with a large elderly population, the amount of people who embraced cashless payments was not as big as expected.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Afterwards, cash began to be discouraged, and new buildings saw the opening of many stores that would not even accept cash. This has signal a bigger change in cities like Tokyo that could lead to people to finally start paying for things without using cash.
You may be excused for breaking those social norms as a foreigner but it’s of course better to adopt each country’s norms. It’s also common for locals to create generalizations and misconceptions based on their experiences with people from certain countries, so you’d be doing all foreigners a favor by following a country’s norms. Japanese society follows rules thoroughly, and if visiting Japan you should as well.