Paying Etiquette: How to Buy and Pay for Things in Japan

  • HOW TO
  • Well, perhaps there are no any other countries in the world that are full of social rules other than Japan. If you have certain general knowledge about Japan or you have been to Japan before, I am sure that you had seen people lining up on one side of escalators (typically on the left side except for Osaka which is the opposite). This is practiced everywhere in Japan so that people can freely run through the escalators whenever they are in a rush. Got surprised? The Japanese are well known for their strong adherence to rules so that the society can be kept in order. Thus, if you want to buy things during your stay in Japan, keep in mind that there is an etiquette for that too.

    Line up!

    In Japan, you are expected to line up for doing almost everything – buying things, boarding a train, entering a lift, etc. Queuing up 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 queue up as well. Remember, jumping queue is a serious violation of social rules in Japan.

    Prepare your money first!

    After queuing 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 especially when you are only to pay a small amount. Why? Try to think of what you do when you are at the counter. Normally, people will be trying hard to dig out every cent from their wallets at the counter to check if they can pay the exact amount. So, it means not only the cashier but all the people behind you have to wait. This is why you should always prepare your money in advance for the convenience of everyone.

    Same goes to buying things at a stall, you should never ask for the price only when the hawker is handing your food to you. Instead, ask for the price first and prepare your money before or when the food is being prepared. Once the food is ready, you can just pay and go.

    Put your money on the tray instead of the cashier’s hand!


    This is something more interesting to know. If you have been to Japan before, you might notice that there is a small tray at almost every counter, be it in a restaurant or a shop. So you might wonder, what are those small trays for? It is actually for you to put your money on! So why can’t we just pass our money to the cashier as usual? Because some cashiers may find it uncomfortable to inevitably or accidentally touch your fingers when taking the money from you. As a remedy to prevent this awkward moment, the money tray was introduced.

    Another reason is because it helps the cashier to take coins easier. In Japan, money worth below 1,000 yen are only available in coins. Hence, it is very common to pay for things using coins. If you put the coins on the flat surface of the counter, sometimes, it is hard to pick them up, especially the small ones. This is why some money trays are designed with rubbery “hairs” on it so that coins placed on top can be picked up easily.

    Notwithstanding, based on my personal experience, most of the Japanese cashiers will still accept your money if you pay them directly. During my stay in Japan, I often unintentionally broke this rule because I always habitually pay to the cashier directly as I always do in my home country (and I suppose the same goes to everyone from other countries). Surprisingly, the cashiers did not show any unfriendly facial expressions or acts for my mistake but still served me with respect.

    However, there was one occasion where the cashier insisted me to put my money on the money tray by pointing the tray with her opened palm. Apparently, this is not a must-follow rule but as the English saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” It is always better to adhere to the local norms when you are in another country not only as a sign of respect but also to show that you are a civilized traveler/tourist.

    Any change? Let the cashier do the job!

    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 as if you do not trust him or her.

    These are all the “precautions” that you should take note of if you have a chance to pay a visit to the Land of the Rising Sun. While Japan has countless of charms that have been envied by many, it is also well known for its complicated but unique social norms. Their land, their rules.

    You may be excused for breaking those social norms as a foreigner but if you can earn some respect from the locals by some mere actions, why not? After all, when you are traveling abroad, the locals do not see you as an individual but will often stereotype the people of your country based on your behavior. So if you have friends or family who are planning to fly to Japan for a getaway and are not acquainted with the Japanese customs, tell them to save them from any potential embarrassments! Otherwise, a single unintentional mistake may ruin their mood for holiday!

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