Crash Course in Japanese Culture: What NOT to Do in Japan

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Japan is a spectacular country, with many experiences unique to Japan, and Japanese culture is just as fascinating. There are a plethora of must-see sites in Japan, must-eat foods, and must-shop boutiques. It’s important to plan out your trip well in advance so you have enough time to do and see everything you need.

The Japanese as a whole as very into manners, many of which are contrary to the manners we’ve been exposed to as Americans. Therefore, if you’re planning a trip to Japan, not only study the “musts,” but also the “must-nots of the Japanese culture.”Otherwise, you’ll risk offending the locals.

1. Don’t Walk (or Drive) on the Right Side

Japanese culture

With its many parks and gardens, Japan is an ideal walking city.  However, unlike the Western world that encourages people to walk on the right side of the sidewalk, in Japan, you walk on the left side. If someone is walking towards you, Japanese culture mandates you go around them on the left side, otherwise, you’ll be considered rude.

Similarly, you drive on the left side of the road in Japan, which can be confusing to many Americans at first. There’s not much else you need to know about driving in Japan to fit in with the Japanese culture.

2. Don’t Talk or Smoke When Taking Public Transport

Japanese culture

Public transport is a popular way of getting around Japan, and the Japanese expect their fellow riders to be respectful. This means no smoking or listening to loud music (which should be obvious ones) but also no talking!

The Japanese don’t enjoy making idle small talk with their fellow passengers, and they also don’t appreciate their fellow passengers talking on their cell phones. In fact, even textingwhile on public transportation is considered rude! The Japanese culture is all about respecting one another and our public spaces.

3. Don’t Be Late

Japanese culture

If you’re meeting a Spanish friend in a Madrid coffee shop, it’s normal to be ~15 minutes late. In Japan, this is not the case. Just like German culture, Japanese culture is notorious for its punctuality.

Everything and everyone is on time in Japan: trains, people, movies, everything. The Japanese value their time (and yours) and consider tardiness to be exceptionally rude. If you’re meeting a friend for karaoke in Tokyo, make sure to show up on time, otherwise, they may not invite you to karaoke again. No one wants to be left waiting by themselves.

4. Don’t Yawn Mid-Conversation

Japanese culture

While it’s considered impolite to zone-out mid conversation anywhere, it’s especially impolite in Japan. When speaking with the Japanese, make sure to actively engage in conversation. Don’t just stand there staring, even if you’re friend is going on and on about something you don’t care about. Try and engage, even if it’s as simple as “ok, I understand”!

Whatever you do, don’t yawn while someone is speaking to you, no matter how tired (or bored) you may be. This signals to them that you’re utterly bored by the conversation and would rather be doing anything but talking to them!

5. Don’t Accept a Business Card with Just One Hand

Japanese culture

If you are conducting business in Japan, it’s likely that business cards will be exchanged. Do not take a business card with one hand and simply transfer it to your pocket. This is considered incredibly rude, and will probably mean this person will never want to do business with you again!

According to Japanese culture, you should accept a business card with two hands, as well as a bow. Even if you are in a large meeting and exchanging business cards with 15 people you must accept each card with two hands, look at it, and then bow.  Doing so signifies that you value the card.

6. Don’t Open A Gift In Front of The Giver

Japanese culture

If you are meeting someone in Japan and they give you a gift, make sure you accept the gift with two hands, just as you would a business card. No matter how grand the gift looks, do not open it immediately. Not only is giving a gift important, but how you receive it is equally important. 

In the Japanese culture, it is considered rude to open gifts right away. If someone gives you a package, make sure you open it after they leave. Likewise, they will wait until you have left to open any gift you may give them, so don’t be offended.

7. Don’t Tap Your Feet

Japanese culture

If you’re the type to get antsy and show nervous ticks, make sure to hide it in public in Japan. Japanese culture is all about respect, in even the most basic forms. 

In Japan, it’s considered rude to shake your legs or tap your feet.  Yes, likely rude inall countries, but particularly so in Japan, as it signifies you’re bored with the situation and would rather be anywhere else but where you are. Not only that, but foot tapping makes noise, which is also considered impolite.

8. Don’t Forget to Say Thank You

Japanese culture

We shouldn’t have to remind you to say “thank you,” but we will. Often times in America we forget to thank the small things: the waiters who brings you your drink, the Uber driver who drops you off, or even the stranger who holds the door open for you.

In Japan, manners are everything, and it’s incredibly rude not to say thank you. Make sure you say “thank you” (or, “arigato”) to everyone who does something nice for you, lest you be considered rude. This applies to your waitress, the sales assistant in a store, the concierge at your hotel, and everyone in between who does something nice for you.

If you’re meeting people for the first time, don’t forget to bow!  Especially to your elders. Bowing is a form of respect, and forgetting to bow is considered very insulting.

9. Don’t Blow Your Nose at the Dinner Table

Japanese culture

No matter how sick you may be, don’t sneeze or blow your nose at the dinner table (or while you’re mid-conversation). Sniffling is okay, but blowing your nose goes against the social norms of Japanese culture.

The Japanese take their health seriously. If you’re sick, you’re expected to wear a mask while out in public; thus, openly displaying your sickness during an intimate moment (such as conversation or dinner table)  is considered incredibly rude. In fact, it’s even considered rude to blow your nose while walking around in public! If you get a cold in Japan, you have two options: wear a mask and blow your nose in private, or don’t go out.

10. Don’t Finish Your Drink or Meal

Japanese cultureAccording to the British Royal Rules, if you’re dining with the Queen, you’re expected to stop eating as soon as she does, whether or not you have finished your meal. In Japan, you’re expected to never finish your meal.

The American “Clean Plate Club” does not exist in Japan. If you’re dining in Tokyo and finish your meal, the Japanese will assume they have not fed you enough (or given you enough to drink) and you will inadvertently insult them. Thus, always leave a little in your glass, and a little on your plate (no matter how good it is).

11. Don’t Tip

Tipping is different in every country. If you fail to tip in America, the waiter will be offended and is apt to chase you down and ask you why you didn’t tip, as they’ll feel you did something to offend you. In Japan, the opposite is true.

It’s insulting to tip in Japan. The Japanese do not tip, nor expect a tip. To keep from insulting the locals, don’t tip! Japan is an expensive country, so consider yourself lucky you don’t have to tip. Don’t tip the taxi driver, the waiter, the bellboy, or anyone else, no matter how exceptional the service is.

12. Don’t Drink or Eat While Walking

Japanese culture

In Paris, it’s normal to grab a crepe from a street vendor and walk the city why indulging in its deliciousness. In Japan, this wouldn’t be the best manners you could use.

It’s rude to walk and eat in Japan. Consuming food is meant to happen at the table, therefore eating and walking is rude. Japanese culture is all about respect, even to your food.

13. Don’t Wear Shoes in A House, Shrine, or Temple

Japanese culture

If a Japanese friend invites you over for dinner, remember to always take off your shoes before you enter their home. In Japan, it’s rude to wear shoes inside home, temple, or shrine.

Some homes offer slippers to their guests, while others do not. Don’t worry though, going barefoot is perfectly acceptable, and there are usually slippers located outside the bathroom so you’ll have something to put on your feet should you need the bathroom.

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Are you a frequent flier? Tell us in the comments about the craziest cultural difference you’ve found, good or bad!