Japan is a fascinating country; warm and welcoming but governed by societal rules some may find strict if they’re not used to them. Though the Japanese don’t expect everyone to know the etiquette inside out, a basic understanding before you go is just good manners.
From getting the angle of your bowing just right to ensuring your table manners are tip-top, the faux pas can be frequent to those not clued in. For this crash course in Japanese etiquette, we’ve compiled a list of the customs you’ll need to know for your trip to this vivid, vibrant part of the world.
Taking a bow
Bowing is the traditional greeting of Japan, with depth, duration and number of bows all taken into account depending on who you’re meeting. For a friend, a quick 30-degree bow will suffice, while someone in a position of authority, such as your boss, a slower, more drawn out 70-degree bow is the way to go.
Non-natives aren’t expected to know the ins and outs of bowing, and there’s no need to pack a protractor, so a simple nod of the head is fine. While the Japanese do shake hands, it’s wise to wait for the opposite party to offer their hand out first.
A quick tip on tipping
The Japanese don’t do tipping. In fact, trying to hand over some extra money after a meal or taxi ride is a bit insulting. They see no reason as to why you should have to pay more. In restaurants specifically, a service tax is usually included in the bill anyway. If you do try to leave a tip, your waiter will probably end up chasing you up to give it back to you.
It’s worth remembering that cash rules in Japan, they don’t tend to have card machines, so be sure to bring plenty of yen with you.
Mind your manners at the table
At the table, etiquette is very ritualistic. A good rule of thumb would be simply not to dive in like you might be used to. Dining is very much an event to the Japanese, so when in the company of locals, the following customs are worth sticking to.
When served with drinks, wait before raising the glass to your lips. After everyone’s been served, someone will make a speech, raise their drink and say kampai, the Japanese equivalent of “cheers!” Likewise, before you begin eating, it’s polite to say itadakimasu
At most Japanese restaurants, you’ll receive a small wet cloth to wash your hands with. It’s not to be used as a napkin or touch any part of your face. Also, don’t be put off by all the slurping you’ll hear – this means people are enjoying what they’re eating so by all means, join in!
Paying the bill
In the super polite restaurants, cafes, shops and bars of Japan, you’ll often notice a little silver tray on the counter when you come to pay. This is to transfer the cash to pay, and any change as well. When approaching the counter to pay, lay your cash out on the silver tray and the owner/waiter/operator will take payment from there.
If you’re due any change, it’ll be placed back in the tray for you to collect. Give a little bow and an ‘arigato’ and be on your way. Remember that tipping is quite offensive in Japan, so be sure to wait for your change, regardless of how small it is.
Escalators: pick a side
In the fast-paced hustle and bustle of Japan, avoid hold-ups on the escalators by using the correct side to stand on. In Tokyo, standing on the left side and passing on the right is the preferred arrangement. In Osaka, it’s the other way around. Wherever you are, be mindful of being in the way of anyone trying to manoeuvre around you.
There’s a big chance you’ll be required to use chopsticks while you’re dining, so it’s best to get some practice in before you go. However skilled you are with them, your efforts will be appreciated, but there are some traditions and customs to be upheld too.
Never leave them standing upright in a bowl of rice or on the table; lay them flat across your or leaning on the chopstick rest. Likewise, never pass food from chopstick to chopstick. Both of these errors are very similar to funeral rituals and are considered a sign of disrespect. Additionally, don’t play around with your chopsticks; anything like drumming on the table, making fake teeth or scratching an itch with them, for obvious reasons.
Standing out in public
As a Westerner, you tend to already be sticking out amongst the locals, so avoid the sore thumb look by sticking to how the Japanese conduct themselves in public. Blowing your nose in public is a big no-no, as is eating while you’re on the move and speaking on your phone on crowded trains or buses. If you do like to chat, keep the volume levels low, so other passengers aren’t disturbed.
If you see rows of shelves filled with footwear by a door, this means you’re required to remove your shoes before entering, whether it’s a private home, traditional accommodation or temple halls, even some restaurants require guests to de-shoe. There’s absolutely no room to manoeuvre here, so pack some new socks if you’re worried about the state of your current ones.
Although Japanese people might be enthusiastic to demonstrate their English, it’s not as widely spoken or understood as you might think, so never assume people will be able to help if you’re struggling with the native tongue.
On the other hand, some basic words and phrases in Japanese will serve you well, and locals will appreciate the effort, even if their language doesn’t exactly flow from your mouth. Keep the following handy phrases in mind when you visit:
Sumimasen: “Excuse me”
Arigato: “Thank you”
Ei-go ga ha-na-se-mas ka: “Do you speak English?”
Wa-ka-ri-ma-sen: “I don’t understand”
If you see people wearing surgical-style masks, then don’t be alarmed, it’s not another outbreak of SARS. Businessmen and women, office workers and municipal labourers all wear them to protect themselves from germs. Some people wear them when they have a cold or the flu to stop others from catching their maladies, while others wear them as a fashion statement.
We hope this run through of these essential Japanese customs has inspired you to go far-flung with your next cruise. To see all of Cruise1st’s cruises to Japan, head over to our dedicated page right here, or give our friendly customer care team a call on 0808 274 6777.