Japan-aholic

A blog about culture and love in Japan

The DOs and DON’Ts in Japan

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Right now, Japan is very beautiful covered with Autumn’s leaves. I might spam you guys with some landscape pictures for a while.

Every country has its special quirks and own etiquette. Some things that you might think are totally normal in your country and that you’ve never questioned before might turn out being completely abnormal or rude in another one.

If you want to travel in Japan, it’s better for you to know a bit about the culture and the things to do/avoid doing there before coming. So, here’s a list of some things you should try to do and things you shouldn’t do while visiting the land of the rising sun.

Let’s start with the DOs!

1. Do take off your shoes when entering a house (or any place that has an entrance with a step). This one is the most known aspect of Japanese culture, but I still couldn’t write this post without mentioning it.

2. Try to finish your bowl of rice, to the last bit of it. You can leave a plate unfinished if you’re full, but always eat all of your rice. It’s rude not to do so.

3. Do use those slippers provided to you in the houses/every place where you have to take off your shoes. Also, do change your slippers when you go to the toilet for the ones provided there — and don’t forget to change back when you get out!

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Those aren’t inside slippers, but look how cute it is!

4. Try to bring back some souvenirs (especially food) to your Japanese friends when you just came back from another city for traveling. This one is not mandatory, but you will soon realize that it’s a very big part of the Japanese culture to bring back something special from the place you were visiting to the people close to you. You will probably yourself receive many of those presents from your entourage. It’s just a normal thing.

5. Do wash your hair and body in the shower before entering the bath (if you take one at all). The water in the bath is reused many times and for everyone in the house. The sole purpose of those baths are to relax, not to wash yourself.

6. Do try to pay for your own bill even if someone clearly said they are inviting you. Even if you know you’re not going to pay, you should still make the move to get out your wallet, and wait for the person to protest. Only then it’s fine to let the other person pay for you. I’m aware this is all a facade, but it’s a question of mannerism and culture.

7. Do bow when you great/thank someone. Or even if you did a mistake and have to apologize.

8. Do cover your mouth when you are using a toothpick (I’m personally guilty of this one!).

9. Try to lift your bowl of rice (or other small plates) with one hand to make the eating easier.

10. Do stand to only one side of the escalator. The “right side” can change from a city to another, so just follow the people in front of you. DON’T block the entire escalator by yourself, or even if you’re with a friend. Let a space so that people who are in a hurry can climb the stairs while you’re not moving.

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Another landscape picture!

And now, it’s time for the things you should avoid doing in Japan.

The DONT’S

1. Don’t accept compliments. And that means, don’t say “Thank you (ありがとう)” when someone says you’re beautiful or good at Japanese (or whatever the compliment). Saying thank you is like saying a cocky “Yeah, I know” in those situations. As an alternative, you should always refuse the compliments, either by saying “No no that’s not true/there’s no such thing ( いいえ!そんなことはないです!)” or just by laughing shyly and moving your hands in a “no” fashion. This can be a bit tricky, because when you refuse a compliment, they might continue to shower you with it. But even then, never accept a compliment.

2. Try to avoid blowing your nose in public. I noticed some people don’t mind, but some people do, so just don’t take the chance.

3. Don’t eat while walking on the streets. I don’t know why, but it’s rude.

4. Don’t eat, drink (water is ok) or talk on the phone in trains. Also, don’t talk too loudly, and be careful of the sound leaking from your headphones when you listen to music. And don’t sit on the priority seats unless you are pregnant, an elderly, hurt, or carrying a child. If you do, there is probably a grandma or a grandpa that will have the utmost pleasure to pick you up by your arm and shove you out of the priority seats’ section while saying ‘you’re strong enough to stand up, you young fool’.

5. Don’t point people with your chopsticks or shove them straight in your bowl of rice. Also, don’t pass food to another person’s chopsticks with them.

6. Don’t be too pushy to be friends with people you just met. Japanese take quite a long time to become close friends with others — they value their private life a lot. I always wait for them to make the first move (even if that move is only to exchange numbers, Line ID or Facebook names). I used to be too pushy and they would stay away from me after a few encounters.

Also, if someone cancels some plans with you, try not to ask why. In Japan, nobody asks why. They will tell you why if they feel the need to, but usually, they just say “I can’t go, sorry”. This can be quite frustrating at first, but recently I surprised myself thinking that it’s actually weird how back in Canada we always have that need to say why we can’t go somewhere, even if we have to lie about it. Also, you will soon notice that using the Japanese method can be quite useful; they will never push you to know why you can’t do something, and that’s quite relaxing from what I was used to.

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Kind of a landscape picture.

7. Don’t point people with your fingers. You can however point them with your whole hand and palm turned toward the ceiling.

8. Don’t pay if you’re out on a date with a guy (and sometimes even when it’s not a date and just a night out with some friends). Let him pay. He will never let you pay anyway and if he does, it will be a very embarrassing moment for him. You can always give it to him later, but chances are, he will not accept it even then. So, my secret is; put some money in his wallet when he’s sleeping/not paying attention. He will surely notice it and thank you for it, but at least he won’t feel like he forced you to repay him in some ways and won’t be embarrassed. I personally don’t really like that, as I like being independant and I feel like it’s a bit unequal towards the sexes to always make the man pay, but hey, I live here, so I should respect that and go with the flow.

9. Don’t tip for services. Tipping is not part of the culture in Japan, and that waitress will probably follow you outside the restaurant to tell you you forgot your money on the table.

10. Don’t use “Sayonara (さよなら)” when you part with someone for the day. This one is not rude, it’s just really weird. “Sayonara” is more like “Farewell, I hope we will meet again someday” kind of feeling rather than just a normal goodbye. I absolutely don’t understand why every textbook teaches that word, when really, almost nobody uses it. Instead, you can say “Mata ne (またね)” when you know you’re going to see that person again soon.

There are still many things to say about the Japanese culture — I could probably make a list twice as long as this one — but I will stop here. And also, don’t take this too seriously. If you make mistakes, the world is not going to explode. It’s just normal, you’re a foreigner after all, and the Japanese will understand that. Don’t worry too much about it!

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Do you guys have any other things to say about do’s and don’ts in Japan? Is your own country very different from this list?

 

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Author: Jasmine

Jasmine is a 20-something years old French-Canadian student and part-time blogger who loves traveling, drawing, listening to (all kind of) music and eating (everything). To achieve one of her biggest dream, she went in Japan for two months and a half as a tourist in 2013. She was an exchange student at Daito Bunka University in Saitama (near Tokyo) during the year 2014 - 2015. She is now studying to eventually become a nurse back in Canada, so she lacks time to write about Japan. You can still read all her posts on her blog, since she'll let them there for you to enjoy :)

31 thoughts on “The DOs and DON’Ts in Japan

  1. “Don’t #6” is an interesting one. I don’t mind not receiving a reason, but what constantly annoys me is when customers and clients just disappear without a word b/c actually ending a business agreement is distasteful and to be avoided. Obviously it is an outgrowth of not giving a reason for canceling plans.

    After 10 years here I know enough to see it happening (well, my J wife may help a little), but it is still annoying and at times hurtful. Back when I taught English it happened all the time, with students just disappearing instead of telling me they wanted to stop lessons – disappearing even if they had prepaid and I would have owed them a lot of money. I once taught a little girl and boy weekly for 5 years. The girl was becoming too busy to keep up an extra English lesson and her English was perfect anyway so I knew they were going to end the lessons soon and I was ok with this. But then one week instead of telling me they wanted to end the lessons, her father just breaks off all contact. The family wouldn’t answer my phone calls or text messages, nor would they answer the door when I came for the regular lesson (which I came for because we had scheduled it the week before). It was hurtful that after 5 years they would cut me off without even saying goodbye. This kind of thing continues to happen to this day with my photography students and clients. Speaking to other business owners in Japan, it seems I am not the only person to experience this and it is just one of those unfortunate realities of Japan.

    Actually, if memory serves Takeo Doi covered tis very thing a bit in his psychological study of Japanese people (The Anatomy of Dependence. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it. Every foreigner in Japan should read this book).

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    • It indeed can be hurtful at times! I understand my culture and the Japanese one are different, but still, wasn’t it a bit rude of them to cut contact with you after 5 years? They could have at least say why… ah, there’s some things in Japan I’m still not used to at all!
      I’ll check that book out, sounds interesting 🙂

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  2. It was a lot of fun reading the comments. I came to the US when I was young and have lived here ever since. I only dated White girls not because I liked them but because I hated Asian girls. I never specifically had a policy of dating White girls exclusively but fairly early in my life I decided not to date any Korean girl who ever dated outside her ethnicity(there was certain traumatic event that led to this). Because of the way Koreans girls are, that effectively meant ruling out almost all Korean girls as potential dates.

    My “policy” may sound racist but I was just doing what most White boys from conservative families were doing and still doing. White boys will chase after Asian girls but when someone from their family dates an Asian boy they go berserk.

    There is certain annoying bias in the American culture that requires Asians to hold up to higher moral standards. That is bullshit. We have no moral obligation to be extra good or morally impeccable. Why? because this is not really your country. It is a country built on blood and tears of native people. We don’t recognize your “native rights” because you are not native to this land.

    (This is not to the blogger but to all those who left racist comments here.)

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  3. Good advice 🙂

    I’ve broken most (but not all) of these. Hahahaha. Looking back, I’m so embarassed on how I used to act when I first came to Japan. Ahhh!

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  4. The first time I visited one of our vendors in Tokyo, we went empty handed. Our host joked about how sad he was that we did not bring any temiyage for him. When he came visit us in Malaysia a month later, he brought those Shiro Koibito chocolates for us and told us “This is called temiyage”. It was then that we learnt that he wasn’t joking about his sadness :/

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  5. It fascinates me how “Do take off your shoes when entering a house” always makes it into those lists, because as far as I know it is only the States where people enter their house with their shoes on … Or am I mistaken? XD

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    • Actually, in Canada, if we have a party somewhere with all my family (cousin and etc.) then everybody wears shoes inside — expect me now because I think it’s a bit weird. If it’s in the winter, they leave the boots at the entrance and change for “inside” shoes (but those are not slippers!). So, I don’t know if it’s like that in other coutries, too!

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      • In most European countries it is common to take off your shoes before entering a house/apartment, everything else is considered rude. But even our German travel guides for Japan highlight the fact, that you have to take off your shoes before entering a house – I always wondered why they would even bother to mention it O_o Perhaps they just copied the Dos and Don’ts from a list complied by an American or else and never really thought about it?

        But interesting that Canada is similar to the States in that sense, I never knew that! Thanks for the explanation 😀

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        • I don’t know if it’s only my family who does that though… we might be abnormal hahaha!

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          • Hahaha, I know that problem XD When my husband sometimes ask me: “So, this is like a German thing?” and I really don’t know, if it not might be just my family being a little bit out of the norm XD

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  6. Good list! Recognize it all, except having to empty your rice bowl! I had no idea, no one ever told me… And I often left rice in my bowl whe I was full, I had no idea I was being rude. My husband often finishes it for me, I know he loves rice, but now I wonder if he was also helping me not to be rude ;).

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    • Same for me! I learned only recently about it, and my boyfriend would also often finish my bowl of rice, and one day he just told me it was a bit rude (so that’s kind of why he was always eating mine). I was like “REALLY?! Why didn’t you tell me before?” Haha!

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  7. Funny story about #9 of the DOs, when I was at the hairdresser a few years ago I picked up a magazine and flipped through it. I generally don’t care about the articles (which tend to be “article about celebrity that I don’t know and don’t care about!” type stuff), but this time there was one on eating etiquette. According to the article, it’s actually perfectly polite to eat without lifting the bowl. That tends to be my style anyway so I was like, “YES, VINDICATION FOR MY LAZINESS!”

    As for #1 of the DON’Ts, I actually tend to say “ありがとうございます” for certain compliments. Although typically it comes after a “Really?” and is done with embarrassed body language. So far it hasn’t caused me any problems, but I’d say that it’s a YMMV situation and the safest is to follow your advice. You can’t go wrong with self-effacing behavior here.

    #3 is actually more complicated than just “don’t eat while walking on the streets”. For the most part eating AND drinking while walking is not done here. Though I should point out that standing (especially around a vending machine or vendor where the food/drink was purchased) while eating/drinking is 100% fine. Some foods, like ice cream, are OK for eating and walking. There’s also been a recent push to get it so that it’s socially acceptable to drink stuff like sports drinks while walking, but that hasn’t been all that successful. I tend not to eat and walk, but I’ll drink a water bottle or whatever while I walk if I’m thirsty. I’m not entirely sure if it’s really seen as rude, though, or if it’s just one of those things that you “just don’t do” because it’s never been done.

    #4 is also more complicated. While the general rule is no eating, there are some trains where it’s okay. If you’re traveling a long distance on a train, for instance, it’s okay to eat a bento or whatever (some trains even have trays on the backs of seats to allow this). I have never done this myself, but I’ve seen a lot of Japanese people doing it. Sitting in the priority seats is also ok IF the train isn’t crowded. It’s also TECHNICALLY okay in crowded situations if you give your seat up immediately to someone who needs it, but in practice that is more tricky than it seems (it’s easy to offend people by implying that you think they “need” the seats) so I just avoid the priority seating in those situations.

    I actually don’t personally follow #8. Equality is very important to me, and if a guy thinks that it’s more important for him to do the “socially acceptable” thing instead of treating me as an equal and allowing us to pay separately or go by the “whoever invites, pays” rule, then we would not work out anyway. Now, that’s probably part of the reason I’m still single but tbh I’d rather be single than be in a relationship where I could not be treated with the respect of an equal partner. (Although I should note that only one of my exes was weird about the paying thing; the other two had no problem paying separately and/or trading off who paid.)

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    • Oh yes, it is ok to eat without lifting the bowl. But I feel like it’s more natural to lift it 🙂 If you don’t nobody will mind that much. That’s why I thought about writing “Try to” instead of “Do”! I’m sorry if there was a misunderstanding!

      Yes you’re right. In some situations it’s OK (like for example when I’m in school and my teacher praised me about my recent test or something like that). And also, like you said, with a “really?!” and some shy body language it’s perfectly fine I think!

      Ahh now that you’re saying it, it’s true I saw many people eating ice cream while walking! Also, in the festivals, it’s ok to eat food on the go. But yeah, actually I never really understood why, I just heard it’s rude and kind of weird by other people, so I don’t do it (except during a festival).

      It is indeed different in some trains like Shinkansen (but I don’t really see it as a “normal” train). They even sell drinks and food in the Shinkansen, so that’s OK. But yeah, if I wrote the article with all the exceptions that exists, it would be wayyy too long (it kind of already is, haha). In general, it’s pretty impolite to eat on trains, so I don’t take any chance!

      And I totally understand your point of view about equality. The thing is, I believe that in an intercultural relationship, you HAVE to make certain concessions so you can meet halfway between the two cultures. My boyfriend doesn’t treat me any less like an equal, even if he pays for me most of the time (there are some times when I pay for my part when I feel like it’s been a long time I didn’t). And I can’t ask him to only follow MY way of doing things, especially when I’m in Japan. I should adapt to the country, not make the country adapt to me (or something like that). So from time to time, I don’t mind that he has to do what is socially acceptable. However, I can’t leave him for weeks without at least a kiss and a hug, and he knows that very well, so when we part ways he always go against that “don’t kiss and hug in public” thing and just does it, which is something I really appreciate. I guess it depends of the person! I also had to step on my pride about the paying thing, but now I just go with it.

      Anyway, it was very interesting to have your point of you. Please feel free to write again 😀

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      • Sorry for the delayed reply; I’ve been giving your response some thought. And, yeah, I 100% agree with you when you say it depends on the person. We all have our own “this is okay” and “this is NOT okay” lines, which can be frustrating at times but is also part of what makes interacting with other people so wonderful.

        “The thing is, I believe that in an intercultural relationship, you HAVE to make certain concessions so you can meet halfway between the two cultures. ”

        I definitely agree with this. I think the difference between us is in the kind of compromises we both are/aren’t willing to make.

        Like, for me, even though I am a very touchy-feely person (even by Canadian/US standards), I’ve been here long enough that the social mores around kissing and hugging are not that big of a deal for me anymore. In fact, one of my exes actually did do the “kiss goodbye in public” thing and it kind of weirded me out! Hugging is fine, though (and my friends and I often hug each other goodbye).

        But while the the “man must pay on dates” thing is something you can step on your pride and accept, for me it’s a sexist custom that I cannot tolerate. I feel that it shows a great deal of disrespect towards me–regardless of the reason–and so I try and choose dates who can understand and respect my feelings on the issue. I had similar problems with men in the US and Canada who kept trying to force “chivalrous” behaviors on me despite me repeatedly telling them that their ignoring of my wishes was extremely disrespectful. Neither of us is “wrong” (or “right”, for that matter) in our approach; it’s just a matter of our personal boundaries and values.

        “I should adapt to the country, not make the country adapt to me (or something like that).”

        So, I think this is another case where personal differences come into play. As an immigrant to Japan (and someone who hopes to have her citizenship soon), I see this as “my” country. I’ve been here for about a decade and have already adapted a lot (like how I adjusted my expectations with physical affection to the point where the US/Canadian norms are uncomfortable for me now). I mean, it would be weird if I wanted to live here forever, especially as a citizen, while rejecting all the societal norms and expectations. Some things I have adopted because I think they are great; others because adopting them is easier than not, even if I don’t 100% agree with the custom/tradition.

        But, by the same token, just as I do not accept all of the traditions and customs of my birth country, I don’t accept all the traditions and customs of Japan. For stuff like “the man pays”, I handle it on a personal level. While, as I mentioned before, it probably does make dating difficult for me, it also is a good opportunity to find out early on if the person I’m with is willing/able to communicate on an appropriate level for a romantic relationship. (Not everyone is; one of my exes had special trouble with this. When he had a problem with me he’d tell me about it and I’d say “Let’s talk about this so we can find a solution.” His response would be, “No, talking is too tedious.” So the problems never got solved and eventually we just broke up.) Other things–like the government being dominated by conservative men and the myriad of problems with Japanese company work culture–are things that I hope I can work with others to tackle on a more societal level.

        So… yeah, just offering up a different perspective on stuff. Anyway, I look forward to reading more articles from you in the future; I find your perspective on stuff really interesting and I love hearing about you and Hitomi (I know I’ve said it before, but you two make an adorable couple)!

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        • Love LOVE reading your comments!

          I totally agree on the fact that we have our own personal boundaries; what makes me cringe might be totally ok for you, and vice-versa!

          And of course, when you are living as an immigrant in Japan and have the citizenship, the feeling is different. Like in my own country, if I had the same rights in Japan, I would defend my values and vote for the people I believe in. But right now, I’m just a temporary resident, which is why I can’t turn Japan upside down (which is not something I would do, anyway!). I’m still a foreigner here. I have to learn first how this society works, before entering it properly. And then, later, when I’ll have the power to do so, I’ll be able to try changing some aspects I don’t agree with.

          Although I like Japan, I perfectly know this country has many problems — as does every country in this world. I like Canada as much as I like Japan (which is why I’m a bit ashammed of the name of this blog, because it was just a stupid name to start a personal blog, but then grew into more, and it just stuck there, and now it’s too late to change it). So right now, I’m assimilating how Japan works, and share it all here. But later, if the future turns out like I think it will, I hope I’ll be able to fully integrate Japan and feel like I have the right and the power to change the deep problems of this society.

          It is very interesting to have your opinion on this, because I’m still young and frankly, I don’t know much about Japan yet. I’m like a newborn baby. But you, you have been in Japan for a long time, so it’s great to have a peek on what it’s like to be an immigrant here. Actually, I don’t know why you read my blog and how you can find it interesting, haha!

          Thank you very much! 😀

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      • I’m glad you enjoy my comments! I tend to be very wordy, so I’m always a bit nervous that I’m taking up too much “blog space” or whatever. ^^;

        “Actually, I don’t know why you read my blog and how you can find it interesting, haha!”

        Well, for one I really like your writing style. And, as I mentioned, I also enjoy reading about your perspective on Japan; you came here in a completely different way than I did and I find it fascinating to read about Japan through your eyes. Well, that and I’m a sucker for cute relationship stories so I love reading about you and Hitomi. 🙂

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        • Don’t worry, you will never take too much space here! 🙂 I’m a wordy person too, so I understand the struggle! Haha

          I’m very happy then! But may I ask, how did you come to Japan? I’m fascinated by others’ people stories, too 😀

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      • Well, basically I had been interested in Japan (culture, language, etc) for a while and had come to Japan a few times. I had also tried (and failed, pretty hard) to learn Japanese in school when a person I knew suggested that I try Japanese language school in Japan. So, about 10 years ago, I came to Japan to study. Even though I have a BA, it wasn’t really useful for working (especially not in Japan, since it would only qualify me to teach English… no thanks) so after I finished language school, I ended up going to a technical school and getting a degree from there, which enabled me to get work in a Japanese company.

        There were a few times over the years when I wanted really badly to just give up and go home to my family, but I’m glad I stuck it out. My life here is far from perfect, but I love Japan and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

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  8. One night during dinner, my boyfriend exclaimed my foreign friends must not know how to use chopsticks properly. I was kind of dazed and of course, asked why he thought so. “They always leave rice in their bowls. I think that they must have trouble with the chopsticks so they leave what they can’t pick up.”

    I laughed and said I think it’s because they don’t really like rice. He insisted that couldn’t be the case (who doesn’t like rice?), it must be chopsticks.

    He has taught me a lot about table manners, the hardest for me to remember is to use my free hand to hold the dishes. It feels so rude to pick up my rice bowl and out of habit I want to keep my hand in my lap. But he insists, if I were a child my mother would surely scold me for not holding dishes properly.

    Our household is a little different though in regards to money. He usually gives me a majority of his pay to make sure bills get covered and he holds on to enough for snacks and cigarettes. So when we go out, I usually hold our spending money and he has never batted an eye at my paying. I used to wonder if he was embarrassed so I asked and he simply said he didn’t care, it’s not anyone else’s business.

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    • Right? I had a hard time picking up things, too, as it’s kinda rude in Canada!

      Oh that’s good that your partner doesn’t care. I think it really depends on the person, but I feel like in general, the guys get embarrassed a bit. But hey, if they date foreigners, I guess they aren’t really fitting into the average mold of the Japanese society, right?

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      • It’s true, I really love how he never acts how I assumed Japanese guys would. His whole family surprises me and makes me realize that maybe I made too many assumptions and need to worry less and be open minded when it comes to learning Japanese culture.

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  9. These kind of thing are very interesting especially in Japan. For example I wouldnt be really able to make any list of do’s and don’ts for Germany but for China I could already think of a few things!

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    • I think it might be because it’s hard to explain our very own culture. Sometimes it’s only when somebody points something out that you’re like “Ah yeah, that’s true, we do that!”.

      What about the Chinese table manners? Is it similar to Japan?

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