Japanese Etiquette

There are few things you could do to really offend people in Japan. Most Japanese are tolerant of faux pas, but they are appreciative when people acknowledge and observe their customs. The easiest way to ingratiate yourself with the Japanese is to take time to learn and respect Japanese ways.

General Tips

  • Bow on meeting someone. A deep head nod is usually enough, but a bow from the waist is more appropriate in formal situations.
  • Japanese will often point at their nose (not chest) when referring to themselves.
  • Pointing at someone is considered rude. To make reference to someone or something, wave your hand up and down in his or her direction.
  • Direct expression of opinions isn't encouraged. It's more common for people to gently suggest something.
  • Avoid physical contact with people you don't know well. A slap on the back or hand on the shoulder might make people uncomfortable.
  • Avoid too much eye contact when speaking as it can be seen as aggressive.
  • Try to not be too noisy. People will likely speak at a lower volume than you are used to, and you should, too.

At Someone's Home

  • Most entertaining is done in restaurants and bars; don't be offended if you're not invited to someone's home.
  • Should an invitation be extended, a small gift—perhaps a bottle of alcohol or box of sweets—should be presented.
  • At the entryway, remove your shoes and put on the provided slippers. Remove your slippers if you enter a room with tatami flooring (straw mats). Before entering the bathroom, remove your house slippers and switch to those found near the bathroom doorway.
  • Stick to neutral subjects in conversation. The weather doesn't have to be your only topic, but you should take care not to be too nosy. Let your host lead.
  • It's not customary for Japanese business associates to bring spouses or partners along. If you're traveling on business with your spouse, don't assume that an invitation includes both of you. If you want to bring your spouse, ask in a way that eliminates the need for a direct refusal.

In Business Meetings

  • For business meetings, meishi (business cards) are essential. Remember to place those you have received in front of you; don't shove them in your pocket. It's also good to have one side of your business card printed in Japanese.
  • Japanese position their employees based on rank within the company. Don't be surprised if the proceedings seem perfunctory—many major decisions were made behind the scenes before the meeting started.
  • Stick to last names and use the honorific -san after the name, as in Tanaka-san (Mr. or Mrs. Tanaka), but not for yourself or family. Also respect the hierarchy, and as much as possible address yourself to the most senior person in the room.
  • Many Japanese businessmen still don't know how to interact with Western businesswomen. Be patient, and, if the need arises, gently remind them that, professionally, you expect to be treated as any man would be.
  • There is a strict hierarchy determining who sits where at a table or in a taxi, or who stands where in an elevator. Generally the spot farthest from the door is reserved for the group's senior-most member. When in doubt, wait for someone to gesture to your spot.

In Dressing

  • The Japanese tend to dress with care, eschewing sportswear or flip-flops for a slightly more formal look. Although foreigners are cut a lot of slack in the fashion department, you’ll make a good first impression if you try for business casual: button-down shirts rather than T-shirts, loafers over sneakers.
  • Few restaurants have explicit dress codes, but a good rule of thumb is that if the place accepts dinner reservations, wear something that covers your knees, with a collar (men) and sleeves (women).
  • Sightseeing in Japan requires removing your shoes at temples, shrines, ryokan, and restaurant tatami rooms. Bring slip-ons, and wear your good socks.
  • Many facilities provide slippers to wear indoors, but if your feet are larger than a U.S. men’s size 10, they won’t fit. Bring a pair of thick socks.

At Lodgings and Ryokan

  • When you arrive at a minshuku or ryokan, put on the slippers that are provided and make your way to your room. Remember to remove your slippers before entering your room; never step on the tatami with shoes or slippers.
  • Before entering a thermal pool, make sure you wash and rinse off entirely before getting into the water. Do not get soap in the tub. Other guests will be using the same bathwater, so it is important to observe this custom. After your bath, change into the yukata (robe) provided in your room. Don't worry about walking around in it—other guests will be doing the same.

On Trains and Buses

  • For many in Japan, taking public transport is a brief chance to relax with their own thoughts. Keep your voice to a low murmur on trains and buses and don’t make phone calls.
  • When riding the Shinkansen with large bags, duck to the side to let other passengers take their seats before you store your luggage. Stash bags on overhead shelves or behind the last seats in the car.

While Shopping

  • After entering a store, the staff will greet you with "irasshaimase," which is a welcoming phrase. A simple nod or smile is an appropriate acknowledgment. After that, polite requests to view an item or try on a piece of clothing should be followed as anywhere in the West. Don’t forget to take your shoes off before entering the fitting room. Bargaining is common at flea markets but not in conventional stores.
  • There's usually a plastic tray at the register for you to place your money or credit card. Your change and receipt, however, will be placed in your hand. It should be noted that many small shops do not accept credit cards.

Giving Gifts

  • Gift giving is a year-round national pastime, peaking during summer's ochugen and the year-end oseibo seasons. Common gifts between friends, family, and associates include elegantly wrapped packages of fruit, noodles, or beer.
  • On Valentine's Day women give men chocolate, but on White Day in March the roles are reversed.
  • For weddings and funerals, cash gifts are the norm. Convenience stores carry special envelopes in which to put the money (always crisp, new bills).

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