A lesson in Japanese customs and etiquette

A lesson in Japanese customs and etiquette

by Stripes Japan
Stripes Japan

Every culture has its own rules regarding etiquette. In Japan, some of these rules are straightforward while others are more subtle. One of the basic concepts of Japanese society is to maintain social harmony by respecting how others might feel.


A subtle aspect of this is that Japanese often do not present their true feelings (“honne”) to avoid conflict. The appearances they may present are called “tatemae” and are considered good manners. 


A clear example is that Japanese often postpone what they want to do in order to support what others need to do. When you get lost, many Japanese are willing to take you to the right place regardless of their destination. If you ask for language support from your Japanese friends, most likely they will coordinate their schedule to help you right away. 


Bear in mind, however, that this may be the result of tatemae – their desire to be polite despite how it may affect them. Don’t take too much advantage of their kindness, and always show your appreciation – maybe with a small gift or by buying lunch. 


Never be late or cancel an appointment with a Japanese friend that was set up to help your personal needs; it is considered very rude.


First encounters


When Japanese people meet for the first time, they say “hajime-mashite” and give their name followed by the word “desu” (e.g., John desu). Usually they’ll bow if the situation is formal or just nod their heads otherwise. 

The degree of bowing depends on the formality of the situation and the relationship between the people. 


Business professionals exchange “meishi” (business cards) at the beginning of a meeting; make sure you have enough for everyone. Stand, bow slightly and use both hands to present your card with the Japanese side up and the text right-side up for your counterpart to read. The same rule applies when receiving a card from someone else.


Take time to review your counterpart’s card carefully. You can ask about correct pronunciation of his or her name, or for an explanation of a job title. You want to show interest in, and respect to, the other party. Never shove the card into your back pocket. 


Meishi should be handled respectfully because they represents the person. If you are seated at a meeting, place the card gently on the table in front of you. If you are meeting more than one person and have received multiple cards, arrange them neatly in front of you.


When visiting someone’s home, it is polite to bring a gift, usually an inexpensive food item, which should be wrapped. When you visit a local home or office, you may be served green tea without asking. This custom is based on the idea that most people like green tea. If you don’t want it, it’s best not to refuse it, but say “thank you” and not drink it.


Every Japanese home has a “genkan” (hallway) with a lower tiled floor right inside the door where you take off your shoes (and never step on without shoes) and the upper wooden floor where you should walk without shoes or with slippers on. Often, if you use the toilet, you’ll have to change slippers again. If you see slippers or sandals at toilets in hospitals or other offices, you should use them. It is a sanitary custom.  


In order to thank someone, e.g. for an invitation, one often presents a gift (“temiyage”) such as sweets or drinks. Similarly, when a Japanese person returns from a trip, he or she is supposed to bring home souvenirs (“omiyage”) to friends, co-workers and relatives.


Eating out


Most restaurants provide a moist hand towel for cleaning your hands before eating. Before eating, it is customary to say, “itadaki-masu” (“I gratefully receive”) before eating and, “gochiso-sama deshita” (“Thank you for the meal”) after finishing the meal. It’s not impolite to ask for a knife, fork or spoon if you have trouble with chopsticks. Some restaurants may not have them, but those serving Western food always do. 


Chopsticks should not be used for anything other than putting food in your mouth, not for pointing at someone or moving dishes around the table. And they should not be stuck into a bowl of rice – as it resembles a funeral practice. When eating noodles, such as soba or ramen, it is okay to slurp loudly. In fact, they say it improves the flavor! 


Many restaurants in Japan display plastic or wax replicas of their dishes at the entrance. They usually look very similar to the real dishes.


When you enter a restaurant, you will be greeted with the expression “Irasshaimase” (“welcome”), as it is usual in any Japanese store. Waiters and waitresses are generally trained to be extremely efficient, polite and attentive. 


While a majority of restaurants in Japan are equipped exclusively with Western-style tables and chairs, restaurants with low traditional tables and cushions for sitting on the floor are also common. Some restaurants feature both styles side by side. In case of a traditional Japanese interior, you are usually required to take off your shoes before stepping onto the seating area or even at the restaurant’s entrance.


It is common in private households and in certain restaurants to share several dishes of food at the table rather than serving each person an individual dish. When eating from shared dishes, move food from the shared plates onto your own with the opposite end of your chopsticks or with serving chopsticks that may be provided for that purpose.


At restaurants that serve “set menus,” bowl dishes (e.g. domburi or noodle soups) or Western-style dishes, on the other hand, each person usually orders and eats one separate dish. When you are ready to order, you can call the waiter/waitress by saying, “sumimasen” or excuse me. In some restaurants, you may find a button at the table to make a bell sound to call them. The bill will be given to you when the dishes are brought to your table or after the meal. In most restaurants, you are supposed to bring your bill to the cashier near the exit when leaving in order to pay. 


Some restaurants, especially cheaper ones, have different systems for ordering and paying. At some, you may be required to pay right after ordering; others you have to buy meal tickets at a vending machine near the store’s entrance and give them to staff in order to receive a meal. In restaurants in Japan, you are not expected to tip. When leaving, it is polite to say “gochisosama deshita”(It was quite a feast).




The Japanese are known for being reserved; like most of us, they can also shed their customary social inhibitions when drinking – and many appreciate the opportunity to do so. Going drinking with friends or coworkers is almost a ritual in Japan. It is considered the best way to break down barriers and cement relationships. Behavior can get pretty rowdy. But all – within reason – is forgiven and forgotten the next day. 


It is considered polite to pour other people’s drinks then hold your own glass while your host or friend fills it. Having other people constantly fill your glass can lead to a lot of alcohol disappearing very quickly! The Japanese toast is “Kampai” (literally, “dry glass”). At “izakaya,” local pubs where you usually drink and share dishes with your friends, it is common to divide the bill regardless of how much you ate or drank. Most bars (with the exception of Western-style pubs) have a tab system. The bill is paid when you leave.




As a general rule, it’s considered impolite to speak very loudly in public. Public displays of romantic affection are also frowned upon, as is eating on the street and commuter trains or buses (but not their long-distance counterparts). However, these days it’s not uncommon to see any of these behaviors.


The Japanese study English in junior high school for three years, yet most don’t speak it, and some may feel embarrassed about their ability to speak it. On the other hand, many people will understand English if you write it in block letters.

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