Some helpful tips on Japanese etiquette

By Luke Mahoney. grape Japan

As an expat, I can confirm that life in Japan takes some getting used to. Several customs are unique to the island nation, and there are more than enough social nuances and contexts to follow. Home life also takes some adjusting as apartments are arranged somewhat differently than back home.

Despite being a great place to live, anyone moving to Japan can expect to commit more than a few faux pas. The worst I was ever guilty of occurred about six months into my time here.

At the time, my Japanese instructor graciously organized for me to attend a tea ceremony at her friend's house. The individual was a certified tea ceremony teacher and a very nice and gentle lady. We arrived at her countryside home and found everything prepared for our visit. Although there were about five of us partaking, as the only non-Japanese participant, I was the guest of honor.

Sure enough, the tea ceremony teacher performed a beautiful ceremony and offered everyone tea. When finished, I was singled out to decide whether or not the group would have refills. I said OK, everyone drank, and again I was asked if we should have more. It seemed like everyone was still socializing, so again I said OK.

Overall, I thought nothing of it. However, on the ride home, my Japanese instructor told me in an admonishing tone that we had likely drunk over 10,000 yen worth of tea. As a coffee-drinking American, I was unaware that high-quality tea could reach such astronomical prices. Furthermore, the experience made it clear that Japanese etiquette would prevent others from "embarrassingly" pulling me aside to stop me from making such a fool of myself. Live and learn.

12 behaviors to avoid

Having said my peace, I figure it'd be worthwhile to study up on Japanese manners and etiquette. Fortunately, YouTuber Abroad in Japan has covered the issue in several videos to keep others from similarly embarrassing themselves.

Abroad in Japan begins by admitting there are a lot of things to learn when it comes to etiquette in Japan. Understandably, it takes a lot of time before things solidify completely.

In this video listicle, the vlogger points out that eating and walking is frowned upon in Japan. Residents prize orderliness and clean streets, so a pedestrian dropping crumbs is no good. Most people eating in public finish their snack while standing in front of the business where they bought it before moving on.

While on the topic of food, chopsticks are also something to be mindful of. More specifically, visitors should refrain from standing the utensil upright in rice or passing bits of food from chopsticks to chopsticks. These actions are traditionally practiced at cremations, and their application elsewhere is disconcerting, to say the least. On the positive side, however, tipping is not a part of the dining culture in Japan.

Abroad in Japan also notes how commuting in Japan is a little different than back home. Trains, for example, have the atmosphere of a library and are very quiet. Naturally, talking loudly on cell phones is discouraged, and many reminders are posted throughout train cars.

Abroad in Japan goes on to note a few more manners to keep in mind.

  • Treat business cards with respect
  • Don’t blow your nose in public
  • Limit physical contact
  • Try not to be opinionated
  • Take off your shoes before entering a house
  • Don’t litter
  • Wait for the light, don’t jaywalk
  • Don’t worry about making mistakes

Nightlife Tips and Tricks

While that covers the everyday stuff, Japanese nightlife is another beast. Fortunately, Abroad in Japan has also covered the issue:

First things first, while pub crawling, any patron is likely to be confronted with menus covered in Japanese and no pictures. At times like this, asking "osusume wa nan desu ka?" ("What do you recommend") is an easy go-to move. Staff will be happy to suggest several items.

Another tip is to take advantage of the hand towel provided at most restaurants throughout the meal. They are pleasant to use and a lifesaver when handling greasy food late at night. Be prepared to pay a seating charge at some restaurants, an unfortunately unavoidable part of eating out in the country. A final thing to be aware of is that Japan is still largely a cash-based society. This means that at pubs and bars, in particular, credit cards are not usually accepted. So be sure to have cash ready, although, again, there is no need to tip.

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© grape Japan

©2021 GPlusMedia Inc.

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@jimizo. The same thing has happened to me. Someone dumps their rubbish, almost always containers for take away and ready meals, on the wrong day at our flats’ collection point. We, that is me, were blamed by the neighbours for weeks after it first started happening, the only evidence the finger pointers could give was that I was was not Japanese and therefore did not know about rubbish collection days. For weeks and weeks this went on until we were both in the U.K. for a couple of months, yet the rubbish was still being dumped. No apology, but the accusations stopped.

12 ( +12 / -0 )

Don't blow your nose in public

Don't litter

At least two myths busted as soon as I arrived in Japan. And no, not every Japanese separates garbage properly. Damn sick and tired of all these rules which you're supposed to obey and then you find even Japanese don't obey.

11 ( +12 / -1 )

And no, not every Japanese separates garbage properly. 

Very true. The gomi gestapo blamed the gaijins ( me and my wife ) for not separating the rubbish in my old apartment. I got home to find a bag of rubbish with a note outside my door. Wasn’t mine. A suitably angryish conversation with the landlord put a stop to this.

11 ( +11 / -0 ) Japanese instructor told me in an admonishing tone that we had likely drunk over 10,000 yen worth of tea.

Let the instructor admonish all they want. This is not on you. If the cultural norm is to select as guest of honour someone who is very likely unfamiliar with the nuances of the tea ceremony as well as ask that guest to make decisions about the tea service instead of the host; then the responsibility for the cost of the tea is 100% on the host.

But that's the culture in Japan. As a non-Japanese you're left in the dark, put in the position of making mistakes, and chastised afterwards for predictable errors that could have been avoided entirely. Instead, you're shamed. Your sensei would know that you might lack basic knowledge about the ceremony. You ought to have been given all the information you needed to be a polite guest by your sensei before taking part. No shame required. But then no one could enjoy the confirmation of how boorish non-Japanese people are.

9 ( +10 / -1 )

Most of YouTuber Abroad in Japan's videos, some of which are spot on, are quite critical of Japan, especially when it comes to the ridiculousness of manners and things like television. And most of the tips mentioned in the article are utter hogwash because they are broken by Japanese EVERY DAY. This morning I saw a guy with a chin-diaper on (mask, not worn properly) blow a large volume of mucus onto the sidewalk. Sure, he was aiming for the sewer grating, but some landed on his shoe, and a great deal more on the sidewalk. That's before he decided to spit on the steps of the station. Don't eat while walking? Darn... going to have to tell that to the many tourism companies that advertise tours focused on "tabearuki hot spots":

And isn't there a whole street famous for it? Don't be opinionated, just listen to the opinions of your seniors sounds about right, I guess. Don't litter -- hahaha. I'll tuck that one next to the PET bottles in the river near my house, or the garbage overflowing from the basket in the year-old ditched bicycle behind my apartment building. People walk by and drop trash two days before it's to be collected, which the crows have a literal feast with, etc.

I could go on, but suffice it to say, while it is NICE and good if people want to look up on do's and don'ts when travelling to another nation (Japanese tourists might want to do this as well), the onus is not on the traveller, often encouraged to come (to this land of "omotenasu"), to know the social morays of the target nation or risk being scorned.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Theres no way ur average person would guess that they drank ¥10,000 worth of tea.

It’s up to the teacher to tell all that what they are partaking of is of high worth and value.

More was offered.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Don’t blow your nose in public

Because it is so much better to keep snorting and hacking relentlessly trying to swallow the stuff after all.
4 ( +6 / -2 )


Spot on. The teacher should have informed the people that they were drinking really expensive tea. But they were expected to know this by some kind of osmosis. Middle class Yamato society loves to make fun of people for not knowing. This is the one part of Japan that I cannot get along with.

Referring to my previous post here. Okinawa is NOT part of Japan.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Japan should stop stressful Japanese rules. Should every other countries impose their own etiquette too ???.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Agreed Bertie and I am Japanese, but this just seems foolish.

If you read the article carefully too it looks like he was set up for failure. Its probably an anecdote for trying to promote tea culture. Omotenashi should also understanding others a tiny bit.

The whole thing is too rigid for me anyways. I just buy a 2 bottle of matcha or green tea a day and swig it.

Anyone’s welcome to have some too...

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I enjoy watching Chris Abroad videos about Japan. His British sense of sarcastic humor is great. He has good videos with Natski and Ryotaro as well.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Reading the "advice" in the article above makes me realise how much I love Okinawa. Most of what he writes applies to "Yamato" (mainland Japan). Life is so much easier here!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

 so a pedestrian dropping crumbs is no good

Har. You're having a laugh here.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Don't blow your nose in public.

It's much less gross to pick it. Eating it optional.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

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