The Do’s and Don’ts of Japanese Culture

There are a lot of spoken and unspoken rules of Japan, and the society is built upon the respect for these rules. Some would argue that the rules of Japan, is actually what they love most about the country. Many of these rules are quite unique to Japan, or at least aren’t practiced much outside of Japan, so it’s important to know the most basic of rules to help you integrate into society. 

1. Don't be noisy in public places

In Japan, the trains are among one of the most silent places to be in – even during rush hour. You might have a few school children talking quietly among themselves but that will usually be the only talking that goes on during the train ride. Everyone else will likely have their nose buried in some form of book or their phone. Once, I was on a train to the city, and some lady had her headphones on a little too loudly, and an older gentleman started telling her off and that she had to turn down her music as it was disturbing other passengers. 

Talking on cellphones is considered to be highly rude on Japanese trains, and you will more than likely get some dirty looks if you are talking in your phone, especially when the train is crowded. If you are near the priority seating, then you shouldn’t even be on your phone whatsoever. 

2. Respect Everyone, and everywhere

See, Japan is built around the concept of ‘Wa’ and ‘Amae’, which means Harmony and respect for others. If there is something or someone that is breaking that Wa, then tension arises. The respect for others in Japan is what makes it such a special place, but unfortunately, the levels of respect for people is much lower among the foreigners who visit Japan.  Not a problem though, most of us in our office never understood the concept for the first couple months of living in Japan. 

A little, goes a long way in Japan. If you are a young person such as myself and you find yourself sitting on a train and you see some elderly people walk on to the train, be sure to stand up and offer them your seat. You can just gesture towards the seat and say ‘Sumimasen, Douzo’ if you don’t speak Japanese, which via context they will understand. They might refuse, but they will still be thankful for your offer. While it may seem simple, doing little things for people is really noticeable, and helps foreigners become more aware of Japanese social culture.

3. Don't cross the road whenever and wherever you feel.

Going back to the idea of Order in Japan, people tend to follow signs pretty strictly, even the signs at pedestrian crossings. People will wait at pedestrian crossings until the green light on the other side has been lit up, even if there is traffic coming in either direction.

Likewise, if people need to cross the road, they will just go the nearest pedestrian crossing and do it there. While there are some circumstances where this doesn’t apply, likely to occur on side streets where the streets are narrow.

4. Go with the flow

There are places that can get a little crowded in Japan. With a seemingly endless stream of people around some tourist destinations, going with the flow is essential. If Japan, they drive on the left side of the road, and as such, pedestrians have the inherent knowledge to do that as well. So if you are walking down a busy street and find yourself accidentally on the wrong side of the street, you better move over as quickly as you can otherwise you’ll more then definitely bump into several people.

If there is a shop or something you want to see on the opposite side of the road though, it’s best to walk as close as you can to the invisible barrier that separates the left and the right, and keep walking forward until you see a large enough gap for you to fit in without disturbing anyone, turn around and head down to the store. While it may seem little excessive, trust us, it’s the best thing to do in that situation. When you leave the store, enter the flow and repeat until you reach your destination.

5. Don't take wet umbrellas into stores

It can rain a lot in Japan, and with umbrellas being so cheap and readily accessible at convenience stores, make sure that you have one. However, if you are entering a store while it’s raining outside, place your umbrella either in a provided plastic bag, or in the holder outside the shop. This is so you’re not dripping water around the store, making it unsafe to walk through. If you have a small umbrella, we recommend that you just carry a plastic bag with you in your backpack or purse, and just tuck your umbrella in there instead.

Are you planning a trip to Japan soon? Then you really should consider purchasing a JR Rail Pass, especially if you are planning on hitting all the major Tourist cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, and Sapporo. 

The JR Rail Pass makes getting around the country easy, and can save you several hundreds in travel expenses. All you need to do is just show your pass at the ticket gate, and you have access to any and all JR rail lines across the country, and not just the standard commuter trains, but luxury trains, and even the world famous Shikansen (Bullet Train). A JR Rail Pass is an essential item for any visitor to Japan. Buy your pass today by clicking here now!

6. Take your shoes off

If you walk into a building and see there is a lot of shoes piled up already, or there are shoes in little cubicles, then the chances are high that you will be required to take your shoes off. This can be anywhere, your hotel room, a restaurant, a castle, or a temple. 

You are encouraged to take your shoes off as the feet are considered to be dirty in Japan, and by taking your shoes off, you are not track your dirty feet around the house. 

Private toilets in hotels or apartments will also likely have separate bathroom slippers as, while the toilet is in the house, it is not considered a clean room, so you will usually have to put on slippers when you go to the toilet.

For your convenience, we recommend that you purchase some shoes that slip on and off easily before you arrive in Japan.

7. Chopstick Etiquette

In Japan, people use chopsticks most to eat their food, and we highly suggest that you learn how to use them. But using chopsticks isn’t the only thing you should know. Like the rest of Japan, there is a certain way of doing things, and with chopsticks, there are a few things that you should never do.

  1. You should never rub chopsticks together, as this is usually done with cheap chopsticks to remove splinters and can be highly offensive to restaurateurs. 

2. Never stand your chopsticks up in your food, as this resembles a practice done at funerals or at home alters, where the bereaved stand chopsticks in a a bowl of rice as a form of commemoration of the dead.

3. Never pass food between chopsticks, as this also resembles another practice done at funerals, where the cremated bones of the deceased are passed along through the family members and close friends. If you are wanting to share food with your friends and family, pass it directly to their plate, or have them take it off you.

4. Don’t stab your food with your chopsticks, as this is just considered to be rude and childish. 

8. Don't Stand in the Middle of the Escalator

On escalators in Japan, there is an unspoken rule to stand on one side of the escalator, leaving the other side open for those in a rush so they can walk up and past everyone. This gap between the lines could be the difference between someone arriving at work on time or not, so it’s important to make sure you give space to those who need it. 

Unfortunately, we can’t tell you the exact side you need to stand on, as this changes across the nation, but just follow what we told you earlier and go with the flow. 

9. Use Whatever Japanese you know, Whenever you can.

If you are in Japan, then please use Japanese – not that hard of a concept to grasp. You do not need to be fluent, but there are about 20 essential phrases you should know in order to help you get by.

While English is taught in high schools, most people still don’t know all that much English and will just give you a clueless expression. Yes, there might be some Japanese people who will try talking to you in English to improve their English, in which you can reply in English, but you should never initiate conversation in English.

If you do need to ask someone a question, the best thing to do is say the following: “Sumimasen, eigo wa hanasemas ka?”, which means “Excuse me, do you speak English?”. If they reply with “Hai“, or “Hai, Hanasemas!” then you are free to change to English. If their reply sounds like “Sukoshi Hanasemas“, Then they are saying they don’t speak a lot of English. So, try speaking with the most basic of words, and try using hand gestures as they go a long way. If however, they say “iie, Hanasemasen” then they are saying they don’t speak English. To which, a polite response would be “Ah, Sumimasen“, which in this context means, sorry for bothering you. 

Alternatively, you could just use a translation app and get them to read the translation, as that will just make things a whole lot easier for everyone.

That’s all for now everyone! We hope you enjoyed this list and hope that you learned a little about the Japanese way of life and hope that you too can adopt some of this cultural standards on your next trip to Japan! 

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