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Japanese Culture: 10 Basic Etiquette Rules to Enjoy Japan

The Japanese label would fit many items. And it is that there is an appropriate way to behave in the bathroom and onsen , when traveling by train or when eating with chopsticks. We have commented on some of these in different articles on Japonismo. But in this post we focus on basic etiquette rules that you cannot forget when traveling to Japan .

Japan is a country where formality is deeply rooted, especially in personal relationships. Therefore, it is important to know certain rules or customs so as not to be too wrong on certain occasions.

Of course, do not worry too much if one day, while you are in Japan, you miss any of these “rules”. In the end, the Japanese are clear that we are foreigners and that we do not have to know absolutely all their social codes. But, as we always say, knowing the country you are going to visit beforehand helps you integrate better. And in the end that will make you enjoy the trip much more.

1. Socks without holes and clean feet

As we have already discussed in Japonismo, the custom of removing shoes is deeply rooted in Japan. Either when entering houses, schools and institutes or when going to the main halls of some temples or even in some restaurants. In addition, in traditional or ryokan -style hotels, you also have to take off your shoes before entering the room.

This is so because traditionally the houses had tatami flooring , a type of straw mat. Any footwear would stain and spoil this mat. Nowadays, even though many Japanese houses have Western-style floors, you have to take your shoes off. For this, the houses have a space called genkan at the entrance where you take off your shoes and leave your shoes.

Also keep these basic tips in mind:

When you take off your shoes, do not step on the ground. Put your feet on the raised part or already on the tatami. If you step on the same floor where you leave your shoes, your socks or feet will get dirty and there will be no point in having your shoes off.

You will see that the sink has special slippers. But they are different and they are only there to use the toilet. When you’re done, you put them back in the bathroom.

Always wear clean socks without holes, because your feet in Japan are going to have a lot of prominence!

2. You enter the bathtub totally clean

We have also talked in detail in Japonismo about the bathroom culture in Japan. And it is that the bath is one of the most important activities of the Japanese society . It is precisely so important that there is a series of very well structured rules of behavior. It does not matter if it is when taking a bath in an ofuro (private house), in a sento (communal baths) or in an onsen (thermal baths).

The basic tips on the bathroom are in the linked post, but we summarize the basics:

  • Wash first before getting in the tub to keep the water clean and reusable.
  • If you use a towel in a sento or onsen as a sponge, never put it in the bathwater. You can put it on your head, like they do.
  • Take your time and relax.

3. Exercise your neck and back for bowing

Bowing ( ojigi ) is another of the bases of social conduct in Japan . In the linked post you have many more details to know what kind of reverence is appropriate at all times. But keep in mind that the ojigi is not a humiliation or submission, as some want to understand, but a show of confidence.

All of that comes from a time when samurai carried sharp swords. So, offering the neck as a sign of greeting was a great sign of trust and dedication. Today, it is a basic gesture in Japan that is used to greet, apologize, say thank you, say goodbye… come on, for everything.

Bowing, used in both formal and informal settings, will vary in degree, but it always allows respect for personal space in a culture less open to physical contact in public. In addition, it is perfect in times of the coronavirus .

4. Save your nose and don’t blow your nose

In Japan it is impolite to blow your nose in public , especially if you make a lot of noise or make very noticeable gestures. If necessary, you can gently dab your nose with a tissue, but nothing more.

Yes it is very common among the Japanese that in case of need they absorb mucus. That is to say, inhale the snot even if it makes that characteristic and loud noise that, outside of Japan, is usually seen as rude. It may surprise you, but in Japan it happens just the other way around. Sniffling is perfect.

As we also mention when talking about the curiosities that you find in Japan when you travel for the first time , it is customary and shows respect to wear a  surgical -style mask if you have a cold. In this way the contagion of others is minimized.

5. Don’t forget the gift…!

We have also talked about the importance of the gift in Japan . And the truth is that whether you live in Japan or go to visit and interact with Japanese, you always have to keep this in mind.

If you live in Japan you will have many occasions to experience this. For example, if you go on vacation, you will have to come back with a small omiyage . That is precisely why there are so many stores in train stations and airports with boxes already wrapped with sweets and typical products of the place where you are.

But if you go to visit or tourism, you won’t get rid of it either. If you meet Japanese friends there, you will have to bring them a small gift. And it is that they will also give you something, saying that it is a mono tsumaranai . That is, “something unimportant.” But that little gift, however, is very important for social relationships to flow perfectly.

So, if you travel to Japan and you are going to see Japanese friends, always take some gifts with you. The best thing to also not have problems with customs are typical sweets or wines from your country. Anything that doesn’t involve fresh produce.

6. To receive, always with two hands

Linking to the previous point, to receive a gift you always have to do it with both hands . And also add a slight bow while you receive it, of course, depending on the formality of the meeting.

In the past the custom was not to open the gift in front of the person. Thus, they were always expected to get home to open them. In fact, it was even impolite to open the presents impatiently. However, nowadays it is common to ask, almost rhetorically, if it can be opened. Obviously they will always say yes, so you can open it.

This gesture of receiving things with both hands applies to both gifts and business cards, as we already told you . And it also applies to diplomas and certificates in delivery ceremonies, etc.

7. You don’t get drunk, they get you drunk!

Alcohol is an important part of communication in a society as hierarchical and with as many formalities as the Japanese. But even when it comes to drinking, there is a certain degree of etiquette… they don’t even get rid of certain rules!

In Japan it is customary to always serve others and never yourself. As soon as you have finished serving everyone, you leave the bottle on the table and wait for someone else to serve you. Among young people and in very informal situations it happens less and less, although it is still quite common.

As a curiosity, if you don’t want to drink more, you have to leave drink in the glass. Because if you drain the glass and empty it, it’s the sign that you want more. And surely before you know it they will have put you drink again. Be careful!

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