Thanks for trying to be respectful of our culture
Really, thank you. I chose to write this post because I have seen far too many LOCAL people not following the rules, while tourists Google posts like this in advance to be respectful to our country. However, I want to point out that I have seen awful tourists, spitting, urinating in streets (I know…), and tearing cherry blossom branches for a perfect selfie angle, which disgusted me.
So many MYTHS out there!
Some people just think that we are an “exotic Asian country”, which is correct, but you need to remember that it is the year 2018 (or at least I am writing this in 2018). We are NOT going to be offended by Western culture and fashion as my wife’s current favorite TV shows are “Modern Family” and “Keeping up with the Kardashians”.
I will explain in a TRUE / FALSE format for all the rules you’ve heard about Japan, and will explain WHY I think you should or should not follow those rules.
You have to slurp your noodles – FALSE
Why? – It is true that slurping is NOT considered as “bad manners” in Japan, but it sure is annoying. I am guilty for slurping noodles as I was raised that way, but my wife never does, and there is absolutely no reason to do so. Just don’t do it on purpose. Slurping is only allowed for noodles, and not for hot drinks. There are many elders who slurp their tea, but I think we should stick to no sound when it comes to eating.
You must know how to use your chopsticks – FALSE
Why? It will make your life so much easier in Japan if you can use chopsticks. BUT, it is totally ok to ask for forks and spoons. The only place where people may frown on you when asking for forks may be old soba restaurants and kaiseki course restaurants. I would say, it is not such a big deal for not being able to use chopsticks. It is far more important that you have a great time and enjoy eating our amazing food. Don’t stress over it!
No Tipping – TRUE
Why? If you leave even 1 yen on your table, there’s a pretty big chance you will be chased down the street by a waiter / waitress trying to give it back to you. Trust me. They go out of their way to return 1 coin.
Don’t pour drinks on your own – TRUE AND FALSE
Why? – It is only true when you are with a group of people including locals. If you are staying at someone’s home and dining with your host, or have anybody other than your family sitting with you, it is polite to pour drinks to others, instead of pouring into your own cup first. If you are dining with just your family, forget it. It is charming to pour each other’s drinks, but it is not a rule. If you want to pour yourself a beer or sake, go for it. Obviously if you are dining in high-end restaurants, don’t bother to do anything yourself.
Use the wet hand towel Oshibori to wipe your hands and nothing else – FALSE
Why? – First of all, go to Shimbashi, an office district in Tokyo during the evening, and you will see businessmen wiping their faces and necks with those wet napkins. I wouldn’t say it’s the “norm” to do so, but I wouldn’t stress over this rule. Having said that, my wife and I have something to say about Oshiboris. Oshibori is a representation of Japanese hospitality. To provide a warm or cold towel to wipe your hands according to the weather is a custom that we are so proud of. But after having lived here for so long, we have also seen the down side.
My wife never really liked using Oshibori, and I asked her why. And her explanation got me thinking too. Oshiboris are usually not provided by the store. There are companies that bring them in the morning, and take the used ones to wash at night. In a nutshell, it is like a taking 100 or even 1000 used towels, sticking it into a washer, putting industrial bleach and sanitizers on them (otherwise it would be full of you don’t know what). We all know that machines cannot wash ever bit of germs on every single towel. Right? So you are left with small amounts of germs, sanitizer, and bleached towels.
Most Oshiboris are transported wet. So… either the towels have millions of germs if they are only wet from water, OR it would be covered in industrial sanitizer. Some Oshiboris are individually wrapped in plastic bags, which would help grow more germs if they are wet from only water. It’s pretty gross either way. Once, in a while, we end up getting oshibori that is not cleaned properly, and so my wife carries organic hand sanitizers and a dry towel everywhere she goes. A bit paranoid, but better safe than sorry right?
Don’t play with your chopsticks – TRUE
I know my readers are parents, and not children, but things like sticking chopsticks upright on a bowl of rice is a funeral ritual, and also no passing of food directly from chopsticks to another pair of chopsticks. This is an act of passing bones into the urn after cremation. I am sure you will be ok with this one. Just don’t play with chopsticks although it may be tempting to use them as drum sticks.
Don’t make too much noise, or talk on your phone in the train / bullet train – TRUE but there’s more!
I have mixed feelings on this one. I think it is ok to have fun conversations inside the train to a certain extent. Some people say you shouldn’t disturb others who are on the train, but as long as you are not shouting or laughing so hard that the people in the next car will hear you, it is your right to have a great time even during the train ride. I have seen far more annoying people in the train, like middle aged men sneezing so loud my grandma would have a heart attack. I have also seen young tweens sitting and eating in the priority seats in front of a pregnant lady standing before them.
I have seen too many bad mannered locals, that I think tourists do not have to worry so much about keeping quiet in the train. Just give up your seats to the elderly and pregnant, or a person holding a baby, try not to take calls, and don’t worry about the talking. There are far worse people out there.
Line up in an orderly manner when waiting for transportation – TRUE
I am so proud of this one. I was waiting at a bus stop one day, and I wasn’t in line. I was actually sitting on the steps near the bus stop. Of course, I lined up at the end of the line when the bus arrived, but a woman offered me to take the place in front of her because she had seen me waiting for the bus before her. I accepted the offer, and it really made my day knowing that there were still people like her.
I don’t exactly know about rush hour, but for the most part, we all line up in a very neat line, respecting others who arrived first.
Stand on the left side and walk on the right side of Escalators – TRUE
The government tried so hard to change this to a “No walking on Escalators rule” but epically failed. Here’s what you need to know in Tokyo, stand on the left, walk on the right side of escalators. In Osaka (Kansai region), stand on the right and walk on the left.
Japanese people are kind and willing to help you – FALSE
Will I be getting hate comments for this? I have to disagree with this one, because we cannot generalize a personality based on ethnicity. I would say the only “great hospitality” that we are famous for, is performed by businesses, public figures, the “truly” nice people out there, and customs going viral on Facebook like lining up in an orderly fashion even when taking refuge from a natural disaster.
Not saying that Japanese people aren’t nice, but I recommend you to ask for help when you need it. Many Japanese people are shy and do not like rejection. It takes A LOT of courage for non-english speakers to offer help, and explain how to get somewhere, let alone get rejected after asking. I have not seen many people helping strangers off the ground when they fall, or asking if they are ok. Reasons for these actions are either people don’t want to get in trouble, or that they are rushing to get to where they need to be, which is very sad but true.
So, instead of standing helplessly lost in translation, try approaching a local. You’ll be lucky if you meet my wife who is translating all of my Japanese drafted posts to English.
Taxi doors open automatically – TRUE
For first timers it may be a big surprise. But we are famous for our technology, and this is one of them. Hail a cab and don’t do anything. The door will open and close by itself.
Cover your tattoos and dress conservatively – FALSE
I hate the fact that many hot springs today do not allow tattoos (My wife and I don’t have any, but we think it is the most ridiculous rule). I hate the fact that some people still sees us as a country full of people who get “offended” by difference and by western culture. Maybe showing off your cleavage and wearing flip flops isn’t the way to visit a shinto shrine or any sacred place, but as long as you have common sense, there is no need to overly cover up yourlself.
In the summer, it is disgusting here. I recommend you not visiting Japan in the summer in the first place, but if you do, come in shorts and flip flops. Just have an extra pair of shoes for shrines and temples. The freedom of fashion exists in Japan, and nobody will penalize you for having your own “style”. In the suburbs, people may give you an unfriendly glare. But in my opinion, let them stare.
There are strict rules when bathing in onsens – TRUE
In an onsen where you bathe with others, there are rules to keep everything sanitary.
1st, you must wash every inch of your body and hair BEFORE getting inside the bath. Take the small towel provided to you, and bring it to (not IN) the bath so that you can wipe your sweat while you soak in the bath. The small towel should never touch the hot water in the bath. Put it on a dry surface near the bath (not the floor), or fold it to put it on your head. Hair must not touch the water as well. If you have long hair, tie it in a bun. Even if you are a guy with short hair, try to not get your head inside the bath.
Littering is forbidden – TRUE
Another aspect of my country that I am proud of. You will not see trash cans on the streets. And still, the streets are spotless (At least in central Tokyo). That is part of the reason why my wife carry portable waste bags to protect her purse from turning into a trash bag, and also these anit-bacterial / odorless waste bags when the kids were smaller.
Do not Eat while Walking – FALSE
Some say that you will get “frowned upon” when you eat while waking. BUT, there is a term in Japanese called “tabe-aruki” which literally means “eat while walking”. There are districts that encourage people to enjoy street food while taking a walk, and there is nothing wrong with that. Just make sure you don’t litter. Take all of your trash home
Everybody smokes in Japan – FALSE
It used to be true. Back in the days (I sound so old), there was a time when smoking was allowed in cabs, streets, even in bullet trains. Thanks to the new law, smokers are only allowed to smoke in designated smoking areas, and will be fined when caught smoking on the streets. The amount of effort put into this regulation varies amongst different districts.
Cleanliness is everything – TRUE
I am sure you are all familiar with taking your shoes off when entering somebody’s house. It is also respectful to straighten your shoes pointing them to the door after you take them off. There are slippers for inside the house, and different pairs for using inside the restroom. The cleaner, the better.
I had to write this post because there were so many outdated “manner” guides online written by non-locals. Don’t get me wrong, as a Japanese citizen I feel honored that people are writing posts on how to be respectful to the Japanese culture. It feels amazing because locals are the ones starting to forget many of the customs, and visitors coming from abroad are getting more aware and considerate of how people should and should not behave in Japan. Locals have got lots to learn from non-locals.
I will be updating more to this post as I come up with weird myths or customs, so stay tuned and share it to your friends who are thinking of visiting Japan!