Japanese Culture

Etiquette

Basic Etiquette

  • An important concept that informs etiquette in Japan is omotenashi, which generally translates as ‘hospitality’. It refers to the quality of being thoughtful and considerate of others in such a way that the host can anticipate the needs of their guests or customers and adjust accordingly. Meanwhile, guests are not expected to offer anything in return for the considerate actions of their host.
  • Two common phrases used to indicate politeness are “Gomen nasai” (‘I’m sorry’) and “Sumimasen” (‘Excuse me’). It is considered proper etiquette to state these phrases when you have made a mistake or caused inconvenience. Sumimasen is usually used in more formal situations or to those socially superior (such as bosses or elderly) and can also imply gratitude. Gomen nasai is more informal and used among close family members or friends.
  • It is common in Japan for people to wear face masks, generally as a way to protect against colds. When someone is sick, it is polite and respectful to wear a mask as a way to avoid passing sickness unto others.
  • People usually walk on the left side of a path, especially in busy areas. Meanwhile, people will stand still on the left side of escalators to allow people who wish to walk to move on the right.
  • Japanese businesses often leave a small tray near the cash register for the customer to place their money. This ensures that the cashier does not need to directly come into contact with the customer. Disregarding the money tray and holding money out for the cashier to take is considered highly impolite.
  • It is considered rude to count the received change in front of a cashier. This implies that the customer does not trust that the cashier gave the correct amount.
  • Punctuality is extremely valued in Japan. Being on time for meetings, appointments, services and parties is expected. This expectation is carried through to services, such as public transport arriving exactly at the expected time. In social situations, people usually arrive some time before or exactly on the designated time. If you expect a delay, politely inform your Japanese counterpart.


Visiting

  • It is not always common to entertain and have social events in people’s homes, in part due to the small size of most Japanese houses. To be invited into someone’s home is seen as a big honour.
  • An important distinction in Japanese homes is between the inside and outside. In many houses, there is a small space between the main door and the rest of the home that acts as an intermediate space. This entrance area is known as a ‘genkan’. The size of the genkan is usually proportionate to the size of the house; small houses will have a narrow genkan while larger houses will have a more spacious genkan.
  • Traditionally, the main indoor space is slightly elevated and has separate flooring from the genkan
  • Importantly, the genkan is where people remove their shoes before entering the home. This is usually done as a way to avoid bringing dirt from outside into the house. It is extremely impolite to step foot past the genkan with outdoor shoes.
  • Outdoor shoes should be removed slowly, rather than kicked off the feet.
  • Once someone has removed their outdoor shoes, it is common practice to place the shoes on a provided shoe rack or to point the shoes towards the door.
  • Hosts will often provide guests with indoor slippers to wear while visiting the house.
  • Indoor slippers are usually worn all throughout the house except for spaces in some more traditional homes that have tatami mats (a type of flooring made of woven straw).
  • Some hosts may have separate slippers worn only when using the bathroom or toilet.
  • People nearly always bring a gift when visiting another person’s home (see Gift Giving below for appropriate gifts).
  • Hosts usually indicate to guests where to sit when they enter a room.
  • The most important guest is offered the most honoured seat (kamiza), which is the seat furthest from the entrance. 
  • The least important person present (usually the host) sits in the least honoured seat (shimoza), which is the seat closest to the entrance.
  • If the host does not indicate where to sit, the most appropriate choice is to sit closest to the entrance to demonstrate humility.
  • Some houses and restaurants in Japan follow the tradition of sitting around a low table. Sometimes, people will sit on the floor directly or on floor cushions. However, some places have a hole under the table where people can sit and hang their legs similar to if they were sitting on a chair.
  • When sitting on the floor, there are a couple of ways people are usually expected to sit. The formal Japanese sitting position is known as ‘seiza’. In this position, people sit with their legs tucked under their thighs while resting their bottom on the heels and maintaining a straight back. Women usually keep their knees together, while men have their knees slightly apart.
  • In casual situations, men usually sit on the floor with their legs crossed, while women sit with both legs to one side.


Eating

  • In some Japanese restaurants, customers may be given a small rolled hand towel known as a ‘oshibori’. It is usually used to wipe your hands before eating, and it is considered impolite to use the oshibori to wipe your face or neck.
  • Traditionally, meals begin with the statement “Itadakimasu”, which literally means ‘I humbly receive’, but is used in a similar fashion as saying ‘bon appetit’ or ‘enjoy your meal’. The statement expresses gratitude for those who contributed to providing and preparing the meal.
  • It is impolite to begin eating before everyone has gathered at the table, ready to partake in the meal.
  • The most honoured guest or highest-ranked person eats first. Once they have begun, everyone is invited to begin their meal.
  • Chopsticks are the most common utensils used when eating, sometimes accompanied with a soup spoon.
  • For disposable chopsticks, it is considered rude to rub them together. This may imply to the restaurant owner that the customer views the restaurant as cheap.
  • When chopsticks are not being used, they are usually laid down in front of the person with the tips to the left.
  • It is highly inappropriate to stick chopsticks into food, especially into a bowl of rice. This practice of placing chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice is a funerary practice known as ‘tsukitate-bashi’. 
  • Food is never passed directly from one person’s chopsticks to another.
  • Pointing or waving at people or objects with chopsticks is considered to be impolite.
  • Chewing with one’s mouth open is considered impolite.
  • When eating soup or rice, it is acceptable to lift the bowl closer to your mouth to avoid spilling food. Generally, miso soup (which accompanies many meals) is drunk directly from the bowl, while larger soups are usually consumed by using a soup spoon.
  • White rice is a common staple component of most Japanese meals. The rice often comes with accompaniments.
  • It is considered impolite for someone to blow their nose at the table, as well as make other loud noises such as burping or munching. The exception to this is slurping, which is socially acceptable for certain foods, especially noodle dishes such as ramen.
  • Leaving a plate completely empty after a meal signifies to the host that you are satisfied and do not wish to be served more food.
  • It is not considered impolite to leave food on the plate when being served by others. However, when serving oneself, it is rude to over-serve and not complete the meal.
  • Once a meal is complete, a common phrase stated is “Gochisousama-deshita”, which is generally understood as a statement of gratitude for the effort and the expense of the meal.
  • People generally avoid eating or drinking while walking in public settings. If someone purchases a takeaway drink (especially from a vending machine), they usually drink the beverage near the machine and recycle the packaging in the nearby bin.
  • The most common alcoholic beverage in Japan is sake, a brewed alcohol made from fermented rice. It can be consumed either hot or cold. Other distilled spirits such as whiskey are also quite popular as well as beer.
  • Before everyone drinks their first alcoholic beverage, people usually hold up their drinks and toast with the phrase “Kampai”.
  • When drinking alcoholic beverages, people customarily serve each other instead of pouring their own drink. Whoever you are dining with will typically periodically check your cup and refill if your drink is empty.
  • If you do not wish to be served more beverages, it is customary to leave a little in the cup to indicate to others not to refill.
  • A popular non-alcoholic beverage widely consumed in Japan is green tea. People may serve green tea as an accompaniment to a main meal, or as the basis of an afternoon tea with some sweets.
  • Tipping is not practised in Japan. There is a general belief that the prices listed for meals or services are fair, and tipping implies otherwise.


Gift Giving

  • Gift giving (zōtō) is quite popular in Japan. Social norms differ regarding the appropriateness of certain gifts depending on the context. The general theme underpinning gift giving practices in Japan is that there is a reciprocal cycle of obligation and gratitude. Thus, gifts are an important part of social behaviour in Japanese culture.
  • Gifts are typically given to commemorate births, graduations, house visits, weddings and anniversaries. Traditionally, gifts were not given during Christmas or for birthdays, but this is becoming much more common in Japan.
  • There are also two popular gift giving seasons in Japan that coincide with major dates of significance. The first is Chūgen, which occurs around the Obon festival in July, and the second is Seibo, which occurs near the end of the year. Department stores in Japan often sell gifts specifically for Chūgen and Seibo that are already appropriately wrapped.
  • During Chūgen, people usually give gifts to their social superior. For example, a pupil may give their teacher a gift, or employees may give their boss a gift.
  • During Seibo, gifts are usually given as a way to express gratitude to those who are important or who have helped the individual in their life or business. It is often a way to recognise favours received throughout the year.
  • Proper etiquette is to give and receive a gift with both hands.
  • When giving a gift to an individual, it is usually done in private. Gifts given to a group are usually placed in a communal area so that everyone can share the gift.
  • People tend to wait until they are indoors to give a gift. Sometimes, flowers or plants are given outside.
  • Depending on the context, it is not uncommon for people to initially refuse the gift at first. The giver then insists the recipient takes the gift. However, refusing a gift from someone who is higher ranking is generally considered rude.
  • It is inappropriate for the giver to exaggerate or boast about the gift they are giving. Rather, people tend to de-emphasise the worth of a gift.
  • Popular gifts given in Japan include flowers, plants, edible gifts (e.g. food gift baskets, chocolate, fruits, savoury snacks), alcohol, stationery, small household items (e.g. hand towels) or clothing accessories (e.g. hats or scarves). People often appreciate gifts that are not from their current location.
  • The way a gift is presented is often considered as important as the gift itself. There are a number of customs and norms relating to how a gift should be wrapped depending on the situation. Generally, gifts are wrapped and presented nicely, no matter the gift. It is also acceptable to give gifts in a nice gift bag.
  • Monetary gifts are usually given in a decorative envelope. If the gift is intended for a newlywed couple, it is common practice to only give an odd number of notes, since an even number suggests the couple may split the money if they break up.
  • It is common to find small pre-wrapped gifts in many transit places in Japan, such as airports and train stations. These may be snacks, treats, bath products or souvenirs. Such gifts are known as ‘omiyage’ or ‘temiyage’ depending on the context. The general underlying idea is that the gift is produced from a city, town, region or country different from where the gift is given.
  • Omiyage is often translated as ‘souvenir’ but generally refers to a local product to be given as a gift. These types of gifts are usually for travellers to bring back home to family, friends and coworkers to show thoughtfulness whilst away on travel.
  • Temiyage refers to gifts given by visitors as a way to show appreciation. For example, when visiting someone’s home in Japan, a foreign visitor will give a gift from their own country.
  • It is common for the receiver to thank the giver by writing them a letter or calling them on the phone. Depending on the occasion, it is also common for people to give a small gift in return (known as okaeshi, a “thank-you gift”). This type of gift is usually given after a funeral, illness, wedding or birth. The value of the gift is typically half of the value of the original gift.
  • There are several gifts that are inappropriate to give, unless the recipient specifically requests the item. It is usually inappropriate to give gifts relating to fire when visiting someone’s home (such as an ashtray, heater or lighter). Sharp gifts such as scissors or knives are also inappropriate as they symbolise a wish to sever a relationship. Avoid giving lilies, lotus flowers, camellias or any white flower as these are usually associated with funerals.
  • Items that predominantly display the numbers four or nine are generally considered inappropriate (see Other Considerations). For example, it would be inappropriate to give someone four boxes of biscuits, or a comb that has nine teeth.
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