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So, you want to travel Japan, eh? Well congrats! You're making a wise decision to see this beautiful country. Japan is rich in culture, art, science, technology and food! However, if you're a westerner like me, there may be some unwritten rules you're unaware you have to follow. It's important to do your research before arriving in Japan, as it's a rather strict and sensitive culture—even the slightest mishap could greatly offend a lot of people!
Rule 1: Do not talk on the phone on public transport.
Public transport in Japan is a sacred thing; unlike in London, it's kept clean and quiet in respect of those using it. Speaking on the phone on a bus or a train is seen as incredibly rude and will earn you a lot of well placed glares! Texting is fine, just try to keep conversations for when you're at your stop. Be mindful of how loudly you speak in conversation with individuals around you as well. Many people get well needed rest to and from work on transport—so try to stay mindful of other passengers at all times. Furthermore, keep your phone on silent in areas like restaurants and hotel lobbies to avoid disturbing people.
Rule 2: If you're male or male identifying, do not use the women's only cars.
What's a women's only car? You might ask.
Starting back in 2000 on a trial basis, women's cars were implemented to try and combat lewd and sexually aggressive behaviour on crowded transportation. Similar rules apply in countries like Egypt, India, Iran, Brazil and Mexico. Since their implementation, incidences of sexual misconduct on public transport has substantially dropped. They're primarily used in busy areas such as Tokyo and Osaka and are always clearly signposted. Often times it may be tempting to jump on to these cars, as they're less crowded on the otherwise densely populated trains throughout Japan—but please respect this system. It's there for a reason!
Rule 3: Give up your seat.
Be sure to stay conscientious of others using public transportation, and when required, give up your seat to those in need. Injured, elderly, disabled and pregnant women are all considered more in need of a seat than yourself. It's seen as incredibly selfish and disrespectful to disregard someone who requires the seat more than yourself. Also be aware as to whether you're sitting in a designated seat for these individuals.
Rule 4: Don't walk and eat!
When you're in a hurry, you may be tempted to eat a sandwich or some takoyaki on route to your next destination. However, this can be seen as again, incredibly rude, and should be avoided where possible. There are many food stands around Japan, particularly in built up areas like Tokyo and Osaka. When receiving food from these places, be sure to stand to the side and eat/ drink rather than walking away whilst chowing down. Also avoid eating on trains at all costs!
Rule 5: Smokers are jokers!
Even outside on the street smoking is very frowned upon. There are designated areas and smoking rooms available for smokers throughout Japan—use them! To smoke outright in public can cause great offence, especially flicking away cigarette butts onto the street!
Rule 6: Respect the streets!
Do not litter, whether it be trash or cigarette butts. Absolutely do not litter! There are public bins always available, be sure to use them! Sometimes you may go an extensive period without access to a trash can. That's fine, either hold on to your trash until you can properly dispose of it or pop in to a store and ask to use theirs.
Rule 7: Tipping is a no-no!
When dining out in Japan, it's very tempting to tip your waiter/waitress. The food was incredible and the service was brilliant! Surely they deserve something extra for their efforts? Absolutely not!
People in Japan work hard for their money, and unlike America or the UK, they are paid well for their jobs. Service fee is included within the price. To tip is seen as charity—an insult that they are unable to finance themselves appropriately. Show your gratitude with a deep bow rather than a tip; it will be much more appreciated!
Rule 8: Use the trays!
Many stores will have small trays on the counter where you'll see money being exchanged from. When paying for goods and services, be sure to use these trays, as disregarding the tray will be seen as somewhat rude.
Rule 9: Cash, Not Plastic!
Japan, for all its technological advances, is not big on use of cards for payment, shocker! Be sure to regularly visit an ATM before going into places, as most will not have the option to pay by card. For use of international cards in Japan, many common ATM's will not do. Be sure to locate your nearest Seven- Eleven or Post Office in order to get your funds!
Rule 10: Use both hands!
When giving or receiving something, it is important to use both hands to show your attentiveness. Do not try to pay for something by passing something with one hand, if your other hand is full, put down what you're carrying. Slightly bow your head as you're giving or receiving something in this manner as well. It's important to show respect and gratitude during these times, even when receiving a receipt—use both hands!
Rule 11: Get use to bowing.
Whether in greeting, departure, or when giving or receiving a gift, bowing is big in Japan. At first it will seem rather unnatural but after a day or two, you'll find it a struggle to stop! It's been a year since I was in Japan and I still find myself occasionally going to bow to shop keepers!
A bow must be done with your hands firmly by your side (unless before or after a meal, where you may clasp your palms together in front of you) with a straight back, bending at the waist. Avoid curving your spine as much as possible. Do not speak as you're bowing, say what you need to say either before or after the bow, never during. Also avoid bowing on the move; simply stop, bow and continue. Avoid bowing on stairs and especially avoid bowing with a sour face!
Bowing can be done at a 15, 30 or 45 degree angle. The deeper the bow, the more respect you're showing!
Rule 12: Learn to use chopsticks.
To some, this may be obvious, but not many people know how to use chopsticks effectively before arriving in Japan. Whilst some places, particularly in cities, may be able to supply you with a fork, it will be most effective if you're able to learn how to use chopsticks before arriving.
Rule 13: Don't be so picky.
It's seen as incredibly rude towards chefs and farmers to leave food on your plate—people who have dedicated their lives to supplying food to people, only to be disrespected by a picky eater! Try to eat everything on your plate and leave no leftovers to avoid offence, and maybe order something different next time.
Rule 14: Slurp away!
When eating noodle based dishes like udon and ramen, it's seen as essential to slurp as you eat. It helps cool down the dish whilst you eat it and is not considered rude. In many western countries, it's obscene to be a loud eater, but not in this instance! It's actively encouraged to slurp your noodles, so don't feel shy, slurp away!
Rule 15: Watch your sticks!
Avoid playing your chopsticks vertically in a bowl. This is a common practise at funerals and can be seen as bad luck!
Rule 16: Leave your hanky at home!
Blowing your nose in public can be seen as rude as well. Sniffling is fine, even a slight dab here and there, but outright blowing your nose will be met with signs of disgust.
Rule 17: Know how to Onsen.
This only applies if you plan on using an onsen/ hot spring during your stay—something I'd highly recommend.
More and more hotels now offer private onsens during your stay, but public onsens are still very popular. What's an onsen? Well, a bath. But not in the way you or I know baths. First, before entering the onsen, you'll need to shower. Scrub your body and hair, generally at the taps/ showers provided. There will usually be a wooden bucket and a stool by these taps and shower heads. Sit on the stool and scrub yourself clean before entering the onsen.
Some onsens may reject you if you have tattoos. As a heavily tattooed woman, however, I only experienced this in Tokyo, oddly enough. Generally most onsens are rather understanding, especially when it comes to foreigners. Just be sure to shower before you try and get into the onsen and you'll be fine!
Rule 18: Don't pass with sticks!
Sometimes you may be tempted to share food with a companion; this is absolutely fine! However, do not, under any circumstances, pass food between chopsticks! It's incredibly rude to do so.
Also, when using cheaper chop sticks, you may see people rubbing them together in order to dispel any splinters left behind. Avoid doing this when possible, as sometimes you may be using high quality sticks and to rub them together would be suggesting to the establishment that they're cheap!
Rule 19: Be on time!
"Fashionably late" is not a term that translates in Japan. You must be on time, in fact, even being early can be seen as presumptuous and rude! So if you have an appointment, be sure to consider all possibilities with travel so you are on time, every time. Especially when relating to meal times, it's important to be on time. A lot of preparation would have gone into your meal, it's seen as insulting to skip a meal or not show up at all. So be. on. time!
Rule 20: No shoes!
It's common for people to take off their shoes when entering someones home, but also around hotels, hostels, restaurants and more! Often you will be supplied with a pair of house slippers, use them! Even if you're embarrassed about your socks that day or just feel uncomfortable removing your shoes in public—do not abstain!
Many places will also offer an extra pair of bathroom/ toilet slippers for you to change into. Be aware of when you're wearing them and remember to change back once you're done!
Rule 21: Four!
Avoid giving gifts in a multiple of four. The number four has heavy connotations to death in Japan—in some instances the level four on a lift will be skipped out entirely and you'll need to take the stairs up from the third floor or down from the fifth. Four is a scary number—avoid it where possible!
Rule 22: No pointing!
When gesturing to someone, try using your whole hand or even your thumb to do so, as pointing with your forefinger can be seen as incredibly rude and even threatening!
Rule 23: Respect the card!
When showing your business card, hold it out with both hands clearly or place it on the table. It's seen as a badge of honour of sorts, and thus should be treated like such. When handling someone else's business card, be sure to consider it with respect by holding it with both hands and looking at it. Do not fold it, write on it, or shove it in your back pocket, as this can be seen as incredibly disrespectful!
Before eating, be sure to clasp your hands together and say "itadakimasu!" Why? It's a combination of "Looks great!" and "I'm now commencing with my meal!" and " With thanks!" It shows respect for those who have served you and made your meal. For bonus points, finish your meal with "Gochi so sama deshita!" meaning "wow! What a delicious feast that was!"
25: Don't pour your own drink!
When in company of others, be sure to pour their drinks for them, but it can and will be seen as rude and disrespectful for you to simply pour your own. Turns must be taken in pouring drinks to help avoid this taboo.
Whew! That was a lot! Don't let these rules put you off. It's okay if you occasionally slip up or forget. There's always leeway with foreigners, but that will only take you so far! So to avoid upsetting or disrespecting the residents, try to follow these rules and you'll have an amazing time! So good luck and god speed!