Social behaviour and etiquette are considered very important in Japan. While specific rules of courtesy are supposed to be universal, quite a few Japanese manners and habits are unique and should also be respected by foreigners. Please notice that some of the customs outlined below are based on personal observation and experience.
We have currently added chapters on general customs, table manners and bathing and shall continue to expand this section. Feel free to comment on this page on the Japan Forum or in the comments box below.
- Shoes: upon entering a house or a Japanese inn (旅館 ryokan), take off your shoes in the entryway (玄関 genkan). You will usually be provided with slippers. Slippers have to be taken off when stepping on tatami floor though. In ryokan and sometimes in private homes as well, you will be provided with toilet slippers, which are only to be used inside the toilet. A lot of Japanese restaurants (居酒屋 izakaya) also request their guests to take off their shoes. You will be offered a shoe locker to store your shoes.
- Bowing: Japanese people do not shake hands when greeting each other, but bow (お辞儀 o-jigi). The way of bowing reflects each person’s social status and the social position towards one another, resulting in bows of up to 90 degrees in angle, when very deferential, to a slight nod when greeting someone of lower social standing or of junior rank. While women fold their hands slightly in front of their body when bowing, men’s hands rest on their flanks. Foreigners are usually not expected to bow and will be readily welcomed with a handshake.
- Blowing your nose: most Japan travel guides emphasise the fact that it is considered very rude to blow your nose in public. Don’t be mistaken: if you – as a matter of general courtesy that applies to other countries than Japan as well – blow your nose discreetly, no one will mind, even in a crowded restaurant. You will, however, find many Japanese people loudly sniffling and snorting on trains or in other public spaces, a behaviour considered to be quite rude in most Western countries.
Chopsticks: while most restaurants in Japan do offer Western-style cutlery, you might encounter situations, where you have no choice but to use chopsticks (箸 hashi or お手元 otemoto). The pointed ends of the chopsticks are often placed on chopstick rests (箸置き hashioki), where you place them back when interrupting your meal. Chopsticks are never to be stuck into food vertically or crossed on the table, as this is only done when food is offered to the dead. When handling food from a dish shared with others, many Japanese turn their chopsticks to hand out portions, which – according to some – is not considered proper etiquette. It is best to use a new set of chopsticks for that purpose. Needless to mention, you should never use your chopsticks to point at people or objects. Whether disposable chopsticks (割箸 waribashi) made of splittable wood should be placed back into their paper wrappers after a formal meal remains a controversial issue.
Please see our special feature on Japanese chopstick manners.
Eating habits: start your meal by stating the phrase “itadakimasu” (いただきます, lit. “I humbly receive”, “bon appetit”) to show your gratitude to whoever contributed to your meal by hunting, fishing, cultivating and/or preparing it, conclude it with “gochisōsama deshita (ごちそうさまでした, “Thanks for a good meal”). Contrary to some other Asian nations, it is considered rude to belch at the table. Slurping Japanese noodles, on the other hand, is not only socially accepted but often expected. Italian pasta, such as spaghetti, etc., however, should not be slurped. It is also a polite custom to clear your plates down to the last grain of rice and put the dishes back into the same position they were initially served in. Sushi should be eaten in one piece; soup is consumed by holding the bowl with both hands and drinking from it, while other ingredients can be picked up with your chopsticks. Some dishes, such as Japanese curry or fried rice, are eaten with spoons.
Drinking manners: never pour alcoholic beverages for yourself, always share with others and serve according to seniority. If you have poured for others, another guest will usually pour you, too. On formal occasions, it is customary for female or junior attendants to pour the drinks. The first drink is traditionally consumed together, so wait until everyone has their glasses filled. You then toast each other by using the phrase “kampai” (乾杯 or 乾盃). Under no circumstances should you use the Italian “chin chin” to toast, as the term is colloquially used to describe the male private parts in Japanese.
Some restaurants in Japan have low tables and cushions on tatami floor instead of (or in addition to) Western-style chairs and tables. Shoes and slippers have to be removed before stepping on tatami. Also, avoid stepping onto cushions other than your own. See our sitting page for more details about sitting techniques and rules.
Wet towels (oshibori) are provided at most restaurant to clean your hands before eating. After ordering, it is common to wait for everyone’s order and then to start the meal with the phrase “itadakimasu” (“I gratefully receive”). If a dish is better eaten right away but others at the table have not been served yet, the phrases “osaki ni dōzo” (“please go ahead”) or “osaki ni itadakimasu” (“allow me to start before you”) can be useful.
When eating from small bowls, it is correct manner to pick up the bowl with your hand and lead it close to your mouth when eating from it; however, larger types of dishes should generally not be picked up. When eating from shared dishes (as it is commonly done at some restaurants such as izakaya), it is polite to use the opposite end of your chopsticks or dedicated serving chopsticks for moving food.
Blowing your nose at the table, burping and audible munching are considered bad manners in Japan. On the other hand, it is considered good style to empty your dishes to the last grain of rice. If there are food items that you do not like or cannot eat, replacements may be available at restaurants or ryokan if you tell them in advance. Otherwise, it is advisable to leave the items on the dish.
After finishing your meal, it is generally good manner to return all your dishes to how they were at the start of the meal. This includes replacing the lids on dishes and putting your chopsticks back on the chopstick rest or in its paper holder. Conclude the meal with the phrase “gochisōsama deshita” (“thank you for the feast”) which includes gratitude not only towards the cook but also the ingredients consumed.
Do not start drinking until everybody at the table has a drink and the glasses are raised for a drinking salute, which usually is “kampai”.
When drinking alcoholic beverages, it is customary to serve each other, rather than pour your own drink. Periodically check your friends’ cups and refill their drinks if their cups are getting empty. Likewise, if someone wants to serve you more alcohol, you should drink some from your glass before holding it towards that person.
While it is considered bad manners to become obviously drunk in some formal restaurants, the same is not true for other types of restaurants, such as izakaya, as long as you do not bother other guests.
If you do not drink alcohol, it is no problem to simply say so and request for other beverages instead. Non-alcoholic beverages that are usually available include alcohol-free beer, tea, juices and carbonated drinks.
One of the things that is most striking to any gaikokujin (foreigner) about Japan is the differences in social norms, some of which are quite evident and others that only become evident with time. After much embarrassment and misunderstandings it gradually becomes easier to recognize these differences, sometimes. That being said here is a list of a few differences that I have found to be helpful to know.
The subtleties of bowing etiquette
- Essentially social norms in Japan are all about manners but manners can different between countries. One of the most obvious examples of this is bowingwhich is used as a greeting, a thank you, a goodbye and as an apology. I for one found that after months of doing this, I ended up still doing it even after I had left Japan (to the amusement of others and to my embarrassment). In Japan everyone bows and how deeply you bow represents how much respect is being conveyed. 30-degrees keirei bows show respect to superiors while 45-degree saikeirei bows represent deep regret. The most common are 15-degree eshaku bows used as greetings or the casual head-nod towards shop keepers.
- Another aspect of Japanese manners is that blowing one’s nose is not only extremely disrespectful but dirty and rude. To blow one’s nose, it’s best to do it in private or as discreetly as possible.
- On that note talking excessively loud is seen as rude also. To my embarrassment I was often stuck with other U.S. students that did this despite me not doing it myself. Talking loudly is especially not seen fondly on trains where most people are quiet and of course in places like temples that are meant for contemplation and being solemn.
- Even something as simple as being sick requires being careful around others. Wearing a face-mask is a courtesy to protect others from any potential contagious viruses or bacteria. As such one is also expected to not cough or sneeze too much in public.
- Japanese work culture is highly stratified and hierarchical making respect one of the most important aspects in order to succeed. Punctuality is held in high-regard in Japanese society and especially in business where first impressions are very important. Luckily for me this isn’t a problem but I know a lot of people who are late to everything.
- In order to avoid confrontations, people in Japan don’t outright say “no” but rather may say “it is inconvenient” or it is under consideration” as a way of turning down an offer.
- Dressing conservatively is important to be taken seriously and men are expected to wear suits even in extreme heat. For women their hair should be tied up and skirts worn though not too short.
- While it is not expected for foreigners to know how to use chopsticks, if one does use them, avoiding sticking them straight up in rice is crucial due to the fact that this is associated with funerals and death. For that matter do not use chopsticks to point at someone because this too is a very rude thing to do.
- Avoid dousing rice with soy sauce as rice is a point of pride in Japan and over-use of condiments may insult restaurant staff.
- Walking and eating is inadvisable due to it being seen as sloppy; this ties in with the fact that cleanliness is highly revered (as can be noted from the impeccable streets of even the ‘dirtiest” Japanese cities).
- Unlike in Western cultures where eating loudly can be seen as a negative, in Japan eating loudly as in the case of slurping noodles is a positive. In fact not slurping food is a sign that perhaps the meal was not enjoyed.
- When eating at a restaurant, tipping is unnecessary. Rather it can be seen as rude given that waiters and waitresses are just doing their jobs and might feel strange about receiving money aside from their paychecks. You may even have a panicked staff member running after you to return the money that they believe you accidentally left on the table. This just goes to show again that tipping is a relatively strange thing to do outside of the U.S.
While there are doubtless even further more social norms that are far different from our own, this is just a small list of more common customs and norms that are practiced in Japan. Understanding the reasons for their existence is key to remembering them and thereby avoiding many embarrassing moment.
Whether eating with new Japanese friends in a home or attending a business lunch, following a few simple rules of Japanese dining etiquette will make you shine. No need to be nervous; your hosts understand that you may not be familiar with all many of the customs and etiquette in Asia.
Start by saying hello in Japanese, offering a bow the correct way, then relax and use these tips to better enjoy an authentic cultural experience that you’ll remember!
How to Use Chopsticks Properly
Knowing how to use chopsticks is essential for Japanese dining etiquette, particularly in formal occasions and when doing business in Japan. If you're clumsy with the chopsticks, how can you be expected to handle other important matters? Don't expect to always rely on Western-style utensils.
First, start by lifting the chopsticks with both hands and follow the basic rules of chopsticks etiquette. Always keep in mind that chopsticks are eating utensils, just as a fork and knife, so don’t play with them, point with them, or rub them together!
If no serving utensils are provided during a family-style meal — sometimes this is the case when visiting someone's home — take food from the bowls on the table by using the thick ends — the ends that don't go into your mouth — of the chopsticks.
Observe These Rules for Using Chopsticks Properly:
- Avoid pointing your chopsticks at someone while talking.
- Do not wave your chopsticks around over food on the table.
- Do not point your chopsticks to indicate dishes you think are particularly delicious.
- Do not suck sauces off of your chopsticks.
- Do not rub your chopsticks together or play with them unnecessarily.
- Do not lift food by stabbing it with your chopsticks.
The Most Important Rule of Japanese Dining Etiquette
Never, ever, pass food with your chopsticks! Doing so reminds Japanese of the ritual of passing cremated bones between chopsticks at funerals. The same rule applies to sticking your chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice — another morbid symbol that could ruin someone's meal.
Japanese Table Manners
When first seated, many restaurants will provide you with a wet towel. Don't use the towel on your face or neck; instead, use it to clean your hands — a good idea anyway if lots of handshakes were exchanged — then fold it and put it aside.
Begin your meal by saying “Itadaki-masu” which means “I humbly receive.” Knowing a few other Japanese language basics can bolster confidence as well.
Do not dump soy sauce directly on your food, especially plain rice; instead, pour a small amount of soy sauce into the small bowl and dip your food into it. You can always add more soy sauce to the bowl, but avoid wasting sauce or leaving food behind in the bowl.
When eating ramen or soup, you can sip directly from the bowl. Lift the bowl to your mouth with your other hand; avoid holding chopsticks and a small bowl in the same hand. Don't be surprised to hear slurping noises from around the table. Unlike in the West, slurping your soup is not only acceptable, it shows that you are enjoying the meal!
Cleaning your plate, even all of the rice, is considered proper Japanese dining etiquette — never waste food that you have put onto your plate.
After the Meal
When the meal is finished, offer a formal thanks by saying: “Gochisosama-deshita” or simply “Gochisosama” for less formal occasions.
If you ate with disposable chopsticks, place them neatly back inside of the small bag and fold the end. Otherwise, leave them sideways on your plate rather than pointing them at the person seated across. Putting your sticks next to your bowl indicates that you aren't finished eating yet.
If eating in a restaurant, chances are that your host or the highest ranking person will pay to follow the concept of saving face. If you pay, place your money on the small tray provided rather than handing it to the server or register attendant. If no tray is present, use both hands when giving and receiving money.
Tipping in Japan is not common and is often considered rude — don’t worry about leaving something extra!
Eating Sushi with Proper Japanese Dining Etiquette
Sushi is the default for many business lunches. When eating sushi, pour only a little soy sauce into the small bowl provided; leaving a bowl of dirty soy sauce behind is considered wasteful.
When dipping nigiri, turn it over so that only the meat touches the soy sauce. Leaving rice floating behind in your dipping bowl is bad form.
Familiarize yourself with sushi terms in Japanese to better know what you're eating. You'll enjoy an authentic sushi experience even more so if you know a little about the history of sushi.
Japanese Dining Etiquette for Drinking
Meals are often accompanied or followed with drinks, either beer or sake — don't drink alone! Wait on all glasses to be filled, then someone will give a toast or simply say kanpai! which means "cheers" in Japanese. Raise your glass, return the kanpai, and then drink. If your hosts empty their glasses, you should try to do so as well.
Japanese often jump at the chance to pour drinks for each other; you should do the same. Top up the glasses of people seated around you, and never pour your own drink. Follow some basic Japanese drinking etiquette before emptying your glass.
Tip: sake is properly pronounced as "sah-keh," not "sah-key."
Trains in Japan are notorious around the world for their timeliness, cleanliness, convenience, and the general civility and cooperation practiced by their riders. In fact, just several years earlier, Japan made international headlines when a women, who fell and got stuck in the gap between the train and the platform at a JR East station in Saitama, was rescued when forty passengers and JR staff managed to push the train enough to free her. Reportedly, the train resumed running just eight minutes later.
Riding trains in Japan is serious business, and while the Japanese may not vocalize when they disapprove of your train manners, it most certainly won’t stop you from feeling out of place and looking like an idiot. Here are some tips to make riding trains in Japan a more smooth and pleasureful experience.
At larger stations, there are often many trains that stop at the same platform but have different destinations or speeds. Once you have identified what platform number your train leaves from, you must figure out which line to stand in and wait. It is not polite to mob in Japan because it can be troublesome to other passengers trying to pass by, and standing in line helps people get on and off the train and platform smoothly. On the platform, there are marks on the ground or on the walls across the train platform, often denoted by triangles, circles, and color combinations, that show where the train doors will open. These signs will also show the boarding point number and whether there are priority seats (seats reserved for the injured, disabled, elderly, or expecting mothers) within close proximity of the doors.
Different trains are marked by different symbols, so it is important to consult the information board to check the time of the train, its mark, and the numbers from where you can board. Especially when taking the train in the morning from a large and busy platform (and before your morning coffee), it is important to take care to line up in the right spot, otherwise you might end up on the wrong train and a missed plane away from your next big adventure.
During rush hour, it is good manners to form two lines in front of the boarding points while waiting for your train. Otherwise, the line may easily extend to the other side of the platform, causing trouble for other passengers. When the train arrives and the doors open, the lines will move over to either side of the doors, forming a sort of V-shape that allows the passengers inside the train to smoothly exit. Once all of the passengers exit, it is okay to get on, boarding in order.
In Japan, it is not polite to carry on a conversation on your cellphone while riding the train. Therefore, it is quite common to see people who happen to get a phone call on the train ignore it, or pick it up just to say in a hushed voice that they are on the train and will call back when they get off. Cellphones should be put in silent mode or manner mode to avoid disturbing other people. Sometimes, there are train cars that request passengers turn off their cellphones to create a space where people with sensitive medical equipment, such as pacemakers, can safely ride, and the train staff will not hesitate to tell you to turn your cellphone off.
Japanese pride themselves on the consideration they show for the people around them, which is why tourists often remark on how peaceful and civilized Japanese society is. In Japan, it is a general rule of thumb to thoroughly consider how your actions could affect or disturb the people around you, and abstain from any behaviors that may do so. On the train, this includes sitting on the ground or placing your luggage or bags scattered on the ground, putting on makeup or other grooming, sitting with your legs spread wide apart, reading a newspaper without folding it to make it take up less space, crossing your legs, or listening to your music too loudly so that other passengers can hear it leaking from your headphones. While some of these social rules may seem kind of strict, the majority of Japanese follow them, so you may feel embarrassed if you accidentally engage in some of these behaviors and the people around you give you stare and give you strange looks. Plus, who actually wants to hear Justin Bieber or some other musical tragedy blaring from someone else’s headphones?
Knowing when to bow in Japan and the right way to bow can seem daunting for first-time visitors, particularly because bowing isn’t very common in Western culture. Meanwhile, bowing comes naturally for Japanese people who typically begin learning the important etiquette from a young age.
Bowing properly for each potential social or business scenario is critical for success. Committing an etiquette faux pas at the wrong time could potentially derail a business deal, signal incompetence, or create an awkward situation that leads to a “loss of face.” Some Japanese companies hone employees’ bowing etiquette with formal classes; a few receive training on conducting business over drinks, too!
No need to feel awkward: With a little practice, you'll be giving and returning bows in Japan without even thinking about it. Doing so becomes reflexive after traveling in Japan for a week or two.
The Reasons Japanese People Bow
Bowing isn’t just used for greetings and saying hello in Japan. You should also bow during other occasions such as these:
- Showing respect
- Expressing deep gratitude
- Saying goodbye
- Offering an apology
- Telling someone congratulations
- Expressing sympathy
- Asking for a favor
- Showing appreciation
- Beginning a formal ceremony
- Beginning a training session
- When entering or leaving a martial arts dojo
Bowing vs Shaking Hands
During first-time meetings, many Japanese people will avoid an awkward situation by offering to shake hands with Westerners instead. In formal settings and business engagements, sometimes a combination of handshakes and bows will ensue as a nod to both cultures. If you aren't sure, stick with bowing while in Japan. Shaking hands in Japan is more often done among close friends and when congratulating each other on a recent success.
Simply follow your hosts’ lead as to which comes first; however, you should certainly do your best to return a bow properly if one is offered. Your hosts are undoubtedly skilled at helping others save face and will try not to put anyone into a position of embarrassment.
While shaking hands is still relatively rare between Japanese, doing so has come to symbolize a strong relationship—signaling a deeper connection than what Westerners assign to casual handshakes. Some Japanese executives make a point of shaking hands after announcing a large deal or high-profile merger between two companies.
Bowing and Shaking Hands at the Same Time
Both bows and handshakes are used in business and formal greetings. Try to avoid the common newbie mistake of nervously bowing when the other party planned to shake hands. This happened in 2009 during President Obama's visit with the Emperor of Japan.
You can avoid any potential embarrassment by expressing your intent to bow. If the other person has their hand extended to shake, don't begin a bow instead! You can tell when a person or group is going to bow first when you are walking toward each other. They will often stop at a slightly greater distance (just out of hand-shaking range) with feet together. After the bow, you can then close the distance with a step or two and shake hands if necessary.
Bowing while shaking hands at the same time happens, but doing one at a time is better etiquette. Solid eye contact is expected during a handshake; meanwhile, the gaze should be down during a proper bow. Only martial artists should maintain eye contact during a bow!
If a bow-shake occurs (they sometimes do), you'll undoubtedly be in close proximity. Bumping heads isn't a good way to make friends, so turn slightly to your left.
How to Bow the Right Way
The correct way to bow in Japan is to bend at the waist, keep your back and neck straight if possible, feet together, eyes downward, and have your arms straight at your sides. Women often bow with their fingertips together or hands clasped in front at thigh level.
Face the person whom you are greeting squarely, but look at the ground while bowing. Bowing with a briefcase or something in your hand is OK; putting it down first is optional. You should, however, receive someone's business card (if one follows the bow) reverently with both hands and a slight dip.
The deeper the bow and the longer it is held, the more respect and submission are shown. A quick, informal bow involves bending to around 15 degrees, while a more formal bow calls for you to bend your torso to a 30-degree angle. The deepest bow involves bending to a full 45 degrees while you look at your shoes. The longer that you hold a bow, the more respect is shown.
In general, you should bow more deeply to superiors, elders, judges, people of rank or office, and anytime the situation demands additional respect.
Remember to look down as you bow. Pick a spot on the floor in front of you. Maintaining eye contact while bowing is considered bad form—threatening, even—unless you are squared to fight an opponent in martial arts!
Sometimes you may find yourself bowing more than once until someone finally relents and stops the ritual. Each subsequent bow will be less deep. If you are forced to bow in a crowded situation or cramped space, turn slightly to your left so that you don't knock heads with others.
After exchanging bows, give friendly eye contact and a warm smile. Ideally, try not to combine a bow (requires eyes to be downward) with a handshake (eye contact is expected).
Regardless, showing effort and that you know something about bowing etiquette in Japan goes a long way toward building a better relationship. Sadly, Westerners are notorious for their sloppy bowing in Japan. Watch a couple videos or ask a Japanese friend to demonstrate technique.
Bows of sincere apology are usually the deepest and last longer than other bows. In rare instances, to express profound apology or gratitude, a person will bend beyond 45 degrees and hold it for a count of three.
Long bows beyond 45 degrees are known as saikeiri and are only used to show deep sympathy, respect, apology, and in worship. If you are granted an audience with the Emperor of Japan, plan to perform a saikeiri, otherwise, stick to less extreme bowing.
Japan is known for its highly structured society, governed by an unspoken set of strict etiquette rules. This can be daunting for newcomers, but fret not – the Japanese don’t expect outsiders to know all the rules of the game, although a basic understanding is helpful. These 11 Japanese etiquette tips will stand you in good stead.
Possibly the number-one rule of Japanese etiquette for tourists, hence why it tops this list: there are two places to lay your chopsticks down on the table: either flat across your bowl, or leaning on the chopstick rest. Never leave your chopsticks sticking straight up in your rice bowl and never pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks: both of these mimic funeral rituals and are considered disrespectful. If you want to pass food to someone, use the back end of your chopsticks to place it in a dish for them.
Don’t Be a Picky Eater
The Japanese hate to be wasteful, and picking things out of your meal to leave aside (bones excluded) is considered disrespectful. It offends not only your host but also the farmers who cultivated the vegetables and the animals who gave up their lives for the sake of your dish. It’s also polite to sample a little from each dish on the table.
Don’t Fill Your Own Glass
You’ve probably heard the expression kampai, which is the Japanese equivalent to cheers. But what else do you know about drinking alcohol in Japan? For starters, do not fill your own glass – it implies that your host or dining partners are ungracious. Wait for someone else to fill it, and be sure to return the favour. If possible, try and raise your glass a little off the table while it’s being filled – this is very formal Japanese etiquette, however, so if you’re just dining with friends it’s best to wait and see what everyone else does first.
A meal at a Japanese table is not a free-for-all. Politely wait for everyone to be seated before saying itadakimasu (“I humbly receive”) together. At the end of the meal, be sure to thank the cook by saying gochisō-sama deshita (“That was a great feast”). Your host will definitely appreciate this gesture.
Give Up Your Seat
When using public transport, be sure to give up your seat to those who need it more. Be careful not to use those seats reserved for the elderly and disabled, as well as pregnant women and those with small children. Many pregnant Japanese women stay so slim that they must carry pink tags to signify their right to reserved seating – so keep an eye out for them as well!
Don’t Walk and Eat
In general, walking while eating or drinking is frowned upon, although it is acceptable in the case of some foods, especially during festive occasions. You’ll see most people carrying their takeout in secure bags to eat later, or finishing their drinks while standing at the vending machine. And in Japan, they’ve taken bad public transport etiquette one step further: drinking and eating are actually prohibited, so you won’t ever have to discreetly grimace at the waft of someone’s freshly opened katsu curry box.
Forget the Tip
Tipping is not common practice in Japan. Restaurants or other service providers will usually have an additional fee set by their establishment built into the bill. If you do feel the need to give some money to your home-stay family or to tip an especially helpful maid at your accommodations, place the money in an envelope first – it’s bad manners to place a tip directly into someone’s hand.
Use the Tray
Many stores will have small trays in which to place the money when paying for an item, rather than handing it directly to a cashier. If you spot such a tray be sure to put the money in there, because disregarding it is somewhat rude. Also keep in mind that most people pay with cash and few places accept credit cards besides the “superstores” or expensive restaurants and hotels. Always be sure to carry enough cash with you to cover your expenses.
Present Your Card
Rules for tourists are numerous, but if you’re in Japan on business there are even more rules to remember. If you have a business card or meishi, present it to your new acquaintance at the beginning of your meeting (bonus points for having it printed in both Japanese and English). Hold the card in both hands when receiving. Either place the card face up on the table in front of you for reference, or tuck it safely away in a business card holder – nowhere else. It’s also okay to ask how to pronounce someone’s name at this point (but never write on the card in their presence)!
Take Off Your Shoes
Always take off your shoes when entering someone’s home – this is standard Japanese etiquette. A Japanese home will always have slippers for guests to wear, so you don’t have to worry about getting your socks dirty. Some temples and restaurants might also ask patrons to remove their shoes before entering.
It’s very common in homes, and even in some traditional restaurants, to sit on the floor around a low table to eat, rather than in Western-style chairs. For formal occasions, both genders kneel down and sit up straight. For more casual situations, women may sit with both legs to one side, and men can sit in the cross-legged seated position that many cultures are familiar with.
A golf ball manufacturing company packaged golf balls in packs of four for convenient purchase in Japan. Unfortunately, this was a fatal mistake, as the word “four” in Japanese sounds like the word “death” and is, therefore, considered unlucky. As you can imagine, the product was not successful.
Be careful of all symbols of death when doing business in Japan. If you fancy wearing a kimono, make sure you wrap the left side over the right one. Otherwise, you will hint that you want to be buried.
* The official name of Japan is Nihon or Nippon, which means the State of Japan.
* Japan does not have an official language, but the national language is Japanese.
* The capital and largest city is Tokyo.
* The population is estimated at 126 million.
– Connections are very helpful in Japan but choose your contacts carefully. Pick someone of the same rank as the person with whom he or she will have dealings.
– Japanese business people will want to learn as much as possible about your professional background and qualifications.
– Negotiations generally have an atmosphere of deep seriousness.
– In order to succeed, you must describe how your product can enhance the prosperity and reputation of your Japanese counterparts.
– Japanese prefer verbal agreements to written ones, and shouldn’t be pressured into signing documents. Remaining co-operative is essential.
– Decisions are made only within the group. Foreigners must gain acceptance from the group before they can have influence in the decision-making process.
– Due to the strong contemporary business competition in Asia, the old concept of the ‘unhurried’ Japanese negotiation process is no longer applicable. Decisions are made swiftly and efficiently.
– A bow (‘ojigi’) can be a way of greeting someone, saying ‘I’m sorry’ or even asking for a favour. This simple gesture can do a lot to help a Western entrepreneur in establishing rapport with a potential Japanese client. The depth of the bow depends on your counterpart status. When bowing to an individual who is of higher status than you do it a little lower than that person to display respect.
– DON’T address your Japanese counterpart by their first name unless invited to do so. Use the titles ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’ or add ‘san’ to their family name; for example, Mr Hiroshima will be “Hiroshima san”.
The Art of Conversation
– Inquiring about a person’s family, praising the hospitality you’re receiving and Japanese history are good conversation topics.
– Expect to be asked extremely personal questions regarding your salary, education, and family life.
– Use apologies where the intention is serious and express gratitude frequently as it is considered polite in Japan.
– Avoid accusations or direct refusals. World War II and making jokes should be avoided.
– Anything you say will be taken LITERALLY. Remarks such as “This is killing me!” or “You are joking!” are to be avoided for obvious reasons.
– If the response to your questions is “maybe”, “probably”, or “I’m thinking about it”, that will probably mean “yes.” “I’ll consider it”, however, is likely to be a “no”.
– Do not grab your host’s hand when first meeting and give it a hearty shake – many Japanese seldom shake hands and can be so uncomfortable doing so as to avoid meeting again!
– Do not use large hand gestures, unusual facial expressions or dramatic movements. The Japanese do not talk with their hands. Never pat a Japanese man on the back or shoulder.
– The American ‘OK’ sign (thumb and forefinger shaped like an ‘O’) means ‘money’ in Japan.
– Laughter will normally indicate embarrassment or distress, rather than amusement.
– Never make derogatory remarks about anyone, including your competitors and own employees.
Business meetings and meals
– Regarding dress code for men: in the period October-April, wear dark suits (navy or black) with white shirt and subdued tie; from May to September wear a grey suit.
– Do not wear black suit, white shirt and black tie because that is funeral attire.
– For women: wear shorter (or tied back) hair, trouser suits or longer skirt suits with seasonal colours as for men.
– Punctuality is essential. Japanese believe it is rude to be late.
– Business in Japan cannot begin until the exchange of business cards or ‘meishi’ has been completed.
– Use both hands to present your card, which should be printed in both languages.
– Present the card with the Japanese side facing up.
– On receiving your counterpart’s business card, make a show of examining it carefully before placing it on the table.
– It is a distinctive asset to include information such as membership in professional associations.
– If your company is an older, venerable institution, this fact should be frequently mentioned.
– Offering gifts is a very important part of Japanese business protocol. The emphasis is on the ritual itself rather than on the content of the gift.
– Before accepting a present, it is polite to modestly refuse it twice before finally accepting.
– Gifts are opened in private to avoid the ‘loss of face’ of a poor choice.
– If you receive a present, be sure to reciprocate. Presents in pairs are considered lucky.
– It is a serious mistake to offer the same gift to two or more Japanese of unequal rank.
– In the presence of a group of people, offering a gift to one person and failing to do so to the others is also an offence.
– Foreign, prestigious branded items, frozen steaks, pen and pencil sets or a simple commemorative photograph are good choices.
– White flowers of any kind should be avoided. Giving four or nine of anything is considered unlucky.
– Red Christmas cards should also be avoided, since funeral notices are usually printed in this colour.
– If you are invited to a karaoke bar, you will be expected to sing. It doesn’t matter if you are out of tune.
– When finishing a meal, leave a small portion of food on your plate to indicate that you enjoyed it. Slurping your noodles and tea is encouraged in Japan.
Other fun facts
– More than 70% of Japan consists of mountains, including more than 200 volcanoes.
– There are four different writing systems in Japan: Romaji, Katakana, Hiragana, and Kanji.
– The Japanese language has a word for “death from overwork”. It is “Karoshi”.
Did you find this article useful? If so, you might also enjoy our guide to business etiquette in Russia.