Japan is a top travel destination – there is no denying it. Everyone dreams of visiting this country and with the upcoming 2020 (2021) Summer Olympics in Tokyo, the number of visitors is expected to grow even more. A big part of Japan’s charm is due to its welcoming and polite culture, therefore it is a good idea to preserve it by adapting to Japanese rules of behavior.
There are behaviors and habits that Japanese people use or avoid in everyday life. To avoid making a wrong impression or appearing improper, it is best to learn what to do and what not do in Japan to respect Japanese manners and customs.
In Japan, rules are often not clearly indicated on signs. Some of them may be unusual for tourists. It is not expected to immediately know the several kinds of public etiquette in Japan, but we have this guide here so you can familiarize yourself prior to your trip. It is essential to be aware of how to behave in Japan to avoid being rude and bothering others.
1. Do not talk on the phone or speak loudly on trains
Japanese trains are one of the places where you will find the quietest human beings on the planet (if we do not include the voice announcements). It is a place that’s almost sacred – where people relax and have a moment of quiet in the frenzy of Japanese life. Sleeping, reading a book, browsing social media, playing a video game, listening to music, or watching a video are all things that take place on a train. When you are with some company, instead of talking, it is more polite to whisper. Some people respect quietness so much that depending on the time of day, those with small children get off the train at the following stop if their baby starts crying! Phones are strictly kept on silent mode and occasionally you will see someone forget to turn it off; they become quite embarrassed when their phone rings. Click here to read more about train etiquette in Japan.
2. Light your cigarettes only in smoking areas
Many restaurants and izakayas allow smoking inside. It is forbidden to smoke while walking on the street or outside of designated smoking areas. This prohibition also applies to electronic cigarettes and failure to uphold this law entails in a fine of 2,000yen. For those who cannot resist the call of the cigarette break, there is good news – smoking areas are quite abundant and easily identifiable. In some countryside areas, smoking is allowed freely, but you always have to carry your portable ashtray.
3. Do not eat on the street
One of the most inappropriate behaviors in Japan is eating while walking; it does not matter whether it is a sandwich, an onigiri, a bag of chips or ice cream. Anyone who eats something while walking can be considered extremely rude and disrespectful. Also, avoid sitting on the sidewalks or stair steps for a snack break! The only place where it is allowed to eat on the street is in front of convenience stores or the street food stand where you ordered your food. Sitting on the station benches or at a park is also acceptable. Many convenience stores have a small space to sit down and eat inside, however, try not to spend more time than necessary so that other customers may use it as well.
Drinking from cans or non-resealable containers can also be considered rude. You should drink and store the bottle inside your bag; do not walk with the drink in your hand to risk spillage!
4. Do not cause traffic
In Japan, you drive on the left, and even pedestrian walking traffic is follows that. Keep this in mind when you are walking in very crowded areas and especially inside of stations. Usually on the stairs, there is an indication with an arrow telling you where to go down and where to go up. Identify it and follow it. The Japanese move following a super-precise rhythm (like their trains) and if you block them, you could cause them to slow down and miss the train or be late to an appointment. On the escalators, we all line up on the left side (except in Osaka and parts of Kyoto, where the line is on the right). Leave the free space on the right for those in a hurry that wish to walk the escalators.
Try not to cause or block traffic even when you walk on the street so leave enough space for those in a hurry. On trains, if you do not find a seat, slip into the corridor and do not stand in front of the doors. If there’s only standing space in front of the doors, get off at each stop and wait near the door to letting the passengers behind you get off.
5. Hands off the taxi
One of the things that fascinate those who visit Japan is the automatic taxi doors. Yes, in Japan, the cab doors open and close by themselves so despite the uncontrollable instinct, try not to touch them. If you have luggage, do not open the trunk nor load your luggage by yourself unless the driver tells you otherwise.
6. Take your shoes off
In Japan, it is the norm to enter a home without shoes. The entrance area is usually slightly lower than the than the rest of the house; this way, dirt and grime are not brought inside. This custom is not only applied in private homes but also in many restaurants, izakayas, temples, ancient structures or wherever there are tatami floors such as Japanese-style hotel rooms and ryokans.
It is usually easy to recognize where shoes cannot be worn. There are shelves to put shoes or plastic bags for you to put your shoes inside. Make sure not to climb on the raised part with your shoes on but remove them first, then place your foot on the clean wooden part.
Remember to remove your shoes when you enter your hotel room even if it is a traditional room. Do not walk in with your shoes on just because nobody sees you!
7. Do not worry if you lose or forget something
If you lose or forget something in Japan, know that you have a very high chance of finding it again. It is as simple as retracing the path you have just taken or returning to the place where you have left the object. This is possible because in Japan, no one moves or touches objects that are not their own. So if you happen to see abandoned objects, do not take them nor move them – the owner might come back for it soon!
In addition to these rules are standard rules of common sense and respect that a good traveler should observe everywhere in the world such as not vandalizing, photographing or making videos where it is not allowed.
Were you overwhelmed by all these rules? It is better this way! Japan is a beautiful place, most likely due to its rules and order of society. If you want to continue to experience this journey in its entirety, it is your job to help preserve it. The best way to visit Japan is becoming part of it yourself!