Many teachers get overly worried about mastering Japanese etiquette for fear of making a social blunder. But one thing to keep in mind is that the Japanese don’t expect foreigners to master or really know much of Japanese etiquette.
This is not to say that it’s not important or that you need not learn it. But you’ll find that when you display some knowledge of it they are pleasantly surprised. There are more rules to etiquette in Japan than in most other cultures. In fact, once you start getting into it, you'll realize there are more rules of etiquette than you can shake a stick at! But you got to begin somewhere right?
Shoes and Stuff
First on the list of Japanese etiquette blunders would probably be to walk into a guests’ house with your shoes on. You should remove your shoes in the entryway or “genkan.” If you do walk past the genkan with them on, you’ll be politely told to take your shoes off.
Don’t be surprised if after you’re gone, your host wipes down the floors where you walked. Note: this applies to private homes, cultural landmarks and such, and not to department stores, banks and post offices etc. After taking off your shoes, it’s good Japanese etiquette to line them up with the toes pointing towards the door. (This makes them easy to get into when you leave.) If you want to impress your Japanese guests, turn their shoes around (with the toes pointing to the entrance), for them.
If there are toilet slippers set in front of the door, it is considered bad etiquette not to use them. (Even if they’re Hello Kitty slippers.) The bathroom floor is considered dirty and so using bathroom slippers helps to confine filth. So even if you’re already wearing a pair of slippers that you put on in the entryway, take these off and put on the toilet slippers before entering.
Next up is showing your ass as they say. This is bad etiquette as Japanese are generally calm, reserved and excruciatingly indirect. They don’t like to say "no" because they aim to please and are often amazed at the directness of foreigners. Showing anger or other extreme emotions is juvenile and unmannered. Interestingly enough, drinking is often used as an excuse to indulge in this bad side of behavior - as a person is easily forgiven if they committed a rudeness while sloshed.
The Importance of Limiting Eye Contact
Also, it’s important not to make a lot of direct eye contact. Japanese find this uncomfortable. One way to cope with this difficult situation is to look at the eyes and then away or preferably down before looking again. This doesn't mean that you should stare at your shoes. You can look at various places on the face before looking back at the eyes. For example eyebrows, mouth area etc. Try this simple rule: limit eye contact to 25% of the time.
Displays of Affection
Japanese don’t kiss as a greeting the way many western cultures do. Bowing and simple verbal greetings are used instead. (Handshakes are making headway into their culture though.) Avoid the familiar pat on the back, hug and hand on the shoulder thing. Kissing and other physical displays of emotion in public are definitely poor Japanese etiquette.
Eating on the Go
Another no-no is walking in public while eating. If you must eat while on the go, it’s best to stop and face a wall or face away from people while you finish your lunch etc. Also, this etiquette rule seems to be more often violated than in the past.
Volumes could be written on this aspect of Japanese etiquette alone. There are many levels that span from just barely cracking your head to full-blown face on the tatami prostration. Age, gender, position in the company and situation all impact the length and depth of the bow.
The bow also has many meanings like, excuse me, thank you, I’m sorry, nice to meet you. Bows are also used to kick-off conversations and to acknowledge someone’s presence.
"So…. What are you trying to say?"
It’s complex and this writing only scratches the surface but…
Bow with a straight back and eyes cast downward. Men have have their hands at their sides. Women have their hands in front. If someone bows to you, you return the gesture. To keep things simple and to stay on the safe side, bow slightly longer and slightly deeper than the other.
If you're ready for another serving of Japanese etiquette, click for the low-down on using chopsticks. Etiquette alone won't get you through so take a look at our learn Japanese section for Japanese greetings, and basic grammar.