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? Especially if you plan on living here long term, even more so if the idea of getting married in Japan appeals to you!
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.
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. Of course eating in parks and at outdoor food stands called "yatai" is acceptable as it is part of their long culture. As you can find outdoor food stands all over Japan. Another big no-no is eating on public transportation like buses and trains and it is even worse if the food is strong smelling.
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 unmannerly. 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.
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.
Eye Contact in Business Related Situations
Things are never quite as cut and dried as they seem. Anyone aware of Japanese etiquette to even a limited degree will know this. One area where increased eye contact is important is in business negotiations, meetings and teaching job interviews. In these situations, avoiding eye contact is perceived as the applicant or business partner "hiding something" or is possibly being deceptive.
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. However like written immediately below this. like eating while walking down the street, public affection is gaining headway in Japanese society especially with the younger generation.
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. In general children learn bowing at an early age. However even adults when they first enter the working world thus they are new recruits are often instructed on how to bow - and hey they're not kids.
Really because of the insane complexity of this custom it is well beyond the scope of this article and the site itself. When you consider that new company recruits raised in Japanese society have to be taught this in and of itself speaks volumes about it. Furthermore there isn't uniformity in opinion among the Japanese themselves about bowing.
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 but are not held up towards the upper stomach or breast area. Their hands are below the stomach and again eyes are cast downward. To bow while looking up is considered to be very bad manner and practically sarcastic.
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 are younger or in a junior position relative to the person you are bowing to. More here.
Video Highlights of Japanese Etiquette
In this slightly long video 13:06, they pack a metric ton of information on Japanese manners and etiquette. Very well done. Professional camera work. Professionally done.
(Read: not some slanted rant from a foreigner and their ridiculous take on Japanese culture after spending a whopping 6 months in country. )
Easy to watch and moves at a healthy pace through a pile of topics. Well worth that 13:06 you'll spend watching it. Drunken Billy (not his real name) being the nice guy that he is said - "Hey man, don't waste the visitors time! What is wrong with you dude! Put it in bullet form! You're such a douche!"
And so we did and here it is...
Greetings are a critical part of Japanese etiquette and they should be given in a bit of a spunky voice and not an unenthusiastic one. So the big five are:
Another very basic element of Japanese etiquette is to send what is the equivalent of a Christmas card. However it is sent before New Year's day and is called nengajō (年賀状). Often there will be a family picture on it. And the basic theme is appreciation for that person or families friendship and hopefulness that it will continue.
Another nice gesture is seasonal gifts. Basically there are two Ochugen and Oseibo. Ochugen is a midyear present, whereas Oseibo is given at the end of the year. The reasoning behind giving them is the same. It is a show of gratitude or indebtedness to someone for something you have received. Some companies also give their employees such gifts to show their appreciation for their efforts. Sometimes they are food items and sometimes gift certificates for department stores.
Etiquette alone won't get you through so take a look at our learn Japanese section for Japanese greetings, and basic grammar.
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