"don'ts" in japan

Faux-pas that you can avoid

Image de Profil, Avril is Away

Japanese society is heavily codified when it comes to dos and don’ts, partly because ancient customs and beliefs have been carried into the present but also because they are perceived as a way to maintain order within the community. It’d be a shame to ruin the mojo you were having with the locals because of a dumb faux-pas wouldn’t it ? 


Some of the don’ts you’ll find here derive from common sense, but I’ve included them anyway as they can take wholly different proportions in Japan. Other don’ts are the by-product of Japanese culture itself so most people only discover them when they make a mistake and someone corrects them. Worse, some people keep making others uneasy around them without understanding why because they break rules they don’t even know about.

But fear no more for I’ve got you covered !

Buddhist temple entry near the Philosopher's Path in Kyoto Japan
  • The worst you could do would probably be if you were disrespectful towards shrines or temples: don’t play with water from the purification basins, don’t eat or smoke on sacred ground, etc… The vast majority of the population in Japan is religious to some degree so try and respect their heritage. 

a few FOOD-:related DON’Ts

  • Don’t stick your chopsticks in your bowl. The reason behind this is that it is associated with funerals (when a chopsticks are left standing in a bowl of rice) and incense sticks which are associated with the dead and thus with bad luck.
  • Also, don’t pour soy sauce directly over your rice.You’re supposed to take rice with your chopsticks and dip it in the sauce.
  • Don’t be afraid of slurping your noodles.You’ll notice a lot of slurping in ramen shops, as making noise is a sign that you are enjoying your food.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for European cutlery if you are uncomfortable with chopsticks, most of the touristy place will have them ready for you. Otherwise, you can invest in training chopsticks (yes, that’s a thing. They are usually intended for kids but there are a few adult versions too :))

Alcohol-:related DON’Ts

  • If you’re French and you’re having a drink with Japanese people, don’t say “Chin Chin”as a way to say “Cheers”, as it will mean “Dick Dick” to them. Ok, this one is a bit specific I know.
  • Don’t pour yourself drinks from a shared bottle. It is customary to serve your drinking companions and have them serve you in return. By the way, « cheers » is said « Kampai ! » in Japanese 🙂
  • Also, don’t try to bring/do drugs.They are as rare on the islands as they are heavily sanctioned.

mind what you foot wear

  • Take your shoes off before stepping onto the temples floor or into a house. Look around and you’ll usually find somewhere to store your shoes whilst you’re in along with slippers which you can use around the house. Take the slippers off before stepping onto tatami mats. 
  • Don’t take bathroom slippers out of the bathroom.They are considered nasty and meant to protect your feets from being tainted by the toilets.

The basics of onsen etiquette

  • Do not give up Onsens if you have tattoos. Some establishments are open to tattooed people, and other will tolerate them if they are small and, even better, if you cover them with a clean, waterproof band-aid. You should nonetheless keep in mind that you might be asked to leave if you have ink, as they are usually banned from onsens.
  • Do not bring your swimming suit, you’ll have to bathe naked anyway.
  • Do not enter the baths without showering first, as you would “taint” the water for everyone. You’re supposed to scrub yourself at the showers so don’t put soap in the bathes 😛
  • You’ll normally be given two towels. Put the large one with your clothes in the locker, and take the small one with you near the baths. You can conceal your bits with it until your get in the bath, but you should never allow the towel to touch the water (most people fold it and place it on their heads to keep it dry).
  • Do not stare at people, and, more importantly, resist the urge to bring your camera. I’ve been there, I know onsens are beautiful and you want to show it to your friends, but people come to relax and they don’t want their genitals posted over the web, which is understandable. Cameras are banned in every onsen.
Japanese salary men sleeping on the metro in Tokyo Japan

public behavior

  • You should go to a smoking area if you want to light a cigarette in the streets of most Japanese city.
  • Don’t litter, be it cigarette butts or plastic wraps, keep them in a bag and throw them in a bin.
  • Try to be quiet and respectful in public transportation.That includes giving up priority seats to elder people and pregnant women. Don’t be surprised if you see salary men sleeping in the metro. Sleeping is a collective thing in Japan (families often sleep together for example) and is thus socially acceptable.
  • Don’t skip the lines. People will usually queue to get into trains and trams so wait for you turn. I say usually because whoever attempted to get on the Yamanote line in Tokyo during rush hours knows it is not always true 😛
  • Don’t try too hard when singing in a karaoke: they are not meant for you to showcase your skills but for everyone to have fun. Locals will usually purposefully sing terribly to make their friends laugh, so trying too hard might be considered a lack of self-derision and somehow rude. Given my love for singing, you can trust me on this, I learnt it the hard way ^^’ 
  • Don’t spread your germs when you’re sick: use a mask.
  • Don’t expect the shops to take credit card. Although credit card’s acceptance is on the rise in Japan because of the economic importance of tourism, the country remains cash-orientated. Don’t be afraid of carrying large amount of cash in Japan as criminality is extremely low and people are usually very honest (someone returned change a friend of mine had forgotten in a vending machine and my wallet was returned to me with all its content after I lost it in Kyoto). 
Japanese in a mini bar in Golden Gai Shinjuku Tokyo Japan

how not to weird out people

  • Don’t tip, it’s considered an attempt to buy the person you’re tipping and is therefore seen as rude.
  • Punctuality is a thing in Japan too, I guess, so avoid being late if you are given an appointment.
  • Don’t be shy, talk to people and ask for their help if you need it. Japanese people are very polite and will more often than not go out of their way to help you.
  • Don’t forget to use both hands when giving or receiving thingsas it is meant to show respect for the gift you’re getting/giving.
  • Don’t assume “Yes” means “Yes”.The japanese are tend to avoid confrontation so they’ll rarely say “No” to your demands. They might say “it might be difficult” or “I’ll have to see if I can” instead. Take the cue and politely back off as what it often really means is a polite no.
Allright ! Whilst this list might not be exhaustive (there’s about 10 different rules for chopsticks so it would require its own article…), it should help you prevent most of the rookie mistakes people make in Japan.
Don’t get too self-conscious either, it is normal for someone to make small mistakes of etiquette when discovering a completely new culture so give yourself some breathing room.

Moreover, even if you did make a faux-pas, you probably wouldn’t get into too much trouble. Japanese people understand that “gaijins” haven’t been raised the same way so we get a lot of lee-way.

As I mentioned already, the Japanese are very polite and welcoming, so they’ll easily forget your mistakes as long as you show genuine respect and interest in their way of life.

I tend to not look at those rules as limits that are imposed on me but rather on cultural elements that are interesting to note because they allow us to better understand and fit into the culture we are visiting but also because they allow us to take a step back and reconsider our own cultural norms.

Here’s some change after so many « don’ts »: I hope you DO enjoy your trip to the fullest !

If you liked the article, please share it with your friends: they might enjoy it too, and it’ll help me a lot 🙂

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Cet article a 2 commentaires

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