My husband and I did lots of research before heading to Japan so that we could follow Japanese etiquette and social norms. We never want to disrespect the locals when we travel, and so we knew what to expect in an onsen (a Japanese style hot spring bath), how to know when to remove our shoes when entering a home or traditional restaurant, we knew why we should buy JR Rail Passes, and we even took a few Japanese classes so that we could be well prepared for our 6 week adventure in the land of the rising sun. Despite being as well prepared as we thought we could be, these 18 things still shocked us, either because we didn’t expect to see them and hadn’t learned about them in our study of Japanese etiquette, or because we didn’t realize how prevalent these things would be, like #8.
I want to preface this post by saying that I absolutely LOVED our time in Japan. It is one of my favorite places I’ve ever visited, and I loved every moment of our time there, plus the people we met were some of the friendliest people we’ve ever encountered. I’m not sharing these aspects of Japanese etiquette and social norms that shocked me to make fun of them, or try to shame anyone, these are merely my honest impressions of things I found surprising about Japanese etiquette.
These 18 things will help you be well prepared for your adventure in Japan, and will also help you blend in better while exploring this beautiful nation by allowing you to better understand Japanese etiquette. It’s very important in Japanese society not to stick out, so know what to expect, don’t be surprised when you run into these things, and do what the locals do in order to make the most of your time enjoying Japan, and the beautiful culture of the Japanese people.
There is neither soap nor paper towel in most bathrooms
This absolutely BLEW my mind the first few days we were here. I’d say roughly 80% of the bathrooms I went to (excluding fine dining establishments and hotels) had neither soap nor towels, but just a water faucet. I picked up a cute little drying cloth, they’re sold all over the place in convenient stores, souvenir shops, and even department stores, so that I wouldn’t have to walk around with wet hands.The lack of soap wasn’t such a big deal for me, because I always carry hand sanitizer, but it was pretty gross to see so many people walk straight from the toilet to the exit, without so much as rinsing their hands. Of course, there’s not much of a point in doing so without any soap…
Tipping is insulting
In the states, we tip when we have food delivered to us, when we pick it up ourselves, and we tip whether or not the service was good because most workers in the food industry aren’t paid properly and are paid less than minimum wage by their employers. It’s even becoming more common for cafés that sell pre-made foods and drinks to request tips, despite their “adequate” wages and lack of interaction with the customers or products.Things are very different in Japan. If you leave a tip for an exceptionally delicious meal, or because your server went out of his or her way to make your dining experience special, your server will chase you down to return your change and likely be quite flustered. In Japan, workers are not required to rely on tips to make ends meet, and will feel insulted, as though you think they need your handouts to hack it, if you try to insist on tipping. There isn’t even a line on credit card transaction slips to leave a tip, so don’t worry about it.It was very refreshing to be told exactly how much we needed to pay in order to keep both the employees and establishments afloat.To reiterate, there is never a need to tip in Japan. If you want to thank someone for hosting you, like we did when we stayed in traditional Japanese style inns called ryokan, a bottle of sake or snacks from another part of the country, or your home, is a nice way to say thank you.
Remove shoes before entering temples, homes, (& hotel rooms, restaurants, even many stores and boutiques, etc…)
We knew to expect that we would have to remove our shoes when we visited temples, shrines, traditional restaurants, and people’s homes. We even bought new socks for our adventures, and invested in shoe deodorizers so as not to offend anyone’s sensibilities. What we didn’t expect is that at hotels the staff would follow us (and all foreigners) up to our hotel rooms and insist on showing us (even if by that point we already knew) where the house slippers were, where we could and couldn’t wear our shoes, and how to take off our shoes “properly” (this seriously happened like 3 times to us, usually at ryokan haha).It was also quite surprising that some stores, boutiques, museums, and even landmarks made us take off our shoes before entering. Be sure to pack lots of clean socks that you’d be proud to have everyone see, because chances are your feet are coming out of your shoes at some point!
Speaking of footwear etiquette, there are special slippers (usually made of rubber or wooden) that you must wear in some bathrooms – they’re communal.
Again, this was really gross to me, and really surprised me. Japanese people have a very strong, internalized sense of what’s “clean” and what’s “dirty”, which is why people take off their outside shoes (dirty) before entering houses, restaurants, temples, etc. (clean). This idea of clean and dirty also extends to the bathroom.While I rarely saw this in public restrooms, all of the ryokan and hotels we stayed in, some restaurants and cafés, and other public or private spaces had communal rubber, wood, or jute slippers guests are expected to wear when using the restroom. They’re one size fits all, so if you have “large” or wide feet (I wear a size 9 in shoes and some slippers were way too small for me), you better hope the bathroom floor isn’t wet… yuck!
There is a LOT of wasteful packaging, and many things are individually wrapped in plastic
I’ve always viewed Japan as a technologically advanced country, which they are, however they have lots of room to improve when it comes to being environmentally friendly. We had to avoid buying snacks, candy, or even packaged foods of any kind, because there was SO much wasteful packaging.For instance, we bought a bag of Japanese candies when we first arrived. Each piece was individually wrapped in plastic, each group of 5 candies was individually wrapped in plastic, and then it was packaged in yet another plastic bag. I think this was probably to encourage sharing, but as people who don’t use plastic water bottles, grocery bags, or other wasteful things, it made us feel very guilty.
Convenience stores like 7/11 (also called Family Marts) are awesome
Japanese convenience stores aren’t the same sort of stores we have in the United States. In Japan, they sell high quality meals made fresh daily, and even organic snacks like fresh fruits & vegetables, local candies and drinks, alcohol, and lots more, at very reasonable prices. You can exchange or withdraw money, buy prepaid subway transit cards or gift cards, send your bags ahead of you to your next destination, send parcels in the mail, and more.
Blowing your nose in public is very taboo
This was something I had read about when researching Japanese etiquette, but by the time I’d traveled more than 20 hours to get to our first destination in Tokyo, I was exhausted and not as on guard about social faux pas as I should have been. We were in a cramped train when I had to sneeze, which I did so as discretely as possible, and no one noticed or seemed to care. I then took out a Kleenex from my purse and blew my nose, as quietly and discreetly as I could, and you would have thought I set off fireworks inside the train by the way people reacted. People got up and moved away from me, I received lots of dirty looks, and some people literally turned their backs on me. It was very embarrassing, so don’t make the same mistake I did, and you won’t have to be shamed by the locals for violating Japanese etiquette. Sorry everyone on the 9pm Narita Express, that was totally my bad.
Many people wear surgical masks out in public
They do this because of the taboo surrounding blowing one’s nose in public, and to stop the spreading of illnesses. Allergy season and sakura (cherry blossom) season coincide, so many people were wearing them during our visit. I was a bit concerned that there was some sort of plague outbreak, but it’s probably because people would rather conceal a runny nose than be treated like I described above. I can’t say that I blame them.
Sit down meals can take hours
Some meals in Japan are extremely complex and involved. We had a 15 course meal in Kyoto that took more than 4 hours from start to finish, and Japanese etiquette dictates that you stay for the entire meal, as it would be very rude to cut it short. It was a fabulous experience, but know ahead of time how long your meal might take so you don’t miss your next activity or train, or spend more time than you’d anticipated eating.
Japanese people tend not to show much emotion
This was true even of children. My husband and I both noticed that even children cried and whined much quieter and more calmly than they do here. Despite being around thousands of Japanese people and their children in cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, we never saw children having meltdowns or throwing temper tantrums like we do here in the United States. Unless they’re drinking or surprised, Japanese etiquette dictates that people don’t show much emotion in public as it’s considered uncouth. You’ll hear lots of dramatic, shocked “Ehhhh?!?” or “Neeee?!”, but not much else, until you get to know people and they feel comfortable around you. It was sort of strange to be around so many quiet, reserved people for 6 weeks, but it was also very nice and we never felt stressed out by the behavior of others.
Trains are silent
This was eerie. We knew trains were not a place to talk or have phone calls, but I couldn’t believe how quiet they were. Many people work or sleep on trains and everyone, children included, respect those around them by being as quiet as possible. There were signs on the Shinkansen trains we took around Japan asking people to be mindful of the noise they made while eating or drinking, typing, and even turning pages in their books and to keep Japanese etiquette in mind. The only time we heard anyone talking on the trains was when a large group of tourists speaking very loudly in French got on our train from Kyoto to Kurakawa and talked loudly, seemingly without noticing everyone glaring at them, for an hour. Don’t be like them, just enjoy the silence while watching the scenery pass by.
Don’t eat or drink on trains, buses, or inside taxis
I know I just mentioned the signs asking people not to be loud when enjoying their food, but those signs were on Shinkansen trains, which are bullet trains people typically ride for much longer distances than local trains, so sometimes eating and drinking can’t be helped on Shinkansen. If you’re on the subway, a local train, buses, or taxis, Japanese etiquette dictates that eating and drinking is not only frowned upon, but might get you scolded by locals. They find it rude.
Tattoos have a very negative stigma attached to them
A long time ago, Japanese criminals were tattooed against their will as punishment for their misdeeds to shame them and show society that they were immoral outcasts who should be avoided. Today, while that’s no longer done as punishment, tattoos are associated with Japan’s mafia, called the yakuza, and if you have tattoos expect to be barred from using onsen and swimming pools. Many spas and salons will refuse service to anyone with tattoos. Some hotels, restaurants, museums, shops, and cafés will even throw visitors out or prevent them from entering if they have tattoos.If you do have tattoos and you can cover them with makeup, clothing, your hair, or bandages, you should definitely do so. This shocked us, because I witnessed someone being thrown out from a restaurant in Himeji because they had tattoos, so it’s defiantly a very serious prohibition, although the Prime Minister of Japan has asked people to be more lenient towards foreigners with tattoos, this likely won’t change anytime soon.
Many places, including many hotels and restaurants, only accept cash
This was frustrating for us, because when we were in smaller towns, we couldn’t find ATMs and once had to travel to a nearby town to take out cash and then come back to check out of our hotel.Thankfully Japan is a very safe place to visit, so it’s okay to carry a few hundred dollars in cash with you. Just be sure not to misplace it.
Talking on the phone in public is considered very inconsiderate
Many places such as restaurants, museums, trains, buses, and even parks will have signs asking people not to use their cell phones. A café I was in asked a German-speaking tourist to leave and finish his call up outside. This is a pretty strictly enforced aspect of Japanese etiquette.
Eating or drinking while walking is frowned upon
I saw lots of locals eating and drinking while walking around in Tokyo, but many more were sitting outside of stores or near vending machines to eat. I even witnessed a jogger stop running, sit down on the ground, take a swig of water, then get back up to keep running. This sort of behavior likely has something to do with how Japanese people value cleanliness.
There are very few trash cans in cities, and even fewer in rural areas
Related to the point above, because people tend to stick near where they purchase their foods while they eat it in order to return their trash to the place from which they purchased it. Public trash cans are quite uncommon, although thankfully bottle and can recycling bins are much more common. If you’re at a festival and order some street food, or buy something from a convenience store, bring your trash back to the person you bought it from in a timely manner and they will throw it away for you.
Many restaurants, cafés, onsen, classes, and even museums and landmarks like castles require reservations
The need for reservations in advance is especially common in larger cities. Many places require reservations at least a day in advance, or they require you to wait in line until they hand out tickets before opening to the public for reservations on the same. Sometimes the wait for advanced tickets can be hours long in order to reserve a time slot for later the same day. If you don’t have a ticket with a reserved time slot to eat, drink, or enter the place you’re trying to access, you’re out of luck. This was especially common in cafés, restaurants, and museums in Tokyo.
I hope these insights into Japanese etiquette help you have a fun, exciting trip just like we did. Even if you do make mistakes, Japanese people, in general, are very kind and understanding, especially towards foreigners (unless you blow your nose on a train, evidently).
If you’ve ever visited Japan, what surprised you the most about your visit? Let me know in the comments below!
Until next time!
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