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Guide to Japan and Teaching English in Japan

January 07, 2009

Japanese Customs & Etiquette

Japan is a society of etiquette and many customs. For many foreigners, at first, they will seem quite awkward. But never fear - with some sensitivity there is little chance of truly offending anyone. Overall, the more complex aspects of Japanese social interactions deal with the language, and only pose problems for those who have abandoned their home country for this new world. With a little practice a foreign visitor to Japan can take part in the more common Japanese social rituals.

The Japanese bow, exchanging of meishi, swapping shoes for less comfortable plastic slippers, and sitting seiza on the floor will all become second nature in time. Long-term visitors are prone to a love-hate relationship with Japan. Short-term visitors are likely to accept the polite and friendly nature of the Japanese as the most memorable impression.

But no matter what long-termers have to say, most visitors leave Japan with incredible stories of Japanese courtesy: backpackers treated to lunch; invited into someone's home when the local hotel is full; driven to the airport because bags may be too cumbersome for the train.

Below are some common beliefs of Japanese customs and etiquette. I will classify these beliefs as either 'Myth' or 'Fact' based on what I have heard and experienced.

"The best way to learn proper Japanese manners is to mimic those around you."

- Fact: Everyone knows the saying,"Learn by doing". The one sure way to know if what you're doing is socially correct is to follow those around you. Manners vary from town to town, region to region in Japan, so be careful. When possible, mimic someone of the same sex and age as these two factors also play a part. Just don't get carried away and follow the guy who dyed his hair green because he saw it on American TV.

"When bowing: men, hands to the sides; women, hands in front."

- Fact but: It's true that Japanese bow over and over (thank you, sorry, how do you do, excuse me) with hands in proper position, in a true Japanese gathering. When a foreigner is involved the Japanese tend to look more towards his/her happiness and less at if his/her hands are in correct position. A simple bow is all that's needed. Tilt your head forward and bend.

"The place of honour in a car is the seat directly behind the driver."

- Fact: This is one of the more peculiar Japanese customs. It can be traced back to the time of the rickshaw. Those of honour (and wealth) were seated behind the driver and pulled to a destination. To this day, in more rural areas, you will see Japanese couples, one driving and one seated directly behind him/her.

This snippet was sent in by one of our readers:

"Never having learnt how to drive in Scotland, I've just pushed myself through the Japanese system. It's really tough for a foreigner. I did learn one thing, though; the safest seat in a car is the driver's. The second safest is the one directly behind the driver because, in an accident situation, the driver will instinctively swerve to avoid injury, thereby inadvertently protecting the passenger to the immediate rear. At the driving school, this was drummed into us: Nothing about rickshaws or history, just plain common sense. The most dangerous seat? Middle back. Taught because most learner drivers are pre-kaisha freshman age, and it's a cardinal rule in a kaisha not to place the head honcho in the middle back seat, irrespective of how polite that looks."
- Jim Smiley, Department of English, Ohu University

"Never wear shoes (or slippers) on tatami."

- Fact: Think of tatami as being beautiful plush carpet. You would never consider walking over it with shoes. Be extra careful as tatami rooms can pop up anywhere: changing rooms in clothing stores; certain areas in resturants; hotels; etc.. Rule of thumb is to let a native Japanese lead and follow him/her. Even in the privacy of their own home, Japanese would never consider walking on tatami with shoes. The home is considered to be a relaxing escape from work. "Soto zura ga yoi."

"When visiting others, take off your shoes in the entranceway and place them neatly with the toes facing the door."

- Fact but: Japanese homes and apartments have small, often lowered entranceways called genkan. This area is made especially for the removal of outside footwear. Often a Japanese host will have slippers ready for you on the next level after you've removed your shoes. When you return to this area after your visit, you will usually find that you shoes are neatly facing the door, whether you've placed them like this or not. The Japanese shoe fairy, I guess. Don't be overly concerned, use a little common sense. I'm almost positive your Japanese host won't send you away from their home if you point your shoes in another direction.

"It's generally not polite to have to leave a social function too soon or before the main guests leave."

- Fact: In Japanese society the main guests feel obligated to stay until the others leave. Likewise the others feel obilgated to stay until the main guests leave. One vicious circle. Often a Japanese function will have a set ending time. This is done so neither party feels guilty about leaving. Those without an ending time continue on until one person builds up enough courage to leave.

"Toilet slippers are for use in the toilet only."

- Fact: mmmmmm..... Tough one. Like going shopping in your pajamas.

"Japanese often express thanks in the form of an apology."

- Fact: Someone gives you an apple? You better apologize for the apple weighing down the tree limb before it was given to you. We say, "thanks". They say, "I'm sorry". I suppose the English equivalent would be "Oh really, you shouldn't have!"

"When someone treats you to a meal, it's polite to attempt to pay."

- Fact: I'm not sure of any culture where it isn't polite. In a small group situation, when you're invited, your host usually pays. However, not offering to pay is considered bad form. In larger situations the bill is usually divided up equally between the participants - this will include you! Even if the party is in your honour.

"When taking food from a common dish, use the opposite end of your chopsticks."

- Myth: This is one of those, "per situation" rules. In all the social functions I've been to, I've yet to see Japanese follow this. It's my understanding that more formal occasions follow stricter rules, including this one. Use fact number one on this page and follow those around you.

"Don't plant your chopsticks in your rice when you're not using them."

- Fact: This and passing things from one pair of chopsticks to another are things that are done as part of the ritual of a Buddhist funeral. Enough said?

"Don't eat while walking."

- Mother's rule: "Don't you dare. Come back here... If you make me get up... This is your last warning! #@!*#"
- Murphy's Law: Eating while walking, you run the risk of tripping and dropping your food. Like with jaywalking and applying makeup on the train, the presence of rule-breaking foreigners over the last couple of decades seems to have eroded this one somewhat.

"It's okay to urinate in the street."

- Fact: As long as you're a middle-aged salaryman and have had a few beers too many. This kind of behaviour is acceptable, but only to other middle-aged salarymen who have...

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