Japan is a terrific place to visit, and one where the local population is generally fairly tolerant of cultural faux pas made by foreigners, known in Japanese as gaijin-san. There are 14 common mistakes, however, that are easily avoided when in Japan. A little bit of cultural knowledge can go a long way at fitting into Japanese society, making new friends, and avoiding causing unnecessary offence or embarrassment.
1. Wearing Shoes Indoors
In Japanese society it is polite to take off your shoes before entering a person’s home or a sacred place. Some places provide slippers for people to use if they do not want them to wear shoes – if you see a pile of shoes and a pile of slippers, change your footwear! Also, do not wander from an indoor area to an outdoor area in bare feet or in your socks then reenter the indoor space – this is seen as ignorant as you are still bringing dirt and contamination in on your feet!
2. Complaining About the Size of Hotel Rooms
Space is a limited commodity in Japan, and hotel rooms are often much smaller than people are used to in other countries. Many tourists complain incessantly about the size of their room, only to find that this is the case all over the country. The rooms will be small – know this, and deal with it!
3. Talking Excessively Loudly
Japanese people usually talk fairly quietly, and do not take kindly to loud noises, especially those created by another person. It is seen as an invasion of somebody’s space and quiet time. Be careful especially when in a restaurant or on public transport. On long bus or train journeys people may be trying to sleep and do not want to be disturbed by the sound of your chatter!
4. Discussing Taboo Subjects
Japanese people do not need reminding of the mistakes of their forefathers. Discussing World War atrocities will not make you popular. It is also wise not to talk about disputes with China or Korea.
Tipping is NOT a part of Japanese culture. Indeed, tipping is seen as rather offensive; don’t do it!
6. Not Washing Before Using a Public Bath
This makes foreigners seem dirty and uncouth. A Japanese person would never dream of getting into a pool without showering or washing first. You will be thought badly of if you do not do the same.
7. Trying to Customize Food Orders
Japanese society is very structured and ordered. People like consistency. Unlike many western countries, it is not common or expected for customers to change items on a menu. Read the description – if you like the sound of something, order it, and if you don’t, choose something different.
8. Assuming that Everyone Can Speak English
Whilst many people do have a good working knowledge of English, it is ignorant to assume that every Japanese person that you encounter will speak English, or any other foreign language for that matter. When approaching someone for assistance, you should say sumimasen before your request to be polite. Learn a few essential Japanese words and phrases before you travel to Japan to facilitate your trip and make an effort to be polite, or see how much you already know with a free Japanese level test!
9. Blowing Their Noses in a Public Place
Don’t blow your nose in a public place. The sight and sound is considered disgusting by most Japanese people, and it is very impolite in Japanese culture.
10. Sticking Chopsticks Upright in Rice
You should never stick your chopsticks upright into your rice, whether it is a communal bowl or in your own bowl. This symbolises death and is seen as being extremely unlucky. It is likely to distress other people around you.
Using the forefinger to point is impolite in Japan. Instead, nod towards something to indicate that a person should look in a certain direction, or use the whole hand to gesture.
12. Saying “No”
There is no word in Japanese for the word “no”. This is something to be aware of, as when a person says yes, they may mean no, and if a person says possibly, it probably actually means no! To say no outright is seen as the height of bad manners. Learn to adapt to this linguistic convention to avoid appearing uncouth.
13. Taking Photographs Where They Should Not
If there are ‘no photo’ signs in a place, it is important that you respect this and not be tempted to try and sneak a picture or two. Also, be aware that Japanese people are very suspicious and wary of people taking photos in public places – if you want to photograph somebody you must ask permission first.
14. Mishandling Business Cards
Business cards are not just a convenient way of providing contact details in Japan. They are seen as being an extension of a person. Treating a business card badly is seen as being almost as bad as treating the person badly. It is taken as an insult. Don’t fold or crumple business cards, throw them into a bulging bag, or stuff them into a back pocket.
Have we missed anything? What are some handy tips you could leave with us for the next tourist to Japan?