Bowing is considered a unique form of acknowledgement in Japanese culture. The Japanese bow upon meeting, departing, and to express gratitude. Since the head is believed to be the most important part of the body, bowing is a way to show respect and honor to another person. Although bowing may seem pretty straightforward, it’s actually quite complicated. Everything including the depth of the bow, the number of bows, and the duration of the bow are determined by the people involved and their status in relation to each other. The proper form for the bow is to bend from the waist, keeping a straight back and arms held stiffly to the side of the body. For foreigners, a simple nod of the head is sufficient. Japanese who have traveled abroad or have experience dealing with foreigners may extend their hand for a handshake, though they probably won’t be able to stop from giving a slight bow as well.
The Japanese are some of the most avid gift-givers in the world, and guests invited to a private home should always bring a gift. Wise visitors to Japan come prepared with their own small gifts which can range from memorabilia from their own hometown to crafts and specialty foods. Otherwise, items readily available in Japan that make good gifts include flowers, candy, fruit, or alcohol. In any case, gifts should be wrapped or presented in an attractive bag.
Public bathing has been a tradition in Japan for over a thousand years, and it is as much about socializing as it is cleanliness. Even though most Japanese homes today have private bathrooms, neighborhood public baths still play an important role in the society, especially for the older generation. Even more popular are Japan’s many hot-spring spas (onsens), which can range from simple outdoor baths to huge, state-of-the-art spas with numerous baths boasting various kinds of water and thermal treatments.
Whether large or small, humble or grand, the procedure for bathing in a public bath is the same all over Japan. After completely disrobing and placing clothes in a locker or basket, bathers enter the bath area and proceed to the faucets lined with basins and stools where they soap down and wash off all traces of soap. Only then are they ready to enter the bath, as the baths are for soaking, not washing. The bath may be so hot that it takes some time to get used to, especially for novice bathers. The hot water fades away all cares and tension, making the ritual of bathing the perfect end to a day of travel.
Upon entering a restaurant, guests are greeted with a hearty Irasshaimase! (Welcome!) before indicating the number of people in the party using only their fingers (that’s how the Japanese do it). Guests are then led to a table, a place at the counter, or a tatami room. As soon as everyone is seated they are handed a wet towel (oshibori). The towel is for wiping hands only, and shouldn’t be used on the face. Once finished, the guest rolls it up and leaves it next to their place setting.
Diners in Japanese restaurants are also given chopsticks. There are some rules of etiquette involving chopsticks. When given wooden chopsticks in the US, it is normal to rub the two together to scrape off any slivers before using them, however this is considered impolite in Japan. Once should also never insert chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice, or pass anything from chopstick to chopstick. Both of these practices have associations with death.
You will be recognized as a foreigner, and will be given an English menu if one exists. To ask for one say, “eigo no menu ga arimasu ka?” (Is there an English menu?) If they don’t have an English menu, most phrasebooks will have a section with the symbols most commonly used for food items you can use to try to compare. You may also look around at what other people are eating and point at what you want, or you can ask “osusume wa nan desu ka?” (What do you recommend?). If the restaurant has a display in the front window (as many restaurants in Japan have), you can take the waitperson outside and point. By asking for a teishoku or seto (set meal), you will get the main course with miso soup, rice, and pickles for usually just a little bit more (it is definitely worth the little extra they charge). Tea will be automatically served for free, and water (mizu) will be served if you ask.
When you are finished eating, you can signal for the bill by crossing one index finger over the other to form an X. This is the standard sign for “check please”. You can also say, “okanjo kudasai” (check please). Remember, there is no tipping. When leaving, it is polite to say to the restaurant staff, “gochiso-sama deshita” (It was a real feast).
Here are some other things to keep in mind while dining out in Japan:
- Japanese soup and noodle broth can be sipped directly from the bowl instead of with a spoon.
- Rice bowls should be passed with both hands.
- One should never fill one’s own glass from a communal bottle of wine or sake. Rather, the diner should wait until someone notices his cup needs refilling then hold it up to make pouring easier. That diner should then reciprocate by filling the other diner’s glass. If a glass is full when offered something more to drink, it is customary to drink as much of it as possible before holding out the cup to receive more.
- It is considered perfectly good manners to slurp noodles, and is a sign of a good appetite and an appreciation of the meal.
- The Japanese do not eat or drink in the street unless there are seats provided for them to sit on while they do so. Ice cream cones are an exception to this rule. It is up to you whether you want to abide by this custom: no-one is going to be particularly upset if they see you wandering down the street munching on a sandwich.
Individual tipping is not common in Japan (not even to waitresses, taxi drivers, or bellboys). Rather, in lieu of tipping, a 10 to 15 percent service charge is added to bills. Many times when a tip is offered, it will be returned.
Giving a gift of a gratuity to your guides, on the other hand, is accepted and appreciated. Of course the amount is up to you depending on service, but an approximate amount would be around 500¥ (about $5 USD) per person per guided day on an escorted tour, or around 2,000¥ per day for a private guide.
Shoes are never worn inside private homes or ryokans. Some restaurants, temples, and shrines also require patrons to remove shoes. Shoes will normally be taken off where a step-up is provided. When entering many temples, you may be requested to remove your shoes. The shoes should remain on the concrete, and you should only step on the wooden platforms provided with your socks or bare feet. Stepping on the concrete with your socks will track dirt inside. Typically there will be a place provided to store your shoes.
Slippers are provided in most ryokans, but even these should be removed for walking on tatami (straw mats), so travelers should be sure to pack warm socks in winter. In establishments that do not allow shoes special restroom slippers are provided. These slippers are to remain in the restroom, and not to be worn anywhere else in the establishment.
One of the most enduring Western notions about Japan is that of Japanese courtesy and rigid social etiquette. However, with a little sensitivity, there is almost no chance of offending anyone, and the visitor to Japan should rest easy in the knowledge that the Japanese are very forgiving when it comes to the little slip-ups of foreign visitors. However, here are a few extra items that can only help in your travels through Japan:
- Though casual attire is acceptable in resort and tourist destinations, skimpy or revealing clothing is improper when visiting temples or shrines, or in crowded downtown areas.
- Similar to other parts of Asia, the respectful way to indicate that someone should approach you is to wave your fingers with your palm facing downwards. Also, when referring to yourself, point to your nose.
- Blowing your nose in public is frowned upon, especially in restaurants. The polite thing to do if you have a cold in public is to keep sniffing until you can get to a private place to blow your nose.
- When sitting on the floor, the formal way to sit is with your legs tucked directly beneath you in what is known as the sieza position. However, in ordinary situations it is perfectly acceptable to sit in whatever manner is comfortable, as long as you do not point the bottom of your feet at anyone. Showing someone the bottom of your feet is considered rude.
- When you talk with Japanese people, they will say your name with “san” at the end (a term of respect and honor). However, do not copy them by placing “san” after your own name when you refer to yourself.
- When riding on trains or subways, conversations should be carried out in a hushed manner. It is considered rude to talk loudly or carry on conversations across the car.
- When handing or receiving something to/from somebody it is considered more polite to use two hands.
- When paying for something (whether in a store or restaurant) there will usually be a tray where you can place your cash or credit card. The cashier will place the change or receipts on this tray and hand it to you. It is considered more polite to use the tray instead of handing the money directly to the cashier.
- There are no rules for behavior while in temples and shrines. Just keep in mind they are places of worship, and act accordingly. The Japanese will certainly not mind if you observe. Some temples and shrines do not allow flash photography, and some do not allow photographs at all. This will be posted in English at the entrance to the temple or shrine.
- Jaywalking and crossing streets against the crosswalk sign is rarely seen in Japan. There may not be cars for miles, but the Japanese will normally wait for the crosswalk signs to change before crossing the street. While no one will get upset with you if you did cross against the signs, when in Rome do as the Romans, and when in Tokyo… well, you know.
- When riding on escalators, it is common and polite for everyone to stand on one side, allowing those who wish to walk up or down the escalator the room to do so. There is no rule as to which side of the escalator to stand on, just simply follow the lead of everyone in front of you.
- When exiting a train it is considered good manners to return your seat to its normal, upright position.