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A comprehensive guide to Japanese etiquette and culture

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Japan is one of the most fascinating countries in the world, with a heritage deeply rooted in history and ancient religious beliefs spanning millennia, but with a mix of modern and technologically-advanced culture. 

It is not possible to compile all that is Japan in one article, but this will cover the basic facts about Japan, Japanese culture and words to know, and proper Japanese etiquette to follow when visiting.

PS: grab your free sustainable travel pdf guide here before your trip.

Introductory facts about Japan

  • Japan is an archipelago consisting of 6,852 islands, but there are 4 main ones:
    • Hokkaido (the most northern one)
    • Honshu (the largest one, where the cities of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka are located)
    • Shikoku (the smallest one, located between Honshu and Kyushu)
    • Kyushu (most southern island)
  • Japan is known as the “land of the rising sun”. The Japanese refer to Japan as “Nippon” or “Nihon”, meaning “source of the sun”. In 607 CE, Prince Shōtoku wrote a letter to China referring to Japan as the land of the rising sun, which is likely where the term originated. 
  • Currency in Japan: yen (¥) or 円 in Japanese letters.
  • Language: there is no official language but Japanese is the main language of Japan. However, there are three main spoken dialects (and multiple other dialects spoken on the smaller islands):
    • Nihongo (this is standard Japanese spoken by almost all of Japan, and is the formal one for business and education)
    • Ryukyuan (this word means islands, and is the language spoken on the Ryukyuan Islands located between Kyushu and Taiwan)
    • Okinawan (mostly spoken on Okinawa Islands)
  • There are three ways to write Japanese: 
    • Hiragana
    • Katakana
    • Kanji
  • Religions in Japan: there is no single religion that is predominant in Japan. However, Shintō and Buddhism are the most popular ones. Shintō is uniquely Japanese, and started around the 8th century (two centuries after Buddhism reached Japan). There is no sacred book about Shintō, and therefore the practices can vary depending on regions. 
  • Japan has one of the most efficient public transportation systems in the world, but can be pricey. You can easily travel around Japan without a car. 
  • Japan has a culture of trust and politeness, and a lot of respect for communal space.
  • Japan puts a lot of emphasis on cleanliness and hygiene, and this is taught since kindergarten.

Local tip: despite being really clean, we encourage you to bring hand sanitizer and paper towels if you use a public bathroom. For some reason soap can often be lacking, as well as paper towels.

  • Despite the low crime rate and being a safe country, Japan has a culture of gender inequality, and thus issues like sexual harassment and inappropriate touching prevail. They even have a term for it, “chikan”. This happens a lot on crowded public transport so make sure to be safe. There are some public transport that have “women only” spaces.

Facts about Japanese culture

  • Japan is a mix of modern and ancient cultures. It was able to preserve its traditions because it is physically isolated, and from 17th century until 1853 they did not allow foreigners to enter the country, nor were people allowed to leave (this isolationist policy is called sakoku).
  • Collectivism: Japan is a collectivistic culture, where community matters more than individual wants. Social harmony and not losing face are also important aspects of Japanese culture. 
  • You will see red Torii gates in various places in Japan, and it’s one of the more recognisable symbols of Japan (multiple “Japanese gardens” around the world have a Torii gate):
    • A Torii gate is usually found at the entrance of a Shintō shrine, and it represents the gateway into a sacred space, and between the human world and the spiritual world
    • It is red because this colour is said to protect against evil, and is also the colour of vitality in Japan
    • There are 3 styles of gates: curved upper strip (Myojin), Ryobu (similar to Myojin), and Shinmei (straight upper strip)
torii gate japanese etiquette and culture
Torii gate
  • Mount Fuji is Japan’s highest mountain (3776 metres or 12388 feet) but also a sacred location. It’s also an active volcano (although its last eruption was in 1707). You can easily do day trips from Tokyo to Mt Fuji.
Japanese etiquette
Mt Fuji
  • You might see some architecture from “the Edo period”. This is the time between 1603 and 1867 when Japan was under the Tokugawa dictatorship.
    • During that time, Japan grew economically, did not suffer any wars, and blocked foreigners from coming into the country, thus preventing their influence, including the spread of Christianity
    • The Edo period ended with the Meiji revolution in 1868, which placed the emperor back in power
  • Edo was also the name for Tokyo.
  • Japanese people consume a lot of curry, either over rice, in a savoury pastry, or with udon noodles. Curry was brought by the British to Japan from India in the 19th century, and is now Japan’s national dish
  • Cat culture in Japan is big; you will see cats in everything: cartoons, clothing, stationeries, books, etc. That’s because in ancient Japanese beliefs, cats are thought to have protective powers and bring good luck.

Popular Japanese words to know

Greetings and popular words in Japanese

  • Konnichiwa – hello
  • Sayonara – goodbye
  • Arigato / arigato gozaimasu – thank you
  • Hai – yes
  • Iya (pronounced “iyeh”) – no (but you will hardly hear this word as Japanese people don’t like to say no).
  • Kawaii – cute
  • Samurai – noble military men who inherit the status from family and were highly respected. The Samurai culture started in the 12th century until it was abolished in the 1870s.
  • Any name that people add -san to means it’s a sign of respect towards the person.
  • Kōyō means autumn foliage. Autumn in Japan is incredibly beautiful. 
  • Sakura means cherry blossoms which bloom during spring time. There are 5 types of cherry blossom flowers, but the most common ones are Somei Yoshino (the flowers are more white than pink, with five petals) and YaeZakura or sato zakura (bright pink flowers with up to 50 petals).
japanese words to know
Sakura

Geishas and traditional outfits

  • A geisha is a female performing artist, particularly in dance, music, and singing. In the past, men were geishas but today they are mostly female. Geishas are trained to be good hosts, and they wear a white powder on their face, have a particular hairstyle, and wear a kimono. A geisha is not a prostitute.
  • A geiko means geisha in the Kyoto and Western Japan dialect.
  • A Maiko is a young girl who is training to become a geisha, usually younger than 20 years old. They live in geisha houses (okiya) with their okami-san (their appointed mother) and have strict rules (no cellphones, no boyfriend, no money).
  • Yukata – a light kimono typically worn in casual settings like bathhouses and festivals during warm seasons.
  • Kimono – traditional Japanese outfit and is also the national dress of Japan. Kimonos are worn with an obi (a sash), Japanese sandals called zōri, and tabi (Japanese socks). Kimonos are not worn regularly these days – only on formal occasions, or if it’s a requirement as part of a profession (e.g. geisha or sumo wrestler).
facts about japanese culture
Kimono

Other terms you might encounter

  • Sumo – a competitive type of wrestling with specific rules.
  • Rikishi or sumōtori or osumōsan – a professional sumo wrestler.
  • Izakaya – it means stay-drink-place. It is the Japanese version of a pub or tapas place, where you can get drinks and snacks. When you enter an izakaya, you will hear people shout a hearty welcome “irasshaimase” or “yokoso” to you, both of which mean welcome. The latter is less formal.
  • Onsen – hot springs in Japan that usually have accommodation facilities nearby. Onsens can be public, private, part of a hotel, indoors, or outdoors (proper etiquette on going to an onsen below).
  • Ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn where the rooms have tatamis (Japanese mats), shared areas like baths, and guests can wear a yukata.
ryokan japanese word to know
Ryokan

Japanese etiquette to practise when visiting

When eating

  • ✔ It’s ok to slurp your food a little, to show appreciation of your meal to the chef.
  • ✔ You can rub wooden chopsticks lightly against each other to remove splinters but don’t overdo it.
  • ✔ It’s ok if you struggle using chopsticks. If you really can’t eat with them, you can ask for fork.
  • X Soya sauce is meant for dipping – do not pour it over your rice.
  • X Do not serve your own drink.
  • X Do not eat while walking.
  • X There is no need to tip, it’s actually offensive and will make the receiver feel embarrassed.
  • X Do not pass food around using your used chopsticks. Instead, take from their plate with permission or offer your plate so they can take something from it.
  • X If taking food from a communal bowl or plate, turn your used chopstick around and use the clean end to take food.
  • X Do not stick your chopsticks upright as this is a funeral-related ritual.
  • X Do not stab your food with chopsticks.
  • X Do not point at things with chopsticks.
  • X Do not cross your chopsticks with each other. They should be kept parallel to each other.
japanese etiquette
Ramen noodles

General Japanese etiquette

  • ✔ Take your shoes off when you enter any indoor space, for hygiene purposes. There are also separate slippers to wear to the bathroom/toilet.
  • ✔ Keep your trash with you and throw it away at home. Japanese people do this mostly because it’s hard to find trash cans or rubbish bins in public. Otherwise if you see recycled bins, make sure to use the correct ones.
  • ✔ Place cash on the tray next to the cashier rather than handing to them directly.

Social interactions

  • ✔ If someone bows to you, bow back.
  • ✔ Give something with both hands.
  • X During conversations, do not stare directly into someone’s eyes for a long period of time, break eye contact once in a while.
  • X Do not check how much money is handed back to you when you make a purchase. This is offensive as it shows distrust.
  • X Do not point at people.

Japanese etiquette when in public

  • ✔ Always form a queue and follow the order.
  • X Do not smoke in non-designated smoke areas, like on the street.
  • X Do not spit in public.
  • X Blow your nose only when you’re alone or in a bathroom – never in public.
  • Public transportation:
    • X Don’t get in the way on escalators. Check to see which side to stand on. In Japan it’s not always clear, as in Tokyo people stand on the left side, but in Kansai they stand on the right.
    • X Do not talk excessively loud or listen to loud music on public transport.
  • X Do not take photos of geishas and maiko unless you ask for permission. They are not on display for tourists to gawk at. However, the people playing dress up with kimonos and hanging around talking to tourists is different – they are not real geishas and maiko, and are there for tourists.
  • X Also do not engage too long with geishas and maiko even if you want to chat, because they usually have appointments and somewhere to get to, but might be too polite to say so.

At onsens (hot spring)

onsen and japanese etiquette
Onsen (Japanese hot springs)
  • ✔ Embrace your body at onsens because people are naked when soaking in. Bathing suits are not allowed, and hair should be tied up and should not touch the bath water. In fact, nothing but your body should touch the water.
  • ✔ Rinse and/or shower before entering the onsen, even if it’s a private bath.
  • X Do not take photos at onsens, unless there’s no one (but you) in them.
  • X Men and women go into separate onsens. Do not try to enter the one that’s not for your gender.
  • Unfortunately tattoos are taboo in Japan as they are associated with gangs. You might not be welcome into an onsen if you have tattoos.

At temples and shrines

facts about japanese culture
Byōdō-in temple, Kyoto
  • ✔ Keep your voices low.
  • ✔ Take your shoes off.
  • ✔ There is no need to cover up but you should still dress appropriately as when visiting any place of worship. 
  • X Do not take photos inside temples and shrines. Outside is ok.
  • X Do NOT walk straight into the centre of a shrine, whether it’s a temple or a Torii gate. The right way to enter is to bow in front of the temple or gate and then enter by keeping either to the left or right. The centre is for a deity to pass through.

FAQs

  • What is Japan famous for?

Today Japan is famous for its traditional and unique culture, food (namely sushi, tempura, and ramen noodles), for the snow-capped Mt Fuji, cherry blossoms (sakura), hot springs (onsen), and an innovative high-tech approach to daily life. 

  • Are there emperors still in Japan?

Yes there are still emperors in Japan, but their power is somewhat limited, as Japan is a constitutional monarchy. The emperor is the ceremonial head of state, but he appoints the Prime Minister, who is the head of the government.

  • What are samurais and what did they do?

Samurais were important members of the Japanese military and had high ranking positions in society, until the samurai class was abolished when Japan’s feudal ended in 1868. Samurais were known for their skills with weapons such as swords, and for their ethics such as loyalty and self-discipline. 

  • Is it safe to drink tap water in Japan?

Yes, it is very safe to drink tap water in Japan. Bring a refillable water bottle rather than buying bottled water in order to avoid plastic waste (of which there is a lot in Japan because they use a lot of plastic).

  • Is Japan safe?

Japan is one of the safest countries in the world, including for women travelling alone. Petty theft is non-existent as there is a big emphasis on not losing face due to shameful behaviour, and on being very considerate towards others. Japanese are also generally friendly towards foreigners, though there will likely be language barriers and cultural differences.

Final thoughts on Japanese etiquette and culture

This comprehensive list of proper Japanese etiquette is all you need when visiting Japan. In terms of Japanese culture there’s so much more to know, but this is a great start for your first visit.

Curious about similarities in Japanese and South Korean culture? Check out our latest article.

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