You’ve probably already heard about some of Japan’s many unwritten social rules like no using cellphones on the trains, removing your shoes before entering someone’s home or avoiding planting you chopsticks in your bowl of rice. These three examples are pretty obvious and commonly known, even outside of Japan. But what about sme of the more “obscure” rules that dominate Japanese society? Here’s a list of 10 rules you should definitely learn about and follow while in Japan.
#1 Face covers
Ladies, this one is for you. If ever you want to try clothes one day, the staff will almost certainly hand you a mesh-like pouch. These pouches are meant to go over your head so that you don’t smear makeup all over the clothes. If ever the attendant doesn’t give you a face cover, there will most likely be a box of them inside the changing room. Etiquette here says that you should wear the face cover when you put on or take off the clothing. When you’re done and ready to leave you can throw it out near the exit of the changing area.
We all know how wonderful the toilets are in Japan, but we also know how complicated all those buttons can be. Rule of thumb: if the buttons aren’t translated, just remember these two simple kanji: 小 (small flush) 大 (large flush). A big no-no when using “western” toilets is any form of standing on the toilet. Can you imagine putting dirty shoes on the toilet seat? Gross. If you happen to get a stall that has a “washitsu” squat toilet in it, the only thing you need to do is squat over the toilet while facing the flush handle. This is very important to avoid any accidents. Most squat toilet stalls will have a drawing on the wall to show you which way you should be facing.
#3 Rules on the road
This is very important. Unlike most countries, Japan drives on the left. This means that you should always walk on the left hand side of the road, sidewalks, corridors, escalators, etc. If you decide to rent a bike, you must ride on the left to avoid any potentially deadly situations.
This one is pretty straightforward: don’t bring any drinks or food from the outside into a restaurant. It’s common sense and is just a lack of respect to do otherwise. Restaurants exist so that you can buy food and drinks. What’s the point of going to one if you already have your food? A bottle of water in your backpack is fine, so long as you don’t drink it at the table. Besides, pretty much every restaurant in Japan will provide you with free water or tea upon arrival while you check their menu.
#5 Eating and drinking in public areas
In relation to the above rule, eating and drinking in public can be really frowned upon by Japanese people. You should never walk around in the streets while eating, as this poses a risk to dirtying the streets or bumping into someone and ruining their clothes. Eating on trains and buses is also a big no-no (Shinkansens are an exception, you can buy food on board and eat it in your seat). If you’re really hungry, eat your snack by a convenience store. They always have trash bins outside the store for when you’re done, and it is socially acceptable to eat there. For drinking, it’s a little less strict than with food, but it’s still recommended that you finish and throw out your bottle by a vending machine. Again, vending machines have trash bins so it’s easy to dispose of your trash.
We generate a lot of trash in a day, even when you’re just walking around, taking in the sights. Getting rid of your trash in Japan can be complicated because there are not many trash bins around. You can find some near convenience stores, vending machines and in train stations. If you do find a place to throw out your trash, remember to separate everything by PET plastic, recyclables, aluminium cans, burnable trash and non-burnable trash. Otherwise, you’ll have just have to carry everything. Japanese people simply carry their trash with them all day long, until they get home and can dispose of it there. If there’s really no other option, carry it.
#7 Socks and shoes
As mentioned earlier, removing your shoes when entering a house is a given in Japan. This custom extends to hotel rooms, spas and even some restaurants. If you’re visiting in the summertime, you might be walking around in flip flops most of the time however, showing your bare feet in a house or in a restaurant can be really badly received. To avoid being stared at, carry a pair of socks in your backpack so that if you do walk into a shoe-less restaurant, you’ll be prepared.
#8 Talking loudly
Let’s be real, nobody likes obnoxious and loud people in public places. In Japan, people are especially sensitive to voice volumes, as this action can be seen as impolite, bothersome and inconvenient. When boarding a train, try to keep your conversation at a minimum or speak in a low voice as to not disturb your fellow travellers. The same goes for hotel rooms and rented apartments. It’s just common courtesy to be more quiet after 10pm.
#9 Sitting on tatami
If you’re invited to a Japanese house, or you’re going to have a meal in a Japanese-style restaurant, you’ll probably encounter some traditional seating. Tatami mats are very common in houses and in ryokans. They can be really uncomfortable, so people will use floor cushions (zabuton) to sit on. Ladies, you should sit seiza-style (on your knees) however, this can become very uncomfortable, very fast. As an alternative, try sitting with your legs sideways, resting on your upper thigh instead. Unfortunately, you cannot sit cross-legged, as this is reserved to men.
Rules about tipping: don’t tip! Unlike in many countries of the world, Japanese restaurants, taxis, hotels, etc. doesn’t require tipping from their patrons. In fact, trying to tip a waiter or a taxi driver will only cause some awkwardness for both of you. The person offering the service will always return your tip, sometimes even running out of a restaurant to give you back your tip if you left one on the table. People pride themselves on doing a good job and they feel that they don’t need to be payed extra for doing their job. Instead, just thank your driver when you step out and tell your waiter “gochiso sama deshita” (thanks for the meal).
Remember these easy rules and you’ll have a great time in Japan, all the while respecting the local customs and culture. Visiting another country, even if only briefly, should warrant adopting some simple social conventions. Everyone will be happier for it!