Ultimate Guide to Japanese Customs
By Alexis Goss | Created September 29, 2020
Japanese customs are something that can take a while to get your head around. This article focuses on helping you learn Japanese customs, etiquette, and manners. This article is a part of our extensive series of guides on Japanese culture.
The following article was written by Alexis Goss with support from Tyson Batino.
Japan is a country with a long history and a lot of pride in its customs. But don’t be intimidated! We’re here to help you figure out how to live in Japan without accidentally offending everyone - and even if you do, how to smooth it over. We’ve compiled a ton of customs, both big and small, to help you dive right in!
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Why Learn Japanese Manners and Customs?
No matter if you’re planning on living in Japan or you’re just visiting, there are things you should know to smooth over your entry. We’re not talking what you’re allowed to legally take into the country, we’re talking about things you won’t even know to search.
What is a custom?
Customs are traditional methods of doing things that are unique to the culture they’re in. This includes manners, etiquette, and shared habits. The US has a custom of giving people presents on their birthday, for instance.
Japanese Manners You Should Know
Manners are one of the most important things to learn when entering a new country! Simple things like please and thank you can make your life much easier and make those around you happier. Showing that you know what’s expected of you can raise others' perceptions of you and indicate you’re a responsible, trustable person. Here are a few manner rules to get you started, besides your pleases and thank yous.
The Japanese language is famous for placing emphasis on politeness. If you know any Japanese you’ll know that there are four basic levels of politeness. When in doubt you should stick to the default desu-masu forms, but what level you should use depends on who you’re talking with. Pay close attention to the language of those around you to help you figure out when to use what.
customer service, extremely formal situations
strangers, superiors, older people
coworkers, juniors, younger people
Do you lack confidence in casual speech? Check out our article on Japanese slang!
How to address people
Even in English it’s rude to point at someone and say “you over there!” So how do you address people in Japanese? Well first of all, pointing in general is considered very rude in Japanese society so you should avoid doing that. If you need to point at something to illustrate your point, try using a flat, open hand instead to soften it.
Second, stick to last names unless you’re given permission to use their first name. Family names come before personal names in Japanese but many Japanese people are aware of foreign customs and will rearrange their name for you. If you’re not sure which name is their family name, listen to what other people are calling them. If this still doesn’t work, a quick internet search will usually reveal enough “name origin” sites that you can tell.
To learn more about addressing people in business situations, scroll down to the business customs section!
Japanese customs : Suffixes
It’s rude to say someone’s name without tacking on a suffix! There are a bunch of more esoteric ones, but here’s a cheat sheet to the ones you’ll be hearing.
default, use this one unless told otherwise
respectful, you’ll hear customers called okyaku-sama (customer-sama)
used for students or subordinates or between younger people, usually referring to men
diminutive, used for young children and pets or between friends
senior, used for people who’ve been doing something longer
used for teachers, doctors, and authors
Satō-san, hima desu ka
Mr/s. Satō, are you free?
Japanese customs : Bowing
A lot of people get nervous about Japanese bowing because it seems so complicated, but you shouldn’t stress about it. Generally, stick to bowing lower towards higher ranking people but be careful not to seem like a tryhard. Match the greeting bows you’re given. Stay crisp and neat and people will understand.
There are many good videos on YouTube if you need a visual!
If you speak even one word of Japanese you’ll get tons of compliments on your pronunciation and speech, so be prepared to deal with this! In Japan, it’s considered arrogant to thank someone for a compliment or agree with them. Instead, you should humbly deflect it. If they still insist, play the “you’re too kind” card. If you play it off for too long it becomes annoying, so know when to quit.
“Your Japanese is so good!”
Respond with: “Oh no, I still have a lot to learn.” “I was lucky to have a good teacher.”
“Your watch is very nice!”
Respond with: “Oh this? No, it’s a cheap thing.” “You’re too kind.”
How to behave in public spaces
It’s important not to get in others’ way when you’re in a public area. Be aware of your body space and belongings so you’re not blocking anyone’s path. Blowing your nose is very rude in Japan, so if you feel a sneeze incoming find a public restroom. Refrain from speaking loudly or yelling. Reserve tobacco use to restricted smoking zones. Smoking is quite common in Japan so many restaurants and offices have designated smoking areas. Eating while walking will get you strange looks, so find a place to sit down if you’re grabbing a snack.
If you’re lost, try finding someone official to ask for directions. Japan’s ubiquitous train stations usually have an attendant there who can give directions, even if you’re not traveling by train.
Japanese customs : How to dodge awkward questions
As any world traveler knows, you will inevitably be faced with an ill-informed question about your home country or be asked a political question you don’t want to get involved with. Don’t tell them their question was stupid or get defensive, just use this handy little phrase to change the subject. No need to elaborate, they’ll get that you don’t want to talk about it.
Sore wa chotto…
That’s a bit…
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Customs in Japanese Homes
Here are some handy things to learn if you’re visiting someone else’s home or if you want to live in Japan yourself. Japanese houses differ from Western homes in both exterior decoration and interior layout, so you can’t assume things are the same.
Omiyage (souvenirs) are a vital Japanese tradition! When you go over to someone’s house, you always bring a small gift with you to thank your host for having you over. Don’t bring expensive items to show off with or cheap keychains that will soon be discarded. Flowers are also a no-no since that’s what you’d bring to a funeral. So what to give?
That’s right, you bring food, ideally a box or bag of individually wrapped items. If you’re coming from far away it’s typical to give your hosts something representative of where you came from. Many cities in Japan have local specialities that make great omiyage for their citizens to export. Pretty much everywhere has a representative food, even if you may not know it off the top of your head. Do some digging so you can humbly present something from your hometown.
But wait, you say, I ran out of omiyage from home! No worries, just find a decent snack or dessert where you are. Luggage space isn’t infinite, after all.
When do you need to give gifts?
Aside from visiting a home, you also give omiyage to your neighbors when you move into a new place and your family when you return from a trip. Your friends and even coworkers may expect omiyage as well, so keep an eye out for portable snacks when you travel. Train stations are a great place to look for these, you can find small shops inside if you realize on the way home you forgot to buy omiyage.
Entering the house
You might have heard this before, but in Japan, you take your shoes off before entering a home so you don’t track the day’s dirt inside. Japanese houses have an entry room called a genkan with cubby holes to leave your shoes in and slippers to exchange them for. Make sure you’re wearing clean socks when you leave the house so you aren’t embarrassed if you have to show them off. Those with gardens may keep outdoor slippers next to the door for you to switch into when you go outside the other entrance.
Some places like schools or tea houses will also have genkan. Students bring their own indoor shoes to wear during the school day and switch back when they head home. Private bathrooms may come with their own set of slippers. Cleanliness is important in Japan!
Cleaning a Japanese house
Make sure your house is clean before inviting any guests over! There’s nothing more embarrassing than a messy room. You should also give your home a deep clean before New Year’s Eve. Remember, not every home will have the kind of appliances you’re used to. People in Japan often hang their clothes up to dry outside instead of investing in a dryer. You can see clothes hanging from apartment balconies.
On that note, bathing is considered an essential part of Japan. Baths are unfailingly taken every evening. It’s customary to clean yourself off before entering the tub. Many people shower in order to get in the bath. At its core, baths are for relaxing, not cleaning yourself.
Scroll down to our onsen section for customs at public baths.
Tatami room rules
If you’re lucky enough to have a tatami floor, remember you’ve got to treat them gently! Take off your shoes or slippers before walking on tatami and if you need to move luggage through, carry it rather than wheel it. Tatami may be beautiful but they can be difficult to maintain.
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Eating & Dining Customs in Japan
Every country has table manners, rules on what to do or not do during meals. Some customs are shared, like putting your elbows on the table being rude. Other customs are unique to Japan or simply not as common overseas. It’s important to get these right or else you’ll come off as ignorant and rude.
Showing your appreciation
Before your meal you say the itadakimasu (I’ll eat) and when you finish you say gochisōsama deshita (it was a feast). Keep these two phrases in mind and you’ll impress any Japanese host! These phrases are not religious, so there’s no reason not to show proper manners when you’re in another country. Adding to that, make sure to finish your meal. Order what you know you can finish. Taking your leftovers home in a box isn’t as common in Japan and leaving excess food tells the chef you didn’t like their food. Try and moderate yourself!
Japanese customs : Side dishes
Japanese meals tend to have side dishes and main dishes as opposed to one big meal. Don’t eat directly from these shared dishes. Instead, serve yourself a bit of everything. Don’t mix your foods, even into rice.
Japanese customs : How to use chopsticks
If you demonstrate basic proficiency with chopsticks, Japanese people will rain compliments over you as if no other country has them. While the use of chopsticks is indeed worldwide, we understand that you may not feel confident with them. It’s not as hard as it looks! Hold both sticks in your dominant hand similar to how you hold a pencil. Many disposable chopstick wrappers come with instructions.
When to use chopsticks
Contrary to popular belief, Japanese people don't use chopsticks for every meal. Western foods are typically eaten with a fork and knife. Pizza and other finger foods don’t need utensils. You might find yourself in a situation where, eager to display your chopstick skills, you’re the only one using them. While it’s true you use chopsticks to eat the contents of soup, no one is expecting you to somehow pick up liquid with sticks.
Don’t use chopsticks for anything besides eating. It’s unclean! Unless you’re making an art project, save them for the table.
Where to put chopsticks
When you go to gulp your soup down, what do you do with the chopsticks you were holding? All over Japan, you can find cute little chopstick holders in various shapes. They provide a resting spot for your chopsticks next to your plate.
The one thing you don’t want to do is shove them straight-up into your rice. This looks like the incense you’d burn at a funeral and is very ominous. It’d be like putting your food on a coffin-shaped plate.
Japanese customs : Drinking down soup
In Japanese, you use the word nomu (to drink) for soup instead of taberu (to eat). The reason is quite obvious when you enter a restaurant to find all the patrons gulping their noodles down. Slurping and drinking soup is actually more polite in Japan than quietly using a spoon!
When you’ve eaten the contents out, don’t try to stir your chopsticks in it. That looks like you’re trying to clean them in your soup, which is disgusting. Just drink everything down! Remember to pick up your bowl before you drink, as trying to do so from the table is an exercise in frustration and embarrassment. You can do this with rice too.
Passing food around
Let’s say you want a piece of that fish across the table. What do you do, reach over everyone’s arms to grab the whole thing? Of course not! Take the piece closest to you and put it down on your own plate before eating it. If you can’t reach, ask politely for someone to pass it closer. If you can’t grip something well, don’t stab it, that’s rude. Patience will take you far.
Once you’ve picked something up you can’t put it back. Chopsticks shouldn’t be used to move plates around either, they’re only for food. Never pass something to someone else using only chopsticks. Place it on their plate or a midpoint. Don’t share your chopsticks with someone else either.
Keeping chopsticks clean
Chopsticks don’t always in your dishwasher without falling through the cracks, but they definitely need cleaning. Portable chopsticks in particular get dirty very quickly. Resign yourself to washing them by hand after every meal.
How to successfully break apart disposable wooden chopsticks
Pretty much everyone’s had the experience of sitting at a restaurant trying to separate disposable wooden chopsticks apart and getting two very uneven strips of wood. There’s a trick to it, though. Push one half forward and the other backward and they should cleave evenly.
Customs at Japanese restaurants
You might think restaurants are the same everywhere, but you'd be sorely mistaken. For example, have you ever seen bowls of salt outside Japanese restaurants? Those aren’t for flavor, so don’t touch them! Salt carries the meaning of purification in the Shintō religion.
Some familiar chains may even go by different names overseas! Read this article to learn more.
Japanese customs : Wet towels
When you sit down at a restaurant you may receive a wet hand towel. These aren’t for washing your face, they’re for cleaning your hands before the meal. Don’t use them after this either, you can use your napkin.
Japanese customs : Restaurant bills in Japan
It can seem complicated trying to figure out how to do everything right and the last thing you want to mess up is money. Credit cards are not as ubiquitous in Japan so carry cash on you if you can. You place the cash on a tray they’ll provide you. If you are using a card, check first that they take it and then place it neatly on top of any bills. It’s common to split the bill, even on dates. Japanese restaurants won’t automatically split the bill for you so you’ll have to work it out with your group.
Don’t add a tip afterward, restaurant workers are paid normally in Japan and tips are not part of the customs. The only businesses in Japan that accept tips tend to be tour guide companies that are used to working with visitors.
Drinking at a Japanese restaurant
Japanese customs place a heavy emphasis on social drinking. The drinking age is twenty, so you’ll find students letting loose slightly earlier. Refusing a drink makes you seem standoffish, so if you don’t drink you should make that clear upfront as gently as possible. It might help to tag along on these excursions even if you don’t drink yourself to spend time with your friends and coworkers.
In Japan, you don’t pour your own drink. Instead people with lower status pour drinks for those above them, such as bosses or elders. Once you’re finished pouring everyone else’s drinks, someone will pour yours for you. Wait until everyone cries kanpai (cheers) before drinking.
Japanese Customs at Stores
The best way to tell a local from a tourist is how they act in supermarkets and convenience stores. Do they know where things are? Do they know how to efficiently get through interactions? We’re here to help you feel like a natural.
If you’re entering a store on a rainy day, you don’t want to swing your wet umbrella around and get water everywhere. The workers will have to clean that up. Some Japanese stores keep plastic sleeves near the door for you to shove your soaking umbrella in. You should get in the habit of carrying one around in case you find yourself without one.
Finding what you're looking for
It’s intimidating talking to a stranger, especially if you aren’t confident in your Japanese language skills. A few simple phrases will make your life much easier. Aside from the necessary arigatō (thanks), memorize this handy sentence. Simply insert whatever you’re looking for in the blank. If you don’t know the Japanese word and the clerk doesn’t understand the English word, look it up. Online translators are more reliable with single words than grammatical phrases.
___wa doko desu ka?
Where is ___?
Interested in learning more Japanese? Check out our article on basic Japanese to get started!
Just like in restaurants, you’ll be expected to place your cash in a tray for the clerk. Unfold your bills before you hand them over to make their life easier. Credit cards are not the norm in Japan so check with the clerk before using one. However, some stores allow you to make payments via your phone’s LINE app. If you are using a card, put it on top of the bills.
Confused about credit cards in Japan? We've got a guide for those too!
After your purchase
Unlike in the US where counting change is standard, in Japan it’s rude to stand there poking through your coins. Accept the change you get, thank the clerk with a nod, and get out of the way. If you bought something to eat or drink, wait until you leave the building before partaking. After all, you don’t want to get crumbs on the floor!
What to do if an employee speaks to you in English
In metropolitan areas, many Japanese people will make an effort to speak English to anyone they think is foreign. This doesn’t mean they know English. They may be simply trying to accommodate you. Sometimes store clerks will address you in English. You could play along and use English to avoid embarrassing them, or because you prefer English. That’s ok! If you’d rather the clerk used Japanese though, don’t make a big deal of it. Respond politely in Japanese or add a quick nihongo hanashimasu (I speak Japanese). This usually works, but if they keep using English you’re better off not making a scene and going with the flow.
Japanese Onsen Customs
Japan is famous for its onsen (natural hot springs). They’re said to be good for your health and they’re certainly a lot of fun. Almost anywhere you go in Japan you can find one. Onsen etiquette is often left unsaid, so we’re here to unravel it for you!
What can I bring with me into an onsen?
Unless you’re at a private onsen or were specifically told otherwise you shouldn’t have anything but a small towel with you. That includes no swimming suits, no clothing, and definitely no food or drink. It’s tempting to bring a nice cup of sake in but that’s not appropriate for public onsen. Save it for home!
Most onsen don’t allow guests with tattoos in, due to their association with organized crime. If you have a small tattoo you can hide it with skin concealer or bandages.
For tips on hiding your tats, we've found this article for you. Don't miss out on the fun!
Make sure you're going the right way
Onsen can be public and mixed-gender or separated into male and female baths. Make sure you’re going the right way before you barge in.
Before entering a bath
In Japan, bathing is for relaxation and cleaning is done beforehand. Imagine everyone getting into the water dirty! Before you go into the actual bath, you clean yourself in the shower room. Put your hair up to avoid shedding loose hairs and you’re ready to head on in!
A quick guide to onsen towels
You’ll usually get a large and small towel. It’s good to bring your own if the onsen doesn’t provide you with these.The large one is for drying yourself off when you get out. You can leave it with your clothes. You can use the smaller one to cover yourself when you get out. People tend to leave it on their head for sake-keeping. Don’t let it fall in the water, that would be unclean.
Japanese bathing manners
Once you’re in the bath, remember it’s not a public swimming pool. No running, no swimming, no dunking your head in the water! Stay polite and aware of those around you.
Getting out of the bath
Of course, that doesn’t mean you’re in a bath at home either! Even if you’re alone, don’t drain the tub. Leave the good water for the next person. The onsen might lay out a yukata for you to wear around the premises. Many have rec rooms with ping-pong tables and snacks. Enjoy yourself!
Commuting Customs in Japan
There are many ways to get around in Japan. The country is famous for its efficient railway system, but it can be difficult for a first-timer to navigate. Instead of letting yourself get overwhelmed, take it one step at a time. Put aside some time for exploration and be patient with yourself, even if you get lost. We're here to help you!
Japanese taxi customs
If you're in a hurry and you don't mind paying a little extra, the easiest way to get around is by taxi. Outside train stations and airports, there’s usually a sign where taxis line up and people are directed into them. If you’re not somewhere so convenient you can wave one down. Just like in restaurants, you don’t tip taxi drivers in Japan. They’re more likely to take a card or an app than your average store but cash-only taxis do exist so carry bills on you. The driver will open the door for you, so wait for them.
Japanese public busses
Pay at the front when you enter the bus and exit out the back. Some buses have pass scanners at the back door so you can enter that way too. Most buses require exact change. You can get around that if you have a Suica card or one of its cousins. Suica cards can be charged with money at train stations and then you swipe the card instead of buying tickets. It can save you a few yen if you’re a regular commuter.
Driving customs in Japan
Like the UK, Japanese people drive on the left side of the road. Notably, sticking to the left side on sidewalks and elevators is also a custom. People who aren’t used to this should be extra careful when driving. Even seasoned drivers can misjudge a turn and end up scraping another car. Japanese drivers like to avoid honking, so you might not even notice your mistake.
Street addresses are also different. Not all streets have names. Navigation apps can still direct you just fine, but be aware you might not see a street sign on smaller roads.
In some places in Japan, drivers at intersections switch off their headlights to avoid blinding whoever’s on the other side. If you’re in an area where this is a custom, don’t forget to switch your lights back on when you get going.
Interestingly, for such a safety-concerned country, Japan only legally requires those in the front seats of a car to wear seatbelts. In fact, some people will be offended if you buckle up in the back, as if you’re implying they’re a bad driver. This is one of those cultural differences you probably shouldn’t conform too so if someone picks a fight with you over it explain it away as being law in your country.
The Japanese subway system
Now for the most important transit system! Japan is interconnected with veins of train tracks above and below ground, ferrying millions of people every day. Once you take a proper look, it’s not nearly so overwhelming. Train stations in the big cities add English to their signs and despite seeming like a separate underground universe, it’s well organized. If you’re having trouble figuring out how to get to your destination, ask a station attendant for help. They have maps on hand and can show you the fastest (or cheapest) way to get where you’re going.
For an idea of how complex train maps can get, Japan Rail has the most populous cities diagrammed online.
Navigating Japanese train stations
Anyone who’s gotten lost at Tokyo Station or switched trains at Shinjuku knows how big train stations can get. Some are whole underground city blocks, complete with countless entrances and exits, restaurants, convenience stores, and coffee stands. Stay calm and follow signs marked 口 (entrance/exit) to get out. There will be arrows leading to the numbered platforms where trains stop to switch up their passengers. Stations can be very crowded so stick to walking on the left side of the hall and escalators.
Be polite to your fellow passengers
Don’t take up multiple seats, put any between your feet or in the overhead racks. Keep respectfully quiet to avoid bothering others. It’s ok to chat with your friends but yelling or taking phone calls is rude. Trains often have no phone signs. Eating on the train isn’t allowed either. Anything that forces strangers to deal with your noise and/or mess is inconsiderate, so keep your surroundings in mind!
Escalators & elevators
People on escalators will stick to the left and allow those who are in a hurry to run up the right side. In Osaka, the sides are switched. Elevators should be reserved for those who need them. If you’re standing next to the buttons it’s your job to ask where people are going and press the buttons.
Japanese Business Customs
Are you working at a Japanese company and confused about the work customs? Every country and every industry does things differently, so we’ve compiled a list of customs you should keep in mind when you're working in Japan.
Not there yet? We've got a whole lot of articles on finding jobs in Japan if you need help!
It’s important in Japanese customs to greet people properly. In fact, self-introductions and greeting are so important in Japan that the Japanese language has a whole word for them - jikoshōkai. Here are a few words and phrases to get you started:
初めまして (hajimemashite) means “nice to meet you”. The word hajime means “beginning”.
よろしくお願いします (yoroshiku onegaishimasu) is hard to translate, but approximates to “I ask for your good favor”. This is the Japanese way of politely apologizing beforehand that you might be troubling this person in the future. Of course at this point, no one actually is apologizing when they say this, it’s just something you say when you meet people. Although it can be casually shortened to yoroshiku, that form comes off as rude or rough.
When used alone, onegaishimasu (I’m asking a favor) means “please” and is something you say when a coworker says they’ll take care of a project or you’re asking a friend to help you out.
Hajimemashite, Smith to mōshimasu. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.
Nice to meet you, I’m called Smith. Please take care of me.
おはようございます (ohayō gozaimasu) means “good morning”. If you’re feeling casual, you can drop the gozaimasu and keep the meaning. Don’t do this at work unless everyone else is.
こんにちは (konnichiwa) means “good afternoon” and is the default greeting if for any reason the time is in question. This will happen if you’re in another timezone or sending a message you don’t expect to be immediately received.
こんばんわ (konbanwa) means “good evening”. It’s similar to konnichiwa but switches nichi (day) for ban (evening).
Check out our series on learning basic Japanese if you’d like to go further in your studies!
Pleases and thank yous
In Japanese business settings, you are expected to continually thank everyone and enhance team unity. You’ll also need to know how to apologize. Everyone makes mistakes, but recovering gracefully is a mark of character.
どうもありがとうございます (dōmo arigatō gozaimasu) is the politest way to thank someone. You can safely say it without the dōmo and still be polite, but if you use either dōmo or arigatō alone you’re being a little too casual for a professional environment.
すみません (sumimasen) means “excuse me” and is a good formal apology for any situation. You an use it when apologizing for a mistake or when you just bumped into someone.
お世話になります (osewa ni narimasu) means “I’ll be in your care”. If you’re troubling someone or they’re doing you a favor, be self-aware and thank them for taking care of you. This is a good phrase to say to coworkers or bosses who are teaching you things.
頼りにします (tayori ni shimasu) means “I’m relying on you”. A boss might say this to an employee who’s going to a negotiation. You can say this to a coworker who’s helping you out.
お疲れ様です (otsukaresama desu) means “thanks for the hard work”. It comes from the word tsukare (exhaustion). Coworkers may say this to you when you’re done for the day or completed a large task.
ご苦労様 (gokurōsama) is the same but used by a boss to their employees.
お先に失礼します (osaki ni shitsurei shimasu) means “I’ll be rudely leaving before you”. Everyone says this when they leave the building unless they’re the last one. It acknowledges the hard work of the people who are still hard at work.
Exchanging business cards
Meishi (business cards) are a vital aspect of Japanese business customs. Make sure you’re always carrying some just in case. Keeping them in your pants pocket is frowned on, so grab a cardholder at the airport or a convenience store. Make sure they’re perfectly clean and crisp. If you work for an international company, include Japanese and English versions of the information on opposite sides and present the Japanese side facing upward.
You’ll want to hold it with both hands, letters readable to the receiver and not the giver, when you present it. Your partner will also present theirs. Traditionally the lower-ranking person would put their card lower, but that’s falling out of practice. Hold yours in your left hand while you take theirs with your right. Read it to show interest and then either place it in front of you if you’re sitting or store it in your card case if you’re standing. If you’re in a meeting it’s polite to put the card away once the discussion starts winding down but before it’s over, since you don’t want to appear to have forgotten it.
Body contact is not prevalent in Japanese customs. While some Japanese people have adopted foreign customs such as shaking hands, others will exchange bows. It’s best practice to wait for the other person to offer a hand before trying to shake it. Casual touches like patting someone on the back or placing a hand on their shoulder are considered astonishingly forward. Save it for close friends.
LinkedIn isn't globally popular yet, so don’t be surprised if you’re asked for your Facebook. Just in case, make sure there’s nothing on there you wouldn’t want a future boss to see. No matter where you intend on working, it’s good for a quick search of your name to not reveal anything untoward.
Workplace appropriate conversation
In the US, people don’t like talking about their salaries. Similarly, there are good and bad conversation topics in Japan. Common topics include talking about family, work experience, and education. Foreigners who show measured interest in Japanese customs and history are received well, although excessive enthusiasm can be off-putting.
Inquiring after someone’s salary or financial situation isn’t necessarily polite, but people might float the question. Be prepared to answer but don’t ask yourself. You may be asked questions that you would consider rude. Whether you answer these is up to you, but answering or deflecting is better than flat-out confronting someone.
For some reason, every country has a different definition of what counts as on-time. Japan is one of the more literal ones. Always show up ten minutes early, just to be safe!
Working hours and overtime in Japan
Japan has something of a reputation for overworking employees. There are companies that under-report hours and require extensive overtime, but there are also many that comply with legal regulations and treat their workers fairly. Each company does things differently and it would be unfair to assume all businesses are trying to exploit their workers. Some companies may ask you to do regular overtime or encourage workers to stay late. If you aren’t comfortable doing that, be indirect and polite with your refusal. “I apologize, I have some things to do...” is much, much easier to take than “no I’m not doing that and you can’t make me”.
Remember, you'll get public holidays off work! Learn more about which days are public holidays!
Japanese professional attire
Japanese companies tend to have conservative dress codes. Men wear suits year-round and women wear plain skirts, although wearing pants as a woman is completely ok. Stick to subdued tones and simple patterns but avoid wearing black ties as those are for funerals. Even in industries that wear more casual attire, such as technology or entertainment, people wear dress shirts and jackets. This is especially important if it’s your first time meeting someone. Skirts are usually dark monotone and knee-length.
Shoes are surprisingly complicated to choose. It’s better to wear shoes you can slip on and off easily as you may need to switch between indoor and outdoor shoes or enter a room where no shoes are allowed. Always wear clean socks for this purpose! Japanese people wear polished black shoes and women usually wear high heels. If you’re tall it may be better to avoid high heels though, since it’s polite to not tower over your coworkers. In recent years there has been pushback around high heels so if you aren’t comfortable wearing them it should be fine.
Staying cool in the summer
Japanese salarymen wear suits year-round, impressively weathering the summer heat. When the weather starts to warm up, switch from your basic dark-colored suit to a lighter gray one. You can find dress shirts that are designed to be breathable and help with the heat. Always take off your coat when entering the building, even if you have to carry it around for a while.
Jewelry and other accessories should be limited and tasteful. Looking flashy does not equal looking professional. In Japan, tattoos have connotations of lawlessness and violence. If you have a tattoo, cover up before heading to work. There’s no helping what’s already been done but if you’re looking to get a new tattoo, try to put it somewhere you can hide it. Those with long hair are expected to pull it back. Leaving hair longer than shoulder-length untied is considered unprofessional. Some schools go as far as including a list of pre-approved hairstyles for their students!
Japanese customs for business meetings
It depends on the company, but many Japanese corporations use staff meetings as chances to report statuses rather than idea-gathering discussions. Make sure you know the purpose of a gathering and what’s expected of you.
Negotiations between Japanese businesses
When meeting with people outside your company, it’s important to put your best foot forward. Japanese customs favor indirect communication, such as replying with “maybe” or “I’ll consider it” rather than “yes” or “no”. That doesn’t mean things aren’t being decided, but you might need to wait after the meeting to finalize agreements. Verbal agreements are also commonplace, so don’t worry if you didn’t get a signed contract. Stay friendly but series, avoiding jokes or metaphorical language. If you’re meeting on their turf, remember to praise their hospitality.
If you are knocking before entering the room, knock three times rather than two. Somehow it’s become a custom to knock two times on restroom doors and three times elsewhere.
Be a team player
If you are part of a team attending a meeting together, talk beforehand about what role everyone is playing. Do not decide or agree to things on your own, deliberate with your team first. The opposite side may be doing the same thing so pay attention to everyone who attends. Don’t interrupt your teammates or the other side. Wait until you’re sure they’re done before adding your input.
Japanese business customs have specific rules on where everyone sits. Everyone from the same company sits on the same side. Customers are placed furthest from the door. Sit where you are directed and if no one directs you, it’s polite to ask before finding yourself a random seat.
Just like visiting a home, visiting another business often includes bringing gifts for your host. This doesn’t always happen but if the other side brings gifts and you don’t reciprocate you’ll seem rude and entitled. If you are meeting with multiple people, bring enough gifts for everyone and set something different aside for any higher-ups.
When you are offered a gift it is polite to refuse it twice before finally accepting. Not refusing is a sign of arrogance and overdone refusals are flat-out annoying. Wait to open any packages until you’re in private so you don’t embarrass anyone if they chose poorly.
What to give
Like any other omiyage, packaged regional foods are always good. Decorative pens or small company-branded items go over well professionally, as do sample merchandise if you’re in the sort of industry that can hand your goods across a table. Foreign branded items are popular if unaffordable. Avoid flowers, many have implications you aren’t intending to give.
Drinking with your colleagues
Nomikai (drinking parties) are deeply entrenched in Japanese business customs. Your boss or coworkers may invite you out to go drinking on a regular basis. If you stick to the drinking etiquette we included in the eating customs section, you should be fine. Avoiding these nomikai too often will imply you’re not a team player, so even if you’re not fond of that sort of socializing you should make an effort to go every once in a while.
Japanese job interview customs
Wear your best suit and refresh your formal language skills! Unlike in the US where you are expected to sell yourself, overt bragging is a sign of arrogance in Japan. Thank your interviewee and remain professional.
Need more information on job interviews in Japan? Check out our article on Japanese jobs, which goes into more detail!
Don't get caught up in generalities!
Remember that all of these customs are trends and not rules. Just like every boss has a different management style, every company has different work customs. Pay attention to how your coworkers act and ask questions if you’re confused.
Japanese Dating Customs
Whether you’re interested in someone already or just searching for a partner, there are some things you’ll need to understand about Japanese customs if you want to win a heart!
Great Japanese date locations
If you want to make your partner feel special, you’ll need to set aside a whole day for them. Popular date locations include amusement parks (which are not only for kids), aquariums, festivals, fireworks shows, or even just shopping around a mall. Don’t settle for a simple lunch date, bring them somewhere they’ll remember!
Sometimes a nice day alone together is all you need. Low energy dates where you chill at home are also popular with Japanese couples.
Splitting the bill
Normally Japanese couples will split the bill for things like meals or coffee, regardless of gender. Offer to pay but let your partner flex if they’re so inclined.
Your first date will always be a little different, especially if it’s your first time meeting with someone you met online or through friends. Men will often pay for the first date, even though they intend to split the bill the next time. For adults trying to make a good impression, wear plain clothing and little make-up. People like to get a feel for their partner in their “natural” state so keep it simple. Hook-up culture carries a lot of stigma in Japan so don’t invite your partner to a hotel or even try to kiss them on a first date. Be wary of expressing enthusiastic interest, but let them know you want a repeat.
From the second date on, you can be yourself and act as you normally would!
Valentine's Day in Japan
The lovers’ holiday is alive and well in Japan, boosted by the heavy marketing of the confectionery industry. However, Japan does things a little differently. Traditionally Valentine’s Day in Japan is when girls give chocolate to boys. It’s also a great opportunity to go on a date!
There are many categories of chocolate depending on the emotion behind it. Giri choko (duty chocolate) is a girl’s obligatory gift to a neighbor, boss, coworker, classmate, or even teacher. Don’t get any ideas, it’s just duty. Some companies have implemented no gifts policies to avoid their employees from having to follow this custom.
Tomo choko (friend chocolate) is given to friends to thank them for everything they do. It’s always nice to get a present from a friend!
Trying to make friends in Japan? We've got an article on that too!
Honmei choko (true feelings chocolate) is a confession or confirmation of attraction. Girls give it to the person they like. Handmade chocolate is preferable to store-bought, but don’t worry about it if you don’t have the time or inclination to make your own.
One month later on March 14th, boys are supposed to return a gift worth three times the amount of the chocolate received to anyone who gave them chocolate on Valentine’s Day. This is a commercial invention. Common gifts include sweets like marshmallows or cookies, but it isn’t restricted to food!
Christmas in Japan
Christmas is certainly celebrated in Japan, but for the mostly non-religious population it’s a commercial holiday, not a religious one. Somehow it’s also come to be a day for lovers. Get your partner a Christmas cake and have a good time!
How to meet new people in Japan
It’s always hard to enter a new dating scene. The online platforms you’re used to may not be available or popular elsewhere.
Gōkon (mixers) are informal meet-ups between a group of guys and a group of girls with the aim of creating a couple. Oftentimes this involves going drinking together or catching lunch.
Japan’s declining birthrate and subsequent decline in marriages have a lot of people looking to find a permanent partner. The average age at first marriage is getting older, but families continue to pressure their adult children to settle down. Konkatsu (marriage hunting) parties are formal mixers organized by companies that specialize in them. They gather a bunch of marriage-seekers and shove them in a room together. You can find parties organized by age, industry, hobbies, and more.
It’s unlikely that you’ll find yourself at one, but omiai are one-on-one meetings between marriage candidates arranged by their parents. This practice is falling out of favor but is still done in more traditional households, mostly for those nearing thirty who feel pressured to find someone quickly.
How to carry a conversation
Perhaps the most important marker of chemistry is the ability to have a decent conversation. If you’re struggling to find topics, mention the location of your date, ask about family, or talk about non-offensive things like your hometown.
Dating with language barriers
If you speak a different language, stay patient and talk through misunderstandings. Firm refusals to learn your partner’s language means you probably aren’t compatible, but don’t expect sudden fluency from each other.
Conversely, don’t assume that a conflict is coming from a cultural or linguistic difference. People are ultimately individuals. If you are concerned about your partner’s behavior, talk with your friends about it.
Aiming to improve your spoken Japanese? We've got some tips to help you out!
Call them by their name
You can find a lot of Japanese tutorials online that talk about the many words for “you”. Do not use the words kimi or anata towards your partner unless you’re married. Use their name. Even using a first name can be deeply personal, so wait until the right moment to make the leap.
So you’re chatting with someone interesting and they suddenly ask your blood type. What’s up with that? Just like how some people in the US talk about star sign compatibility, Japan has stereotypes associated with blood types. You might get a funny look if you don’t know what yours is.
There's a whole anime of shorts based on the stereotypes called Ketsuekigata-kun (Blood Type-kun) if you're curious and have time to spare. You can find it online with English subtitles with a basic search.
Japanese customs for expressing affection
People in Japan don’t throw around the L-word as easily. While in the US people freely tell their friends they love them, Japanese doesn’t have a single word that encompasses all the types of love. People value their privacy and contain themselves in front of others, and those in relationships already assume you love them and don’t need to repeat it all the time. Let’s say you want to let someone know you love them anyway. What should you do?
You’ll find the word kokuhaku (confession) all over romance manga and J-dramas. The quintessential scene of finding a love letter in your shoebox, meeting after school on the roof or in a courtyard, the stuttered “I like you” and the nervous silence before getting a response, all of this is not simply a story trope.
It’s not reserved for anxious teens, either! If you’re interested in going out with someone they may not realize that, even if you invite them on what you’d consider a date. You have to make it clear, either by saying suki desu (I like you) or asking if they want to be your dating partner. Once both sides have confirmed their interest, then dating can begin.
Japan isn’t big on touch. Couples generally don’t go further than holding hands outside and hugs are rare. PDA (public displays of affection) is not the way to go in Japan. Many Japanese people consider that sort of thing to be private, plus it’s rude to involve the general populace in your love life. Don’t be surprised if it takes a few dates before you get a good kiss.
How to say "I love you"
Japanese couples don’t say this to each other often. Why constantly repeat it, was it in doubt? In Japan, you express your love through gifts, favors, or general kindness. Nevertheless, here are a few ways to do so if you absolutely insist on knowing.
好きです (suki desu) means “I like you”. Upgrade that to 大好きです (daisuki desu) and you get “I really like you”. Both of these can also be used for loving objects or friends, though. 愛しています (ai shite imasu) means “I’m in love with you” but again, people in Japan don’t generally use words for this.
Japanese marriage customs
Only about half of all Japanese couples live together before getting married. Since a lot of Japanese adult dating is really marriage-searching, people may express a desire for a steady progression towards marriage even at the first date. Keep this in mind as you search for a partner.
Here's a website that can help on the VISA side of things if you're planning on getting married.
If you've been invited to a wedding, dress up and bring an envelope of money to congratulate the happy couple! The standard amount is ¥30,000, and you'll receive a thank-you gift in return. Avoid even numbers; ¥20,000 and ¥40,000 are especially unlucky.
Japanese Customs for Meeting Your In-laws
When your partner offers to introduce you to their parents, that’s a sign things are getting serious. It’s vital that you make a good impression for your future in-laws! Show off all the manners and etiquette you’ve learned from the rest of this article and dazzle them with your understanding of Japanese customs.
Talk to your partner about what you’ll be doing. Ask them what their parents are like. If you have language barriers and your partner will be translating, talk about it beforehand.
Remember your manners
You've spent this whole article learning proper Japanese manners, so don't forget them when they count! Leave your shoes in the genkan and grab a pair of slippers. Use polite language and address them by last name-san unless they insist otherwise. Thank them for having you and compliment their home, then apologize for any inconvenience you’ve caused. Be patient, don’t interrupt them, show interest, and laugh at their jokes.
You've got this!
Bring a gift
Getting tired of omiyage yet? It doesn’t matter because you’re not escaping them! Bring something to give to the parents, preferably from your hometown. Go reread our omiyage section if you need help!
Match what the parents are doing. If they offer a hand, shake it. If they bow at you, bow back a bit lower. Introduce yourself clearly with your name, age, and profession. Even if you aren’t a fluent Japanese speaker, putting in the effort to at least memorize an introduction will impress the folks.
Avoid silly jokes or metaphors you’re not sure will translate. Answer their questions properly but let them control the conversation. Ask about the decoration if you run out of topics. Showing interest in their lives will assure them you care about the meeting going well. Try and deflect any praise received but don’t get defensive if they casually insult you or your partner. It’s part of the humility custom and not an actual attack unless your partner looks extremely upset. Thank and praise both your partner and their parents, although it’s important to keep it balanced and not become so admiring that it’s annoying.
Sharing dinner with your Japanese in-laws
If your hosts are feeding you, assure them the meal was delicious. Remember to say itadakimasu (before meal) and gochisōsama deshita (after meal). Try a moderate portion of every dish, unless you’re allergic. They’ll notice if you’re being picky! If you keep asking for seconds, though, you’ll become obnoxious. If the meal was not enough for you, just hang on until you get home.
Most importantly, keep in mind that if you are truly looking towards marriage, these are your potential family members. Show them respect and show them you’re serious about doing whatever it takes to have a harmonious family. You owe your partner that much. Finally, every family is different and most people will understand you don’t know all of Japanese society’s rules, so don’t worry too much if you mess up. It may be that all of these manners prove unnecessary, but by displaying your dedication to learning anyway, you will impress them.
How to Improve Your Japanese Manners
The best way to improve is always practice, practice, practice. Ask your Japanese friends and coworkers to let you know if you make a mistake. Observe the behaviors of those around you, but don’t imitate everything you see unless you understand the reasoning behind it. Otherwise, you might end up adopting a mannerism that was actually just one person’s personal habit.
If you're the type who learns by watching, our article on Japanese listening has plenty of resources that will help you learn both language and culture!
Manners are essential for proper integration into any culture. Not only does acting properly show you respect the culture and its people, but it also says you have a desire to learn and constantly improve yourself. As long as you are making an attempt, minor mistakes will be swept under the rug. It may seem overwhelming to read such a long list of rules, but if you learn them one by one, slowly you’ll become a master. So keep trying your best!