Further to my earlier post on etiquette in restaurants, izakayas, udonyas and bakeries in Japan, I thought it might also be useful for those of you who are planning a trip/move to Japan to list a handful of other, more general observations about expected behaviour in Japan outside of the restaurant scene – i.e. in general public areas.
In Japan, escalators are used in an extremely orderly manner. If you are in Osaka you need to stand on the right and let people in a rush walk past you by overtaking you on the left. Everywhere else in Japan the roles are reversed. That is, in places like Kyoto, Hiroshima, Tokyo and Nara you will have to stand on the left and let people overtake you on the right.
The reason for this difference between Osaka and the rest of the country seems to be that people in Osaka are proud to be from Osaka (and a little crazy, in a funny and endearing way) and like to do their own thing. Consequently, they seem to make a deliberate effort not to follow the general rules in the rest of Japan.
Train journeys are generally very quiet in Japan. Music or loud chatting will result in people giving you the evil eye (albeit in a subtle way). Talking on your mobile phone on the train is considered extremely rude to the point that the conductor might come and tell you to zip it. However, you can text. And you can listen to music or play games on your phone as long as you wear headphones.
Getting on and off a train is strictly orchestrated. This is how you do it:
When waiting on a platform for a train, you need to form two lines at designated spots on the platform (which indicate the train carriage and door in which you’ll enter if you queue there). When the train arrives, the two-by-two queue separates and forms one queue on each side of the train doors. Don’t rush in (no Japanese person would jump the queue so you don’t need to either)! Let the people on the train get out first in the space in-between the two queues. Once the people on the train have got off, the two queues can start entering the train in an orderly fashion.
If you use the bus, you do so in the opposite way from how you might in many other countries. That is, you go in through the doors at the back of the bus, leave the bus via the front door and pay for your journey on exit.
Most taxi drivers (at least outside Tokyo) do not speak English, so it’s useful to have the address of your destination written down in Japanese. The easiest way to do this is to print out your hotel’s address and telephone number (many sat-navs use the destination landline number to locate the place) and show the print-out to the taxi driver.
You should sit at the back, but when you get in/out of the taxi, don’t touch the door – the driver won’t like it. He opens the door by using a button/lever on the dashboard so wait for him to do it.
If there is a Torii (a gate at the entrance of the temple/shrine), you should bow before you walk through it. Also, you should not walk through the middle of the gate as that’s reserved for the gods. Instead, walk through the gate but slightly off the centre.
When visiting a temple, you will see one of these:
These are used to wash your hands before you enter the temple area. You should go, scoop some water and pour it on to your hands. However, because the function of this is to clean yourself, make sure that you do not wash your hands over the clean water container. The dirty water from your hands should fall on the ground (or usually there is a drainage system that will get rid of the dirty water).
If you are at the temple to pray, you should donate some money. The procedure for that is: when you are at the altar:
2) throw money in a box you see in front of you
3) ring bell hanging from the ceiling
4) clap hands twice to wake up the gods
6) bow again
(6) Hand towels
Many Japanese toilets do not have hand dryers or paper towels, so you should buy a small hand towel (sold in all department stores and corner shops e.g. 7-Elevens) and carry it with you. If want to read more about how to use Japanese toilets click here.
Given that Japan is a collective society, the Japanese frown upon you inflicting your illness on others. So, when ill, using surgical-masks is a must especially if you are planning to go into heavily populated public areas (e.g. the train). It’s also worth knowing that blowing your nose in public is considered rude (while e.g. in Finland it is completely normal).
(8) No eating while walking
Having your lunch/snack so to speak on the go is considered bad manners, as is smoking while walking (as you may burn your fellow pedestrians with your cigarette butt). You need to stop, stand by the side of the pavement and have your sandwich or cigarette.
(9) Don’t drop rubbish on the floor
I assume you wouldn’t deliberately throw rubbish on the ground anyway, but if you accidentally drop something (indoors or outdoors), pick it up. Slightly inconveniently, there aren’t many public dustbins around and you might need to put whatever it is you want to throw in the rubbish in your pocket until you get back home or find the closest bin some three miles away (even if it is a half-eaten Chinese pork bun or some slimy and rather stinky fermented beans known as natto that you accidentally bought in your 7-Eleven maki roll).
If you hire a car in Japan it is useful to remember that the convention is that you need to reverse into a parking space. If you drive head first into a supermarket car park space instead of reversing in it, you can be sure that while you are doing your shopping, everyone walking past your car will know it was parked by a foreigner. So, depending on your preferences (blend in or send an overt message that there’s a Westerner here) you can choose a style of parking that best suits your personality.
Most little shops, restaurants or izakayas do not accept credit/debit cards. Not only do little shops not accept cards, but not all cashpoints accept all cards either. So make sure you always have cash on you. Luckily, Japan is one of the safest countries in the world in terms of crime stats, so I used to frequently carry quite a lot of cash on me (something I would never do in England).
When paying, take your time. In Japan is it acceptable to rummage through your purse or pocket to find the change even if it means that the shop assistant or the people in the queue had to wait for a few seconds longer. I guess this is to do with the fact that in Japan precision and doing things thoroughly are desirable values.
Bowing is a big part of the culture of Japan. The depth and length of a bow depends on the context and how polite you want to be. The basic rule seems to be that if you are apologising you need to bow deeper. Greeting bows are generally quite light and brief even if addressing a person who is your superior. I can reveal that after 3 years of expat life in Japan I am still oblivious to the nuances of bowing, that is, I’m not quite sure when, for how long or how deep I need to bow in most contexts. Luckily, the Japanese forgive foreigners for these types of cultural mistakes (which to them are as clear as it is to British house party thrower that ‘I’ll try to make it to your party’ means that you can cross out the speaker’s name of the list of people attending the party).
The main point I think is that as long as you try to do the right thing re bowing, you should be ok.
(13) Onsen i.e. hot springs
If in Japan you should go to an onsen. You can read about my experiences of hot springs and my advice on behaviour in those here. But in short,
- you go into the hot spring naked
- no tattoos are allowed
- you need to wash yourself in the shower area before going in the hot spring
- no swimming or splashing in the hot spring.
If it is raining, pretty much all Japanese people will have an umbrella (they don’t understand the British just-put-your-hood-up-approach). Not having an umbrella when it rains would send a message to your fellow pedestrians that you are a sloppy, forgetful type of person with zero planning skills.
If you did remember to check the weather forecast and bring your umbrella, if it is wet and you go into a shop/restaurant, you need to leave the umbrella outside in an umbrella-park. Alternatively, some bigger shops or organisations provide you with a plastic bag outside the shop so that you can put you umbrella in it so that you won’t drop rainwater indoors.
(15) No shoes
No outdoor shoes are allowed in homes, schools, ryokans (guest houses), hospital examination rooms or – importantly for tourists – clothes shop changing rooms. Sometimes you are asked to leave your shoes outside the changing room and sometimes they ask you to leave your shoes on a hard floor bit of the changing rooms, and not step on the carpet or wooden bit of the changing room with outdoor shoes on. In most places where you are asked to take your shoes off they will provide you with slippers so that you don’t have to walk around in your socks. But it would be advisable to always wear clean and hole-free socks in Japan as they might not stay hidden in your boots for the duration of your day.
Ok, that’s my 15 tips. I am sure there are loads of others observations that I have forgotten to mention (and tons I don’t even know) so feel free to write any of you own in the comments section below.