16 Things We’re Used to That Are Unacceptable in Japan

9 months ago

Japan’s intricate web of social conventions and behavioral norms can perplex first-time visitors, who often stand out due to seemingly minor cultural blunders. While the Japanese tend to be understanding of well-intentioned tourists inadvertently breaching their etiquette, it’s better to familiarize oneself with these nuances to avoid any misunderstandings.

1. Avoid picking up items dropped by someone on the street.

In Japan, the culture strongly emphasizes respecting lost items such as scarves, sunglasses, or children’s toys. While a well-meaning tourist might consider picking up such items to help locate their owner, it’s generally best not to do so. Instead, the most considerate approach is to move the item to a more visible location, making it easier for the owner to spot when they return to retrieve it. Valuable items, on the other hand, can be taken to the nearest police station.

2. It is not common to show shoulders in Japan.

CHRISTOPHE SIMON / AFP / East News, © metamorworks / Shutterstock.com

In Japan, dressing modestly is a norm, and women, particularly adults, tend to cover their shoulders and midriffs, even in warm weather. This includes using umbrellas and donning long gloves for sun protection. Consequently, tourists wearing revealing attire may raise eyebrows among the locals. It’s noteworthy that younger Japanese girls sometimes deviate from this custom and opt for shorter skirts and shorts, even during colder seasons.

3. Expect that you won’t be able to eat in silence.

In Japanese dining culture, a distinct preference exists for meals to be accompanied by a certain level of ambient noise. The host may switch on the TV or music in a quiet, empty restaurant. This might seem unusual to foreigners accustomed to silent, contemplative meals, as Western culture often associates eating in silence with good manners.

4. However, the Japanese generally do not appreciate loud conversations.

To avoid being seen as an ill-mannered tourist, it’s advisable not to engage in loud conversations or excessive gestures, as some Japanese individuals perceive foreigners as being too noisy. When using public transportation, especially if there are only a few passengers, it’s best to refrain from talking on the phone or, if necessary, do so discreetly by turning away or covering the conversation. These etiquette guidelines extend beyond public areas as well.

  • I don’t go to sleep until 7 AM because I work according to the Moscow time zone, but I am a tranquil and polite person: I don’t listen to music, don’t watch TV series at a loud volume, and don’t do yoga at 3 AM, But! If I get up to walk to the toilet at night, my neighbor starts to shout at me through the wall. The issue is in Japanese builders and houses, where even a deep sigh can be heard. © mariiarichard / Instagram

5. Foreigners think about their posture less.

Japanese locals often have a keen eye for identifying foreigners, and one distinguishing characteristic they commonly notice is their posture. They use the term “cat’s back” or refer to it as slouching, in simpler terms. This is a noticeable trait for the Japanese because they typically prioritize maintaining an upright and attentive posture, seldom indulging in slouching themselves.

6. You don’t open taxi doors by yourself.

Tourists can find catching a taxi in Japan a bit perplexing due to distinct local customs that contrast with what they’re accustomed to. When hailing a taxi here, it’s essential to raise your arm high instead of extending it to the side, a departure from the usual practice in many other places. Additionally, it’s crucial not to touch the car door because, in Japan, it’s the driver’s responsibility to open it for passengers, ensuring a courteous and seamless experience.

7. Perfume is less commonly used by the Japanese.

In Japan, people have a heightened sensitivity to scents, and as a result, they often consider perfumes to be overpowering. According to Franco Wright, the founder of a perfume boutique, some Japanese individuals might even interpret strong scents as offensive. For locals, the most appreciated fragrance is the absence of any scent.

The perfume market in Japan remains relatively limited, with only a handful of options available in cosmetics stores. Local brands primarily offer fragrances that evoke a sense of cleanliness, resembling the freshness of a recently washed body, hair, and laundered clothes.

8. In Japan, it is not a customary practice to leave tips.

Japan has a clear norm against tipping, especially in restaurants, cafes, taxis, and hotels. Japanese service providers take pride in delivering their best service and don’t anticipate or appreciate additional incentives like tips, which might even be considered impolite. Instead, a simple, polite “thank you” suffices.

However, guides accustomed to tourists from tipping cultures typically don’t decline tips, although they don’t actively seek them either. Additionally, it’s important to note that handing money directly to someone in Japan is not customary. Instead, it’s advisable to prepare cash in an envelope beforehand or use the designated tray available in most shops. Counting money in front of the seller is also considered impolite.

9. You better avoid eating or drinking in public places.

© iakovenko123 / Depositphotos.com, KELA / Broadimage / Broad Image / EAST NEWS

While not explicitly prohibited, eating in public, especially if the food is packaged, isn’t particularly encouraged in Japan. The Japanese culture places a high value on cleanliness, which leads to concerns about whether individuals will responsibly dispose of their trash after eating.

It’s worth noting that this custom has recently become less stringent, with younger Japanese people occasionally indulging in on-the-go snacks. However, they tend to do so discreetly and avoid consuming food in crowded or congested areas.

10. It’s common to hide tattoos in Japan.

zz / Doug Peters / STAR MAX / IPx / Associated Press / East News

Tattoos in Japan are less common compared to other parts of the world. Those who have them often conceal them with clothing or special accessories like bands and elastic stockings when going to work or public places.

For tourists, having a tattoo in Japan can present some challenges. It may restrict access to swimming pools, spas, gyms, or traditional Japanese baths. However, displaying a tattoo in public settings like streets, subways, or restaurants is generally met with admiration from locals.

11. You’re supposed to remove your shoes even in public toilets.

In Japan, removing your shoes before entering someone’s home is customary. This practice is rooted in the Japanese perception of cleanliness, where spaces are categorized as “clean” or “dirty.” The entire house, except the toilet, falls into the “clean” category. To avoid guests carrying their outdoor shoes from the porch to the bathroom, the Japanese have introduced special slippers for the “dirty” areas.

These toilet slippers can be found in private homes, restaurants, and hotels. They serve a practical purpose by indicating whether the restroom is occupied or not. Additionally, they help the Japanese identify tourists who occasionally forget to remove them when leaving the restroom, which can lead to a somewhat confusing situation.

12. Don’t extend your arm when meeting people.

In Japan, tourists often find themselves unsure about how to greet people. Japanese culture generally disapproves of close body contact, so avoiding touching, hugging, or patting anyone on the back is important. A handshake is a somewhat acceptable form of physical contact, but it’s best to wait for a Japanese person to initiate it. Otherwise, a polite bow is a safe and respectful way to greet someone.

13. It’s considered inappropriate to honk.

In Japan, two of the most prized virtues are patience and politeness, and these values are upheld even in traffic. It’s considered a social norm to exercise patience while navigating through traffic and refrain from disrupting fellow drivers with the jarring noise of loud horn honking. This cultural emphasis on maintaining a serene and harmonious coexistence on the roads underscores the significance of these principles in Japanese society and daily life.

14. In Japan, it is not a common practice to openly express your attention toward the opposite sex.

In Japanese culture, there is still a noticeable gender divide. Friendships between men and women, especially when one has a romantic partner, are uncommon.

  • One of the biggest shocks I experienced was the general relationship between men and women. Past a certain age (8–9), boys and girls seem to be embarrassed by the presence of individuals of the opposite sex. An illustration is how, in any “circle” or “club activity” I’ve been to, even among adults, men and women end up being naturally “separated,” with men on one side and women on the other. Any attempt to speak to the other side is met with giggles and jokes like “Wow, such a womanizer.” Don’t people believe in friendship between men and women here? © Olivier Tarteaut / Quora

15. It’s generally acceptable not to give up your public transport seat.

Odd as it may seem, the Japanese don’t offer their seats to others in subways, buses, or trains. Some may even find it offensive, as it can be seen as highlighting someone’s weakness. It’s essential to note that each train car has seats designated for elderly and disabled passengers, which are prioritized for those who genuinely need them.

16. Pointing at something is regarded as a sign of aggression or rudeness.

When seeking directions, it’s crucial to remember a specific cultural custom: refrain from pointing. In Japanese etiquette, pointing is perceived as a potentially aggressive or impolite gesture. Instead, you can use your entire hand to indicate directions or, even better, rely on verbal communication. So, the next time you need assistance in Japan, remember the importance of keeping your fingers from pointing and opt for a more culturally sensitive means of communication.

Many tourists unfamiliar with Japanese culture are often surprised or taken aback by various aspects, such as vending machines selling vegetables and fruits or a unique basket for your bag at restaurants.

Preview photo credit CHRISTOPHE SIMON / AFP / East News, KELA / Broadimage / Broad Image / EAST NEWS, zz / Doug Peters / STAR MAX / IPx / Associated Press / East News


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