A Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Etiquette
Everyone should visit Japan to see how the country’s history influences its contemporary cultural landscape. For example, the 1400-year-old Seno-ji shrine – which attracts over 30 million visitors a year – is located on the outskirts of Tokyo, one of the most modern cities in the world. As ancient customs influence the people of Japan in many ways, visitors to the Land of the Rising Sun would do well to learn the traditions of Japanese etiquette if they want to blend in! With this beginner’s crash course in Japanese social graces, you’ll be on your way to impressing locals with your good manners!
Don’t Forget to Bow!
Bowing is an important Japanese social custom, and demonstrates gratitude and respect. Depth and duration can affect the meaning of a bow. It’s a complex social ritual, and one that visitors to Japan aren’t expected to fully understand, so don’t give yourself vertigo by bowing deeply to everyone you meet! When you meet someone, express thanks, or say goodbye, a slight nod of the head should suffice. Additionally, most Japanese greet foreigners with a handshake, though it’s polite to wait for the other party to offer their hand first before participating.
Go Ahead, Take Off Your Shoes
If you enjoy walking around all day in your socks, you’re going to LOVE Japan! You’re expected to remove your shoes before entering a private home or a shrine, and some hotels, restaurants, and hostels require this of guests. If you notice a line or a rack of shoes by the door, take off those sneakers! (You probably won’t miss them anyway). Sometimes you’ll be offered a pair of slippers to wear inside, but they won’t always fit your feet. Therefore, consider bringing a pair of non-skid slippers with you during your trip to Japan, as wearing your own pair inside a residence or business is totally appropriate. There are exceptions to this, however – you should never wear slippers (or any other footwear) on tatami mats, a common flooring material in Japanese homes and tea rooms.
Yes, You Can Slurp Your Noodles
In Japan, slurping noodles is actively encouraged! Slurping noodles shows that you appreciate your meal, and helps to enhance the flavors of your dish. If you feel embarrassed about the practice, the sight of diners noisily guzzling their ramen, udon, or soba should put you at ease during your visit to a noodle restaurant.
Be Shrine Savvy
Familiarizing yourself with shrine etiquette increases the likelihood that your visit to a Japanese place of worship will be a truly unforgettable experience. Shrines are associated with the Shinto religion, which originated in Japan, and revolves around the worship of ancestors and nature spirits. All shrines have a torii gate, a large frame made of stone or wood that forms a boundary between holy ground and the spiritual world, and are seen as a residence for divine beings, called kami. Since you’re essentially stepping into the house of a god, showing respect through proper etiquette is important!
It’s polite to bow before entering the torii gate. As you enter, walk to the side of the gate, as the center of the path is meant for the deity of the shrine. Once inside, you’ll perform the misogi ritual at the temiyuza water pavilion, washing your hands and mouth to purify your mind and body. When you reach the altar, you’ll throw an offering coin into the saisenbako box. After a series of bows and claps that signify your appreciation for the deity, you can begin your prayer.
These are a few tips that you can use to begin acclimating to Japanese social customs. Demonstrating foreign rules of etiquette shows respect for the citizens and traditions of another country, but don’t let the learning process intimidate you. No one expects you to be intimately familiar with the rules of another culture. Making mistakes is understandable, though hopefully this guide will help you start off on the right foot in Japan. If you’d like to learn more about Japanese social etiquette, click the links below:
- Lonely Planet: A wonderful etiquette guide for first-timers visiting Japan.
- Into Japan: Simple etiquette guides from Japan’s National Tourism Organization.
- Japan Guide: Easy to read information on everything Japan, including social customs.
- Matcha: A web magazine for travelers to Japan! Features countless articles, and information about multiple cities.
About the author:
Dana Silverman credits her passion for travel to Girl Scouts, which provided her with amazing opportunities to attend summer camps throughout the United States during her childhood. She’s lived in Australia and New Zealand, and she’s planning a trip to Japan around her appreciation for the country’s cuisine and temples.