The code of etiquette in Japan governs the expectations of social behavior in the country and is considered very important. Like many social cultures, etiquette varies greatly depending on one’s status relative to the person in question. Many books instruct readers on its minutiae.
Some conventions may be very regional practices, and thus may not exist in all regions of Japan. Some customs have changed over the course of Japanese history. The following are generally accepted modern customs in Japan.
Bathing is an important part of the daily routine in Japan. Baths are for relaxing, and the body must be cleaned and scrubbed before entering the bathtub or furo. This is normally done at a small faucet or shower located in the same room as the tub, while seated on a small stool. A traditional Japanese bathtub is square, and deep enough that the water will cover the shoulders, but requires the bather to sit with the knees drawn up to the chest. The tub water is used to rinse the body by scooping it up with the provided scoop. Baths in Japan are for soaking and relaxing, not cleaning the body. The tub shape is smaller and deeper than is common in Western homes. Newer bathtubs are more like the western shape. Rather than being drained at the end of each bath, the water is kept warm by means of special heaters, and the same water is used by all the family members. After use, some homes take the hot bath water from the tub and use it to wash clothes in a washing machine. A lid is placed on the tub to maintain the water temperature when not in use, and to prevent evaporation. Any hair or debris is scooped from the water after the bath.
In homes with small tubs, each family member bathes one by one, in order of seniority, traditionally starting with the oldest male or the oldest person in the household (grandmother may bathe before the father of the house). If there are guests in the home, they will be given priority. In homes with larger tubs, it is not uncommon for family members to bathe together. Typically one or both parents will bathe with babies and toddlers, and even as children grow older they may still bathe with one of their parents.
Bathtubs are increasingly common in modern Japanese homes, but there are still many small and old apartments in cities that do not have bathtubs, so public bathhouses called sentō are common. A regular bathhouse will have tap water heated in a boiler. In all but the most rural areas baths are segregated by sex, and customers bathe nude, many using a small washcloth to cover the genitals. Hotels, pachinko parlors and other venues may have on-site sentō for customer use.
Patrons of traditional Japanese inns or ryokan will be offered the use of a furo for bathing, either a communal one with bathing times being scheduled in advance, or a private one.
Onsen or hot spring. Onsen are baths that by definition use naturally hot water from geothermally heated springs, sometimes outdoors. Larger onsen will have separate pools for men and women, and visitors normally bathe nude. As with home baths, all sentō and onsen bathers must rinse thoroughly before entering the communal baths. Many sentō and onsen ban customers with tattoos which are traditionally taboo, citing concerns over yakuza activity.
Bowing, is probably the feature of Japanese etiquette that is best-known outside Japan. Bowing is considered extremely important in Japan, so much so that, although children normally begin learning how to bow from a very young age, companies commonly provide training to their employees in how to execute bows correctly.
Basic bows are performed with the back straight and the hands at the sides (boys and men) or clasped in the lap (girls and women), and with the eyes down. Bows originate at the waist. Generally, the longer and deeper the bow, the stronger the emotion and the respect expressed.
Bows can be generally divided into three main types: informal, formal, and very formal. Informal bows are made at about a fifteen degree angle or just tilt over one’s head to the front, and more formal bows at about thirty degrees. Very formal bows are deeper.
The etiquette surrounding bowing, including the length and depth of bow, and the appropriate response, is exceedingly complex. For example, if the other person maintains his or her bow for longer than expected (generally about two or three seconds), it is polite to bow again, upon which one may receive another bow in return. This often leads to a long exchange of progressively lighter bows.
Generally speaking, an inferior bows longer, more deeply and more frequently than a superior. A superior addressing an inferior will generally only nod the head slightly, while some superiors may not bow at all and an inferior will bend forward slightly from the waist.
Bows of apology tend to be deeper and last longer than other types of bow. They tend to occur with frequency during the apology, generally at about 45 degrees with the head lowered and lasting for at least the count of three, sometimes longer. The depth, frequency and duration of the bow increases with the sincerity of the apology and the severity of the offense. Occasionally, in the case of apology and begging, people crouch down like to show one’s absolute submission or extreme regret. This is called Dogeza. Even though Dogeza was previously considered very formal, it is mostly regarded as a contempt for oneself today, so it is not used in an everyday setting. Bows of thanks follow the same pattern. In extreme cases a kneeling bow is performed; this bow is sometimes so deep that the forehead touches the floor. This is called saikeirei, literally “most respectful bow.”
When dealing with non-Japanese people, many Japanese will shake hands. Since many non-Japanese are familiar with the custom of bowing, this often leads to a combined bow and handshake which can be quite complicated to execute. Bows may be combined with handshakes or performed before or after shaking hands. Generally when bowing in close proximity, as necessitated when combining bowing and shaking hands, people turn slightly to one side (usually the left) to avoid bumping heads.
It is common for Japanese businesses to set out a small tray near a cash register so that customers can place their money on the tray rather than handing it directly to the cashier. If a business provides such a tray, it is a breach of etiquette to disregard the tray and instead hold out the money for the cashier to take by hand. The tray should not be confused with the Western “Take a penny, leave a penny” tray for small change.
In the event that the business does accept payments made hand to hand, one should take care to follow the broader rule, also applicable to items such as business cards and in other social contexts, that one hold an article with both hands whether giving it or receiving it.
The rationale for this broader rule is that by using both hands to hold an article, one a) demonstrates that one is handling the article with care and b) suggests that the article is worth handling with care. By handling every item in this manner whether giving or accepting it, a) when one is giving the item, one suggests that the other person’s dignity is high enough that only an item meriting such handling would befit that dignity, and b) when one is receiving the item, one suggests that the other person’s dignity is high enough that he or she would give only items meriting such handling. In turn, careless handling of an item suggests at best a pointed refusal to make such an assumption and at worst an affirmative statement to the contrary.
Eating and drinking
Meals in Japan traditionally begin with the phrase itadakimasu (literally, “I humbly receive”). The phrase is similar to “bon appétit”, or saying grace to give thanks before a meal. It is said to express gratitude for all who played a role in preparing, cultivating, ranching or hunting the food. This also acknowledges that living organisms have given their life to human beings. Upon finishing a meal, the Japanese also use the polite phrase Gochisōsama-deshita (lit. You were a Feast (preparer)). Sama is the honorific word which gives respect to the person, therefore, this phrase gives respect for making the meal. It is considered polite to clear one’s plate, down to the very last grain of rice; children are especially encouraged to do so. It is impolite to pick out certain ingredients and leave the rest. One should chew with the mouth closed.
It is acceptable to lift soup and rice bowls to the mouth so that one does not spill food. Miso soup is drunk directly from the (small) bowl, rather than with a spoon, though larger soups may come with a spoon. It is also appropriate to slurp certain foods, especially ramen or soba noodles, though this is not practiced universally – however, Western-style noodles (pasta) should not be slurped. Further, noodles from hot soup are often blown on (once lifted from the soup) to cool them down before eating.
Rice is generally eaten plain or sometimes with nori (dried-pressed seaweed) – shredded or in strips – or furikake (type of seasoning). One may also add more substantial food such as a raw egg (yielding tamago kake gohan – “egg on rice”), or nattō (fermented soy beans) – these are often added and stirred into rice at breakfast – or tsukemono (preserved vegetables). There are also, less commonly, dishes featuring rice with ingredients mixed in, either during the cooking or after the rice has been cooked.
Soy sauce. Pouring soy sauce onto plain white rice is not a Japanese custom, nor is it common to pour soy sauce directly over sashimi or sushi – pouring soy sauce on white rice would be similar to spreading ketchup on plain bread in the West. Instead, soy sauce is poured into a small dish that is provided, and the food dipped into the sauce. Furthermore, to pour an excessive amount of soy sauce into the small dish is considered greedy and wasteful. However, soy may be added as part of other dishes.
Sushi. Sushi etiquette dictates that when eating nigiri-zushi, one should dip the sushi topping-side down into the soy sauce to prevent the rice from soaking up too much sauce; leaving stray grains of rice floating in the sauce is considered uncouth, but can be hard to avoid for those who have difficulty with chopsticks. In sushi-only restaurants, it is acceptable to use fingers instead of chopsticks to eat the nigiri-zushi.
Eating at vending machines. It is uncommon for Japanese people to eat while walking around – drink vending machines in Japan generally have a recycling bin for used bottles and cans, so that one can consume the drink while standing there, rather than walking off with it, and in summer months, the practice of vendo (a group standing around a vending machine drinking) is seen. Some consider it rude to eat in public or on trains, but this is not a universally held aversion.
Chopsticks. Chopsticks have been used in Japan since the Nara period (710-794). There are many traditions and unwritten rules surrounding the use of chopsticks. For example, it is considered particularly taboo to pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks, as this is how bones are handled by the family of the deceased after a cremation. If one must pass food to someone else during a meal (a questionable practice in public), one should pick up the food with one’s own chopsticks, reversing the chopsticks to use the end which were not in direct contact with the handlers mouth, and place it on a small plate, allowing the recipient to retrieve it (with the recipient’s own chopsticks). If no other utensils are available while sharing plates of food, the ends of the chopsticks are used to retrieve the shared food. Mismatched chopsticks are not to be used. Standing chopsticks vertically in a bowl of rice is to be avoided, as it recalls burning incense sticks standing up in sand, typically at funerals. The act of stabbing the chopsticks into the food resembles an action devout Buddhists perform when offering ceremonial food to their ancestors at the household shrine. Placing chopsticks so that they point at someone else is considered a symbolic threat.
Many Japanese restaurants provide diners with single-use wooden chopsticks that must be snapped apart. Chopsticks taper toward the bottom; the thicker top part, which will be snapped apart, may have small splinters. One should avoid using the thick, splintered end to pick up food. This practice is exercised only on rare occasion. For example, during a large gathering in which those present are required to serve themselves from a large tray at the center of the table. After using one’s chop sticks to eat, the back side may be used to take servings from the tray to avoid ‘contaminating’ what is left on the tray. Also, one should never rub one’s chopsticks together—this is considered extremely rude and unsophisticated (akin to playing with utensils, in a western restaurant), especially when one is seated at a sushi bar, as this signals the waiter that one thinks his utensils are cheap. It is also considered good manners to return single-use chopsticks to their original paper wrapping after your meal, as this prevents the person cleaning up from accidentally touching the part that was in your mouth. This is especially true when eating a to-go bento of the type often sold at train stations.
Hand towels and hankerchiefs. In Japanese restaurants, customers are given a rolled hand towel called oshibori. It is considered rude to use the towel to wipe the face or neck; however, some people, usually men, do this at more informal restaurants. Nonwoven towelettes are replacing the cloth oshibori. Blowing one’s nose in public is considered rude, especially at a restaurant; cloth handkerchiefs should never be used for this purpose. Conversely, sniffling is considered acceptable, as an alternative to nose-blowing. When sneezing, it is polite to cover one’s nose with a hand, or excuse oneself to the restroom first.
Toothpicks. When using toothpicks, it is good etiquette to cover one’s mouth with the other hand.
Bento. A typical home made Bentō lunch box usually contains rice and a variety of side dishes that go well with rice.
Bentō, boxed meals in Japan, are very common and constitute an important ritual during lunch. The preparation of these meals begins around the time children reach nursery school. The parents of these children take special care when preparing meals for their children. They arrange the food in the order by which it will be consumed. Bentō are made fancy, “but it must be consumed in its entirety.”
A bentō is judged by how well it is prepared. The parents must almost “show off” their accomplishment in making the lunch. They are preparing for their child, but the way it is prepared is looked upon by the other children and the nursery school. It is close to a competition to see who has the best parent.
Because the appearance of food is important in Japan, the parents must be sure to arrange the bentō in an attractive way. A parent may prepare a leaf cut-out in fall or cut an orange into the shape of a flower if the season is summer. It is not uncommon to see seven different courses within a bentō.
Parents are also encouraged to prepare what the children will enjoy eating. If the child does not like what the parent has prepared, then he/she will most likely not consume it, going against the rule that “it must be consumed in its entirety.”
Visiting someone’s house
It is considered an honor to be invited to someone’s home in Japan. Many Japanese regard their homes as being too humble to entertain guests. Shoes. Shoes are not worn inside – since the floor level is often higher than ground or entrance level or even the same height, Japanese don’t want the floor to be stained by soil, sand or dust that may be attached to the soles. Instead, shoes are removed in the genkan (mudroom or entrance foyer), and often replaced with slippers called uwabaki. Just wearing socks is also acceptable in informal situations. Genkan are found in even small apartments, where they are correspondingly small, and feature a small step up. Socks, however, are not generally removed – bare feet are acceptable when visiting a close friend, but not otherwise. There are also separate slippers used when using a bathroom, for reasons of hygiene.
Wooden geta are provided for short walks outside when entering the house. It is generally considered polite to wear shoes instead of sandals, but sandal wearers may carry a pair of white socks to put over their bare feet or stockings, so that their bare feet will not touch the slippers that the host offers, or they may use tabi socks, worn with the sandals. The shoes are turned around so that the toe faces the door after taking them off. During the winter time, if a guest is wearing a coat or hat, the guest will remove the coat or hat before the host opens the door. When the guest is leaving, he or she does not put on the coat or hat until the door has closed.
Gifts and gift-giving
Many people will ask a guest to open a gift, but if they do not, the Japanese will resist the urge to ask if they can open the gift. Since the act of accepting a gift can create a sense of unfulfilled obligation on the part of the receiver, gifts are sometimes refused, depending on the situation.
Seasonal gifts. There are two gift seasons in Japan = winter and summer. Gifts are given to those with whom one has a relationship, especially the people who have helped the gift giver.
It is considered impolite to go to someone’s house without a gift. In Japanese this is called tebura (empty-handed). A gift is usually brought in a paper bag (preferably a bag from the shop where you bought the gift) and is taken out of the bag, which is placed underneath the gift when giving it to the host, using both hands. The gift is often presented when shown into the living room, saying “tsumaranai mono desu ga” (“this is but a trifle”, literally “[this] is a boring thing but…”) to show modesty. However, in business or professional situations, one should avoid framing the gift in such terms, as it denotes the insignificance of the gift and therefore belittles the recipient’s worth. Phrases such as “honno o shirushi de gozai masu ga” (meaning, “it only amounts to a symbol of my appreciation, but…”, implies gratitude towards the recipient that the giver cannot fully express) fit well within professional and societal etiquette. If the host offers something, it is polite to make a soft declination saying “okizukai naku” (please don’t go through the trouble), but the guest can gladly accept if the host asks for the second time.
Impolite gifts. White flowers are not appropriate gifts as they are associated with funerals and bereavement in Japan.
Some items prominently displaying the numbers 4 should not be given, since the reading of 4 (shi) suggests death (shi). The number 9 should also be avoided as one of the readings of 9 (ku) associates suffering (ku). Clocks, scissors, and knives are not appropriate gifts because of the symbology of time running out and cutting the relationship, respectively.
Other gifts. Another custom in Japan is for women to give men chocolate on Saint Valentine’s Day. The chocolate can be given to the object of the woman’s affection, or to any man the woman is connected to (obligation chocolate). Men who receive chocolate on Valentine’s Day give something back to those they received from, one month later on White Day.
Souvenirs. In tourist spots in Japan, souvenirs are a big business. There are souvenir stands at train stations selling gifts from far-away areas for those who are returning and forgot to buy or didn’t want to carry around a gift. There are also services that deliver regional souvenirs from places in Japan or from foreign countries to be used as souvenirs.
Greetings are considered to be of extreme importance in Japanese culture. Students in elementary and secondary schools are often admonished to deliver greetings with energy and vigor. A lazy greeting is regarded with the type of disdain that would accompany a limp handshake in parts of the West.
The most common greetings are which is roughly equivalent to “good day” or “good afternoon” and is used until late afternoon; konbanwa or “good evening”; and oyasumi nasaior “good night”. Different forms of these greetings may be used depending on the relative social statuses of the speaker and the listener.
Since many Japanese homes are very small, entertainment is traditionally done at restaurants and other establishments. Entertaining at home is not unheard of however, and hosts will often go to great lengths to be hospitable.
Generally, as in many other cultures, the guest takes priority. He or she will be seated in the best place, served the best food and drinks, and generally deferred to. If staying overnight, the guest will also be offered the first bath, and the hosts may even give up their own beds.
Japanese hosts generally try for the ideal of being busy so the guest can relax. As opposed to Western hospitality styles where the host presents a relaxed front to the guests or may encourage guests to “make themselves at home” or “help themselves,” Japanese hosts will often present a busy front to guests. The general aim is to cultivate the idea among guests that everything is being taken care of so that they may relax and be at ease.
Letters and postcards
Letter-writing remains an important part of Japanese culture, despite the advent of email and text-messaging. In Japan, letter-writing skills are dependent not upon the ability to be original but rather on the ability to follow the prescribed format. However, some forms of letters, such as e-tegami, or “picture-letters”, which incorporate hand-painted decorations and seasonal motifs, certainly require creativity.
Titles. The titles for people are -chan (most often for female close friends, young girls or infants of either gender), -kun (most often for male close friends, or young boys), -san (for adults in general) and -sama (for customers, and also used for feudal lords, gods or buddhas).
Letter addresses, even those sent to close friends, are normally written in quite formal language. Unless some other title is available (sensei, for example, which can mean “doctor” or “professor” among other things) the standard title used with the addressee’s name is the very formal -sama. Letters addressed to a company take the title onchū after the company name. It is also considered important to mention in the address if the company is incorporated (kabushiki gaisha) or limited (yūgen gaisha). When a letter is addressed to a company employee at their place of work, the address should contain the full name of the place of work, as well as the title of the employee’s position, and the full name of the employee.
Letter writing materials. Personal letters are traditionally written by hand using blue or black ink, or with a writing brush and black ink. The preferred paper is washi (Japanese paper). Although letters may be written vertically (tategaki) or horizontally (yokogaki), a vertical orientation is the more traditional, and therefore more formal, direction. The use of red ink in letter writing should be avoided, since writing a person’s name in red ink suggests a wish for that person to die.
Seasonal greetings. A letter typically opens with a seasonal greeting. A common example incorporates a remark about the temperature, rain, snow, and so on. These greetings are often quite poetic, and include observations about the changing colors of the leaves or the emergence of spring flowers. The seasonal greeting is followed by an inquiry about the addressee’s health, and a report of one’s own. The first paragraph of a typical letter might thus read as follows: The hot weather of summer has finally passed. The days are getting cooler and the leaves are turning vivid colors. How have you been? Thankfully, I have been getting along well. The second paragraph is devoted to news about the writer. Requests, if any, will likely not appear until at least the third paragraph. Letters close with greetings to others, and with one of a number of standard phrases urging the reader to “take care”. A typical example might be: Please send my regards to your wife. Now that the weather is getting cooler, please take care of yourself.
Greeting postcards. In Japan, holiday-goers do not send postcards. Instead, the tradition in Japan is for a holiday goer to bring back a souvenir, often edible. However, New Year’s greeting postcards, or nengajō, are a tradition similar to Christmas cards in the West. If sent within a time limit, the Japanese post office will deliver the cards on the morning of New Year’s Day. These are decorated with motifs based on the year of the Chinese zodiac which is starting. They request the addressee’s continued favor in the new year. If one receives a card from someone to whom one has not sent a card, etiquette dictates that one must send a card in return, to arrive no later than the seventh of January.
However, if a relative of a person has died during that year, they will send a postcard written in black before the New Year apologizing for not sending a New Year’s card. The rationale for this is that since their relative has died they cannot wish or experience a happy new year. In this case, the etiquette is not to send them a New Year’s Greeting either.
There is an entire grammatical rule-set for speaking respectfully to superiors, customers, etc., and this plays a large part in good etiquette. Harmony is a key value in Japanese society and is the guiding philosophy for the Japanese in business settings and in society as a whole. Japanese children are taught to act harmoniously and cooperatively with others from the time they go to pre-school.
This need for harmonious relationships between people is reflected in much Japanese behavior. Many place great emphasis on politeness, personal responsibility and working together for the universal, rather than the individual, good. They present disagreeable facts in a gentle and indirect fashion. They see working in harmony as the crucial ingredient for working productively.
Service and public employees
Japan is frequently cited by non-Japanese as a place where service is excellent. Such claims are difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. Nevertheless, service at public establishments such as restaurants, drinking places, shops and services is generally friendly, attentive and very polite, as reflected in a common reminder given by managers and employers to their employees: “okyaku-sama wa kami-sama desu”, or “the customer is a god.” (This is comparable to the western saying, “the customer is always right”). Generally, service employees will seldom engage in casual conversation with a customer with the aim of forming a rapport as sometimes happens in “western” cultures. The service employees are expected to maintain a more formal, professional relationship with all customers. Private conversations among service staff are considered inappropriate when a customer is near.
In general, as in most countries, etiquette dictates that the customer is treated with reverence. In Japan this means that employees speak in a humble and deferential manner and use respectful forms of language that elevate the customer. Thus, customers are typically addressed with the title –sama (roughly equivalent to “sir” or “madam” in English). A customer is not expected to reciprocate this level of politeness to a server.
Dress for employees is normally neat and formal, depending on the type and style of establishment. Public employees such as police officers, taxi drivers, and the pushers whose job is to ensure that as many people as possible board the rush-hour trains—and other types of employees who must touch people—often wear white gloves.
It is traditional for wedding guests to provide a monetary gift in a stylized, sealed envelope. The money is understood to be used to cover the cost of the wedding and party. Depending on the group of people involved, people of higher status may be expected to give more, or there may be a decided amount. The amount is often ￥30,000 and the number of bank notes should be odd, since even numbers can be divided into two and thus unlucky for the couple. In addition, the amount of ￥40,000 is inappropriate, as 4(shi) phonetically sounds like “death” in Japanese. The notes should also be new notes to symbolise the new start in their lives.
Wedding guests may receive wedding gifts, in a kind of reverse-wedding registry situation. Near the wedding date, guests may receive a catalog of gifts available for them to choose from.
People attending a Japanese funeral bring money called “kōden” in special funeral or small plain white envelopes. When giving money, it is customary to give used notes, rather than new ones, to give the impression of ‘unexpectedness’ of the death. People attending participate in the entire or at least either ceremony, which may include the wake the night before, or the funeral the next day. The cremation is usually reserved for family, relatives and colleagues. At funerals people bow to the family before they step to the front of the altar to offer incense or “shōkō”. People at funerals typically wear black or dark clothes, with all black as preferable, at least with black necktie in hastening. For women the only jewellery considered acceptable is pearls, due to their understated nature. Red is never worn at funerals, even as an accent, as this is a color of celebration and would be considered an insult to the dead and the bereaved. It is advisable not to wear pink or orange for the same reasons.
Japanese people generally arrive early and are prepared to start working as soon as work hours begin. They also praise other workers for support, even when they have been of little help in succeeding. When leaving work, the greeting otsukaresama deshita “You’re tired” is often used to those leaving, and the person who is leaving often says osaki ni shitsurei shimasu “I’m sorry to leave before you.” For many workers, it is considered poor form to leave before the boss goes home.
Twenty. The twentieth birthday is where a person becomes an adult and can drink alcohol and smoke tobacco. Pronounced hatachi.
Sixty: The sixtieth birthday is the occasion of kanreki, when five cycles of the Chinese zodiac have completed.
Seventy-seven. The seventy-seventh birthday is the occasion of kiju , “happy age”, because the Chinese character 喜 written in cursive style looks like the characters for seventy-seven.
Eighty-eight. The eighty-eighth birthday is the occasion of beiju, “rice age”, because the Chinese character for rice, looks like the characters for eighty-eight.
Ninety-nine. The ninety-ninth birthday is the occasion of hakuju, “white age”, because the Chinese character for white, looks like the Chinese character for one hundred, with the top stroke (which means “one”) removed.
The Japanese always hand a business card with both hands, and never put a business card in wallet or back pocket. Business cards should be accepted with both hands. It is customary and acceptable to ask how to pronounce someones name at this juncture.
When meeting a group of people, they place business cards from top to bottom in order of importance. When seniority is not certain, they place them side by side.