Unspoken Rules in Japanese Culture

10 Things You Should Know To Navigate Social Etiquette In Japan

If you’re interested in Japanese culture, chances are you may have heard about the tatemae/honne dichotomy between appearances and real intentions. Or perhaps how Japanese culture is all about “reading the air” and never stating things directly, so foreigners need to be extra careful to decipher these elusive unspoken or unwritten rules to avoid a cultural faux pas.

However, the Internet sometimes likes to overplay the “exotism” card and most of the time, many so-called rules are simply a matter of common sense and not exclusive to Japan, like not littering or bothering fellow passengers or strangers in public spaces. “Running and harassing geishas to get their photo is perfectly fine”, said no one ever. C’mon. You get the idea. 

On the other hand, some points are already extensively covered everywhere, such as chopsticks stuck in the rice bowl being a no-no or tips not being a thing, or that making sounds while slurping noodles is fine. As for onsen etiquette, almost all establishments have their rules plastered all over the place with accompanying drawings so you don’t have to worry about it. So this time I’ll try to focus on some lesser-known unspoken rules.

1. The cashier’s small tray is for money

Shopper leaving money in cashier's tray in JapanYes, we’ve all been there. First time in Japan and oblivious to the small tray that can be found next to the register in all Japanese establishments. That’s where you’re supposed to leave the money (or credit/debit card) there when you pay, and for the cashier to return your change and/or receipts, etc. It’s not a huge faux pas if you just hand over the bills to the cashier’s hands but they will all be more grateful if you just use the tray.

2. No need to touch taxi doors

Taxi door in JapanYep. Been there too as well. First taxi ride I try to open/close the door myself only to be surprised by the door moving automatically. You see, as part of what’s considered good customer service for taxis, users don’t need to worry about having to open the door. Taxi doors open and close automatically, so you won’t be like me and avoid touching them when entering or leaving the taxi as you might disrupt the mechanism.

3. Where you’re supposed to stand in the escalator depends on the region

People in escalatorsIf you’ve ever traveled around the country and found yourself confused at the seeming randomness of the standing position on the escalator… the reason why is that there’s an actual divide between East/West in Japan about it! In Eastern Japan, people will stand to the left and leave room on the right to let people pass, whereas in Western Japan is the opposite. 

4. Personalizing dishes is not a thing

restaurant tableWhile in America personalizing the menu may be a more or less normal thing, Japanese restaurants do not engage in such custom. As I’ve heard among acquaintances who work in these establishments, this is a very common annoyance among restaurant staff when serving American clients. Of course, suffice it to say that in case of food allergies, they will be as accommodating as possible. But if that’s not the case, please refrain from doing this.

5. Waitstaff will not come to you unless you call them

Clients at a restaurant with serverIn Western countries it’s more or less normal to expect waitstaff to keep an eye on you and, unless it’s a very busy time, drop by every once in a while during your meal. But this is frowned upon in Japan as it may be considered that they’re bothering the patrons, so unless you call them specifically, no one will stop at your table.

Some chain restaurants have small buttons on the table which you can use to call them, otherwise, a loud “sumimasen”, sometimes along with raising your hand, will suffice.  I know this can be difficult at first as it may come across as rude in most Western countries but you’ll get used to it in no time.

6. Business cards are still very common

Japanese style business card exchangeIf you’re coming to Japan for business, you probably know this already. But if you don’t, you better print a batch as soon as possible and buy a card holder to keep with you all the time. Exchanging business cards is a basic step in business etiquette and a very important part of how you and your business are perceived.

Likewise, for the way to store them, people often have special card holders to store them appropriately. No one here wants to see you putting away their business card carelessly in your pockets, so be mindful of this. 

7. Be careful with certain “compliments”, particularly if you’re in Kyoto

eggs talkingGenerally, Japanese culture tends to be non-confrontational, and as such, many people tend to try to convey things indirectly. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, and communication styles vary a lot across regions. However, there’s a sort of national agreement that in Kyoto you must be extra careful.

There’s a popular Japanese tale going around that says that if someone from Kyoto has invited you to their place and after a while offers you some ochazuke (green tea poured on rice with some savory toppings, a light, quick and popular comfort meal at the end of the day), that actually means it’s time for you to go home.

If that seems hard to believe, Japanese social media is peppered with amusing stories in Kyoto like the following examples: an old lady complimenting a neighbor for “improving their piano playing” which was actually a masked complaint about said neighbor being too loud; a guy who got comments from his neighbors about how cheerful he was with his friends after one of his gatherings at his apartment, followed shortly by a police visit for noise complaint; a man being told that he must be enjoying the scenery because he was walking really slowly; or a businessman being complimented for his watch as a reminder that the meeting was becoming too long.

To be fair, even among Japanese people, Kyoto natives are notorious for dialing up their savagery with all manners of subtlety, so foreigners shouldn’t feel bad for not picking up certain queues. But at least now you’re warned!

8. That bag or handkerchief on a table in a coffee shop is not a forgotten item!

Restaurant tablesThis is a byproduct of Japan being an extremely safe country of common thefts. Generally, you can leave your belongings at the table (smartphone, laptop, bags, etc) without fear of having them stolen, which is very common if you’re in a cafe and need to take a call outside, go to the toilet, or take a smoke. This is also a typical custom to save a seat while you have your order taken at the counter.

Sometimes, many people may just leave something small like a coin purse or a handkerchief. If you’re not familiar with this custom, it could look like someone accidentally left it, but that’s not the case.

9. If you have kids of primary school age, you’re expected to up your bento game

Japanese bento boxWhen we talk about bento for schoolchildren, we’re not talking about normally boxed lunches but a special kind of curated creation meant to look as cute and creative as possible. A trend that’s been made worse by social media and has turned into a sort of duty that typically falls on mothers’ shoulders.

This may seem frivolous or quirky but depending on the school culture, some foreign parents will face the fact that their children don’t want to be the odd one out without an Instagram-worthy bento. I’m definitely not saying that you have to conform to this, but you’ll probably have to deal with this one way or another. Kids will be kids and it means they will be annoying to no end sometimes. In any case, if you decide to dive in, we got you! 

10. Being on time actually means being there 5-10 mins in advance

man holding a clockIf you’re meeting someone, either in a casual or professional setting, you’re not expected to be there exactly at the arranged time but at least 5min before. So while abroad it may be socially acceptable to arrive at the exact time (or even later, depending on the country), in Japan it’s generally considered rude. While there’s some leeway when meeting with friends, formal meetings will require you to plan to be there earlier.

Like everything, common sense applies. Or, as the popular saying goes, when in Rome do like the Romans. When traveling in Japan, if you’re unsure about what you’re supposed to do, your safest bet is to simply look around you to see what everyone else is doing.

In a worst-case scenario, Japanese people generally acknowledge that foreigners don’t have to be aware of everything. If you think about it, it’s exactly the same case for all of us in our respective countries regarding foreign visitors! So as long as you convey that you want to be respectful nicely and apologetically, you’ll be fine in most social settings.

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Written by

Photographer, journalist, and avid urban cyclist, making sense of Japan since 2017. I was born in Caracas and lived for 14 years in Barcelona before moving to Tokyo. Currently working towards my goal of visiting every prefecture in Japan, I hope to share with readers the everlasting joy of discovery and the neverending urge to keep exploring.