Japanese etiquette and manners explained

Why is “Your book was very good. I was impressed.” not a good compliment to a teacher?
“In Japanese society such evaluation by someone at a lower academic level is not allowed”
Japanese Cultural Encounters pg 5

Why is it bad manners to pull a plate towards you with your chopsticks?
I can’t find a specific reason for this, so it must be a case of the general rule for manners that anything that makes life more difficult is more polite, like Brits balancing their peas on the back of their forks

Why are you supposed to take your coat off outside the house or business you are visiting?

So that the person greeting you doesn’t realise you are cold, and so doesn’t have the obligation (= burden) to do something about it.

Why do people always move away to the side seat when it comes free?

As everyone does it, if they don’t it, means they want to be close to you- therefore they have no choice. As it is also considered considerate to you to give you more room (rather than a suggestion that you smell as it might be in the UK), there is no reason not to. Practical reasons include wanting to fall asleep without dropping on anyone’s shoulder.

Why do some Japanese blow their nose in public, even though it is supposed to be taboo
In my experience the biggest nose blowers are people who go through life not noticing half the things a Japanese etiquette will tell you should never do. This one might be because it is not something taught at kindergarten when most other basic social conventions are drilled into people

Why do some people think it’s okay to ring their bell to make me get out of the way when the pavement is supposed to be for pedestrians?

They are rough and pushy people

Why do Japanese people keep telling me not to sit in a seiza position on my knees?

The fact that it is used in formal situations means that using it with friends could suggest that you don’t feel relaxed around them. Or they could just be concerned it’s uncomfortable, although I for one find agura (crossed legs) just as likely to make me lose sensation in the lower half of my body and stagger when I stand up.

Why don’t the Japanese chew their pencils?

Why is seating position (and even standing in a lift position!) so important in Japan?

Before flat tatami floors became standard, people’s status would be shown by the height of the mat (or a dias for the very important) that they sat on. Seating position became more important as this faded out. Sitting on more cushions as a way of showing who is better can still be seen in traditional competitive comedy performances.

Why do Japanese (especially men) use an open handed chopping motion to show they want to get past?

Apparently, originally it was meant to show that you were not carrying a sword. The fact that polite table manners in France means keeping your hands above the table is apparently for the same reason.

Why do motorists only slow down, not stop, at a zebra crossing (especially one without lights)?

As a pedestrian, you are also meant to do your bit by trotting a little across. They build this increase in your speed into their calculations even before you start doing it, so might unintentionally shave it a little close if you continue dawdling.

Why do the Japanese slurp their noodles?

It is said to make them taste better. By bringing lots of air in with the noodles you can eat them hotter and so improve the flavour. If done properly, it can also help prevent ‘noodle whiplash’ and keep your shirt and tie clean. Please note that slurping rice (like in China), soup or spaghetti is done, but is considered bad form.

Why is it rude to blow your nose in public in Japan?

One theory is that in Asia the most common diseases could be passed on through handkerchiefs etc, while those in Europe were more likely to be passed on through spitting- hence the fact that spitting didn’t start to die out in Japan until the Meiji authorities decided it wasn’t something seemly to do in front of foreigners.

Why do the Japanese avoid drinking out of bottles?

In a very informal, all male setting Japanese men sometimes drink directly out of the (usually very large) sake (rice wine) bottle. As that is the setting it is associated with, a child seeing their English teacher swigging from a “PET bottle” (plastic, not domesticated) they can be a little shocked. Would be something like a school teacher in England downing a pint of water in the classroom.

Why are you supposed to take food from a common plate with the reverse part of your chopsticks?

To save leaving some of your saliva on the plate. Please note, however, that almost no one does this, perhaps because of the opposite danger of getting food all over your hands when you put them back round the right way

Why are you supposed to break your waribari disposable chopsticks with the chopsticks vertical and your elbows out?

To make sure you get two equal chopsticks split exactly down the middle. Although this makes it into some etiquette books, the only people I know who do it are complete otaku.


  1. Ashley said,

    June 13, 2008 at 9:16 pm

    What is the best negotiating method to use with a Japanese man who is buying a property in the U.S?

  2. Ashley said,

    June 13, 2008 at 9:17 pm

    Do Japanese men assume tough negotiations and want the best deal?

    • Kuristaru said,

      March 25, 2011 at 3:47 pm

      To answer both your questions (even thought they are from almost three years ago, someone else might have the same question)

      “Do Japanese men assume tough negotiations and want the best deal?”
      Doesn’t *everyone* want the best deal? Of course they do! I doubt this is a uniquely Japanese trait, but my fiance is involved in real estate sales, and no matter if he’s the buyer or seller, he is always a tough negotiator.

      Now to your first question of – “What is the best negotiating method to use with a Japanese man who is buying a property in the U.S.?”
      This is a tough one. I’d say to treat them like any other customer. Just realize that if they are looking for US property and they are a Japanese nationale (living in Japan), this is probably an investment property, and they’re looking for a way to MAKE money (and lots of it, for them to be looking in the US and not Japan.) So as far as negotiations, keep that in mind.

      I am guessing your worries are about offending them or something like that. Just remember that in this case, they’re just like anyone else – a customer! But they also come from a country where the salesman’s motto is “Treat the Customer like a God” – So much so, they even add the honorific “-sama” suffix to the customer’s name when talking to them.

      Hope this helps anyone else who is dealing with a Japanese man in real estate or other business negotiations!

  3. Samantha said,

    November 28, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    From what I noticed in Tokyo, ringing the bicycle bell is a common courtesy to the pedestrians to let them know that you are coming up behind them.

    I am assuming that the word “pavement” is used in the way I would use “sidewalk” and that the bicyclist was not passing the questioner from the front.

    In many parts of Tokyo, at least, the walkway is very wide (as compared to the ones typically found in my hometown,) and is reserved for both pedestrians and for bicyclists; the side closer to the street is for bicycles, when present, and pedestrians are warned of this by icons that are painted directly on the sidewalk itself that bicycles are allowed and may need to pass. Being that I am originally from a place where bicycles are very few and far between and pedestrians are even fewer and further, I found the warning ring to be very helpful.
    I do not know if things work differently in other areas of Japan, but this was my experience.

  4. alexcase said,

    November 29, 2011 at 3:34 am

    I’ve been here 6 years and that’s not my experience at all, which is that few pavements have dedicated cycle lanes and squealing the brakes is a much more common way of telling people you are coming (from behind) than using a bell. In fact, it seems to be bad manners to use your bell.

  5. Wisp said,

    April 2, 2012 at 3:36 am

    I have heard that it is rude to close your lips all the way around the chopsticks to get the sauce or clinging bits of food off them. This makes sense, seeing as food is often served from a common plate, but I wanted to cheek if it was true. Also, I have heard from the same person that it is rude to hover your chopsticks over your plate while chewing….again, I was wondering if this is true.

    • alexcase said,

      April 2, 2012 at 11:36 am

      I’ve never discussed this or seen it written down, but it does seem that I’ve got into the habit of only taking food off chopsticks with my teeth. Putting your lips on waribashi (disposable chopsticks) makes them soggy, but with normal chopsticks it could just be that as they don’t really hold much sauce teeth just make more sense.

      The hovering thing that I’ve read was about choosing food from a shared plate rather than holding them in your hand when you chew. I don’t know anyone who regularly put out chopsticks rests, so it’s quite normal to have them in your hand throughout the meal.

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