Japanese etiquette and manners explained

Updated 28 December 2014.

See also my new Japanese table manners explained page.

Why are the Japanese so rude with their families?

In many British and American families there is an emphasis on kids say “Can/ Could…?”, “please” etc with almost every interaction, but in Japan that kind of training is left mainly to kindergartens and schools. It’s partly because in Japan everything, especially politeness, depends on the situation and the positions of the people, but there’s also a more specific thing about families being a shelter from the significant pressures of life outside the home, including that of being polite.

Why do the Japanese not give reasons when they apologise, refuse invitations and deal with complaints?

Countries tend to fall into two groups – ones like Britain and America where not giving excuses is seen as not being bothered to do so or being deliberately rude (like saying “I’m busy” to an unwanted date invitation), and ones like Japan where giving excuses is seen as not accepting responsibility (like saying “The dog ate my homework”).

Why aren’t Japanese more polite with staff?

Politeness can be roughly divided into two – that based on differences in position like how you should address the Queen, and that which tries to pretend there aren’t social differences between people like buying a British barman a drink rather than tipping him. In Japan politeness overwhelmingly falls into the former category, so when you are customer you can say nothing to the staff or even be rude if you really want.

Why do the Japanese express such surprise when they bump into someone, even when they could very much have been expected to?

??????

Why can’t you use “-san” with your own name?

It’s a sign of respect, so it would be very big headed.

Why can’t you use “-san” with the names of your colleagues when talking to outsiders?

You and they are one, so it would be bigging up yourself.

Why is bowing still common in Japan?

As in Europe when it was still common there, bowing tends to be most useful in countries where politeness is mainly decided by status like Japan. As people who move here find, it is also very convenient to have one gesture for “Thanks”, “Please”, “Sorry”, etc etc.

Why do the Japanese still not shake hands?

Some other countries where bowing is still common and status is still important like Korea have somewhat taken to shaking hands too. Those places tend to be happier with bodily contact than the Japanese though.

Why do the Japanese avoid eye contact when being told off or apologizing?

A British or American kid staring at the floor when mumbling an apology might be told to “look at me while I’m talking to/ while you say that”. However, at the other extreme a kid staring you in the eyes while apologizing obviously still feels angry and not really apologetic at all. In Japan, eye contact during apologies is always taken to have the latter meaning.

Why do the Japanese nod so much?

It is show you that they are (still) listening. Actual comments on what you say that are common in English like “I know how you feel” and “Tell me about it!” stray too close to interrupting, something that Japanese rarely do, hence the nodding and very simple reactions like “Sou?” (“Really?”)

Why do the Japanese open presents later?

It might embarrass someone to open it in front of them, including if it is so nice that many thanks are needed. This is becoming rare, though. It’s much more common just to ask “Can I open it now?” and then do so.

Why do the Japanese use the department store wrapping service?

Being perfectly wrapped is more important than putting in the effort yourself to wrap it (packaging being a real Japanese art that few can do properly). In some situations, you also want people to know that you bought it from a quality department store rather than some discount shop or something

Why don’t the Japanese chew their fingernails, suck their pens, chew their pencils etc?

Of course, our parents and teachers everywhere tell us not to do these things, but in Japan perhaps people are more likely to actually listen to their parents and teachers (as perhaps with wearing vests etc as well). It may also be considered sexual in some way.

Why do people look at you funny if you wipe your face and neck with the “oshibori” flannel, even though you see Japanese doing it?

It’s something only “oyaji” (ill-mannered old guys) do.

Why do the Japanese not address anyone in particular when they say “Gochisosama deshita” (“It was a treat”) after meals?

As well as the cook, you are thanking the farmer etc and even the food itself, as traditionally all life including plants has a soul.

Why is there a taboo against passing food from chopsticks to chopsticks?

It’s something you do with the bones at funerals.

Why is there a taboo against leaving your chopsticks sticking up in your food?

Again, it’s similar to what is done in funerals.

Why do the Japanese eat every bit of rice?

Countries tend to be divided into ones where food is left to show that you are satisfied and ones where everything is eaten to show you loved it, and Japan is mainly the latter (but see below). This is particular so with rice, which is seen as an almost or actual religious thing.

Why are the last few things left on the shared plates in an izakaya?

Otherwise they’d have to order more???

Why is it okay to use your fingers to eat sushi?

You are supposed to dip the top into the soy sauce, and that is almost impossible to do well with chopsticks. Alternatively, it could be because sushi started as street food.

Why don’t men open doors for women, hold their luggage, etc?

Although many Westerners imagine “being a gentleman” is some kind of universal thing, in fact it is a very specific thing that descends directly from European chivalry.

Why do Japanese women cover their hands with their mouths when they laugh?

This is probably related to why Japanese women used to dye their teeth black, being some kind of taboo against showing teeth. However, I imagine it now sticks only because it is a cutely girlish thing to do.

Why shouldn’t you use soap in a Japanese bath?

The same bath water is used by everyone, and then sometimes also reused for the washing.

Why has dogeza (kowtowing) almost completely disappeared in Japan?

In Korea kids still do this to receive envelopes of cash at New Year, similar to Japanese otoshidama. Maybe there wasn’t any particular fixed use for it in Japan???

Why is it okay to eat on some Japanese trains but not on others?

As is often the case in Japan, if enough other people are doing it, it is okay. It tends to be associated with holidaying and long distance travel, as on bullet trains, but I’ve also been on some commuter trains where it is comparatively common in the evenings, especially when the train isn’t so busy.

Why can’t you give some flowers from a Japanese supermarket?

Most or all of them are designed for memorial purposes such as putting on graves.

Why is it okay to say “Ohayou gozaimasu” (usually translated as “Good morning”) in the afternoon?

It’s used to first time that you see someone each day.

Why do some Japanese people shout out greetings?

“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.” (from Wikipedia). Most Japanese just follow what other people do, though, leaving shouted greetings to just shop staff. Employees who really shout greetings to their colleagues etc tend to be borderline autistic otaku males who follow instructions better than more subtle clues on how to behave.

Why don’t customer service staff chat with and get friendly with customers?

They are more worried about making a bad impression than eager to make a good impression, and there is no chance of offending with “the right words”. Or perhaps there is no friendliness that might also not seem rude. However, this is only really true in central Tokyo, so I have a feeling it’s the former.

Why do people put their organisation’s name before their own?

I’ve seen explanations that this says something fundamental about how Japanese people think about themselves, but it seems to be simply the easiest way of saying it with Japanese grammar, “Toshiba no Tanaka” being the easiest translation of “Tanaka from Toshiba”.

Why do the Japanese argue with police?

In the UK there’s a fair chance the police will pretend that you were swearing at them (which bizarrely is of itself a crime) and throw you in a cell, but in Japan almost every person stopped by the police seems to have a row with them, sometimes a shouting one. Given the flexibility that the police have in their decision making, it could be because they know it will work and help get them off. Or given that Japanese police are given targets for catching people, it could be that they are justifiably pissed off at being picked up just to match some kind of number. I think it does reflect on a lack of respect for the police more generally though. It could be because there isn’t much crime for them to solve and that they’ve traditionally avoiding tackling the hard stuff like organised crime, or perhaps it’s a postwar thing based on their wartime and postwar repressive role.

Why do the Japanese put people’s business cards on the table in front of them?

This is partly because quickly putting them away would not show enough care and attention, but mainly it’s a practical thing because you can’t say “you” in Japanese and so names must be used all the way through the meeting.

Why do Japanese men rarely put their hands in their trouser pockets?

It could just be that Japanese guys actually listened to their parents (maybe the same reason for still wearing vests at ages when few British guys would), or given the problems with chikan (gropers) on trains etc maybe everyone would just get the wrong idea.

Why are some people happy to pick their nose on the train?

Even more than most countries, Japanese behaviour is controlled by social pressure. Especially in big cities, if you don’t know someone they can’t put social pressure on you, so what they think about you basically doesn’t count.

Why don’t the Japanese mind pushing and shoving to get on trains?

The same as above, this time with the social pressure from the people waiting being much more important than that of the unknown old ladies and kids who you crush. Japanese also have much less of a concept of personal space than, say, Brits.

Why do some Japanese women do their make up on the train?

Again, what strangers think about it doesn’t matter. I see this much less often now, so I think that given how many people rarely read for pleasure it was mainly to kill time, time that is now filled with smartphones.

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. (Can’t remember where I got this one from)

Why do people always move away to the side of the train seat when it becomes 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 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 generally rough and pushy people – in Japan the more polite version is making your brakes squeal.

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 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?/ Why is endless sniffing considered more polite than blowing your nose in Japan?

I have students who go to the toilet each time they want to use a tissue! 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. Note that some young people are more happy to blow their nose in front of people, although people do usually at least turn away when doing so.

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 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.

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 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

9 Comments

  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.

  6. Ropey said,

    December 22, 2014 at 3:59 am

    is it rude to use only one chopstick when eating an apple.

  7. alexcase said,

    December 22, 2014 at 1:02 pm

    If you mean spearing things with one chopstick, that is always considered rude.


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