A Guide to Japanese Etiquette

Traditional Dinner in Japan

Traditional Dinner in Japan©NH53/Flickr

The requirements of etiquette are usually international but especially in Japan they are strongly influenced by local customs. Japanese people know the European etiquette however they usually mix them with their own.

There are three absolute prohibitions in Japan: first of all you should never use soap in the bath, second of all you should never enter a house or temple with your shoes on and finally blowing your nose in public is also considered very rude. Japanese people are legendarily polite and expect the same from others. The code of etiquette is considered very important and as a foreigner you should be aware of the local customs, or at least the most basic rules of protocol. This article aims to serve as a guide to Japanese etiquette looking at the various aspects of everyday life, including greetings, visiting someone’s house, table manners, bathing etiquette and gift-giving.


In Japan, people traditionally greet each other by bowing. The deeper the bow, the greatest the respect expressed. Shaking hands is uncommon among Japanese however exceptions  are made for foreigners. Hugs and kisses are only exchanged with children and between lovers.

Shaking Hands

Shaking Hands©commons.wikimedia.org

The most common greeting are  ohayō gozaimas for “good morning”, konnichiwa meaning “good afternoon”, konbanwa for “good evening” and “good night” in Japanese is oyasumi nasai.

Unless you are not told otherwise, you should only address someone by his/her family name, addig the “san” sufix, for instance:  Yamada-san, meaning Mr. or Mrs. Yamada.

Inside the House

When entering a Japanese home you should leave your shoes at the doorway, according special attention for the shoes to point towards the entrance. The host will normally provide you with slippers. However when entering a room with tatami floor (flooring material made of igusa straw, comfortable to sit or sleep on) you should remove your slippers too and remain in socks.


Japanese_house_slippers©Richard W.M. Jones/commons.wikipedia.org

 Table Manners

Japanese homes usually have law tables surrounded by cushions on the floor. A home meal is normally served in one course, but with several dishes.

Traditional Dinner in Japan

Traditional Dinner in Japan©NH53/Flickr

It might be difficult for foreigners to use chopsticks. Use them when you can, but remember no to leave them stuck vertically in your rice bowl, but place them on the chopstick holder. You should also avoid waving and pointing your chopstick at someone since it is considered a symbolic threat.

The pilaf (cooked rice) always served in a seperate plate is inviolable and must stay white.  Thus, you should not mix it with other types of food taken from other plates and don’t pour any sauce on it. In opposition to Western manners, when eating noodle soup, you have to lift them up and slurp them in loudly, which is a way of expressing your appreciation for the delicious food. It is also normal in Japan to bring the bowl to your mouth to keep food from falling.

Japanese meal by Fredrik Rubensson

Japanese meal©Fredrik Rubensson/Flickr

According to the tradition, women pour drinks for men first, there is no custom of “Ladies First”. Moreover, if you want to refill your glass, start by serving other people. When clinking glasses, the Japanese for “cheers” is kapmpai.

Bathing Etiquette

As strange as it may sound, in Japan you have to follow a long list of protocol when entering the bathroom too. In most of the Japanese homes you can find toilet slippers in front of the bathroom door that should be used when in the toilet and remove after leaving for reasons of hygiene.

Toilet slippers©Jorge Lascar/Flickr

Bathing is an important part of the daily routine. Baths are for relaxing, so Japanese wash themselves thoroughly before entering the bathtub or furo, since they have a custom of sharing the bathwater. Sitting on a small stoolthey soap and scrub themselves from head to toe before sitting in the bathtub for soaking. You have to be very careful not to get soap in the bath water. Japanese style furos are pretty small, but deep enough for the water to cover your shoulders.

Furo (Japanese bath)

Furo (Japanese bath)©Ruth Ellison/Flickr

The family members bathe in order of seniority. However, if there are guests in the home, they enjoy priority.


The Japanese are great gift-givers. Gifts are more the symbol of love and friendship than a reward for a favor. If you are invited to a Japanese home bring flowers, cakes/candy or a bottle of wine. If you receive a gift, you will be expected you to reciprocate. Especially souvenirs from your home country that are not found in Japan are appreciated. The best time to hand over your gift is toward the end of your visit and is presented with both hands. Gifts are usually opened in private.

For many foreigners, Japanese people could seem extremely official. However, they do not expect foreigner to be familiar with all of their complicated rules of etiquette and customs. By simply being polite and considerate you will surely get along just fine. Yet, it is difficult to find out what they really think, as they tend to hide their true emotions behind the mysterious, so-called “Eastern smile”.

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