Manners in Japan : How to Be Polite (pt. 1)
Updated: Feb 6, 2019
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こんにちは, Japanese Learners! Welcome back to Teach Me Japanese.
This lesson is a language lesson and cultural lesson all wrapped up in one. We
are going to be learning about manners, or マナー, in Japan.
Something to keep in mind is that culturally, Japan is very different from many
countries in the west. Japan’s culture is centered on the premise of the good of the
group over the good of the individual, and sticking out is generally not accepted.
With that said, let's get started! (✿╹◡╹)
Transportation in Japan is pretty chaotic and usually means a lot of people in
a cramped space. This, of course, means there are a lot of rules pertaining
to transportation etiquette that you should be aware of when travelling in Japan.
Talking on the phone on public transport is one of the most common mistakes
foreigners make when they come to Japan. When talking on the phone, we tend
to use a louder voice than normal and let’s face it, no one wants to hear our
But it’s not just talking on the phone; having your ringer on or really any kind of
noise coming from your phone is considered very rude. On most trains and buses,
there are even signs reminding you to put your phone on silent, known in Japanese
This is pretty synonymous with public transportation almost anywhere. Taking up
seats when there are people with disabilities as well as elderly people, or people
who are pregnant, is considered selfish and rude. 障碍者(しょうがいしゃ）is the
word for disabled people, and there are special sections of trains and buses just
for these people. It is best to refrain from sitting in these areas, even if there is no
one with a visible disability in the vicinity.
障碍者 section of a train.
Another thing to avoid is putting your belongings in the seat next to you unless the
train is relatively empty. If there is no luggage space above the seat, either keep
your possessions on your lap or in front of you, if it is a larger suitcase. Putting your belongings in a seat prevents other people from sitting and is also seen as selfish.
Remember, Japan’s culture focuses on the good of the group, not the individual.
Food is a huge part of Japanese culture, so it should come as no surprise that there
are a lot of manners and customs surrounding it.
Before eating a meal in Japan, it is customary to say いただきます, roughly meaning
“I humbly receive”. This is a way of thanking not only the people who prepared the
food, but the farmers, animals, etc. that also sacrificed for the meal you are about
to eat. Some Japanese people ignore this custom, but you can’t go wrong with a
word of thanks before digging in.
Similarly, once you finish a meal you should say ごちそうさまでした, or literally
“It was a feast.”. Who you say these words to depends on where you are and who
you dine with. For example, if you are at home, you would say it to whoever cooked
the meal, and at a restaurant, you would say it to the person paying, as well as the
chef in some cases. One way of letting the restaurant staff know that you are ready
to pay and leave is to walk to the front of the store and say ごちそうさま(でした).
Many people are tempted to say ありがとうございます, but it is unnecessary in
Like most countries, social drinking has its place in the culture of Japan. Whether
in a business setting or amongst friends, there are some manners and customs
associated with drinking that you should know about.
In a business setting, it is bad manners to pour your own drink. If you are just with
friends or family, don’t sweat it, but it is one custom that should not be overlooked
in a formal setting. You should also be sure to pour drinks for those in your company,
and make sure that no one’s glass is empty for too long.
You should also be careful of not drinking before “cheers”. “Cheers” in Japanese is
乾杯(かんぱい) and is done in any kind of setting, whether among friends or in
a business meeting. Not waiting can be seen as selfish and impatient, and will
generally rub people the wrong way. 乾杯 is not just for alcohol consumption; it is
used with any type of beverage, so be careful whether you are holding orange
juice or a tequila sunrise.
Lastly, never, ever, discuss the behavior of someone you were drinking with the next
day. It doesn’t matter if they took their pants off at the karaoke bar and belted out
Justin Bieber’s “Baby”, what happens in drinking parties stays in drinking parties.
There are also a lot of rules about chopsticks, or 箸(はし), use in Japan but here are
10 of the main ones:
1) Do not suck or lick your chopsticks
Sucking on or licking your chopsticks makes you look uneducated and dirty and
should absolutely be avoided in the business setting, but as with most of these
your friends probably won't care too much if you slip up.
2) Do not stab things with your chopsticks
Stabbing food is also considered bad manners, and just downright lazy. You
should definitely practice picking things up with chopsticks before coming to
Japan, or you may get some side eye from the locals.
3) Do not transfer food via chopsticks
This one is a BIG no-no. Special chopsticks are used in funeral ceremonies, and
the bones of the deceased are passed via chopstick by family members. Definitely
not something that someone wants to be reminded of during mealtime.
4) Do not clean your chopsticks or swirl them in soup
If your chopsticks get dirty, leave them dirty. It’s considered gross to clean your
chopsticks in your soup. If it really bothers you, you can just ask for another set of
5) Do not cross your chopsticks
Crossing your chopsticks is associated with death in China, but in Japan it is
simply considered bad manners. Avoid this whether holding your chopsticks or
placing them down.
6) Do not stick your chopsticks straight up in your food
This is another practice that is associated with funeral rights. Avoid at all costs!
7) Do not rub wooden chopsticks together
Many restaurants in Japan provide wooden chopsticks with their food. Many
foreigners start by rubbing their chopsticks together, but this is considered rude in
Japan because it is as though you are saying “These chopsticks are cheap.” They
are most definitely cheap, but you don’t want to let them know you think that.
8) Do not point with your chopsticks
You shouldn’t use chopsticks for any purpose other than eating. Don’t point with
your chopsticks, use them for drumming, or anything other than putting food in
9) Do not hover your chopsticks over food
When trying to decide what you want to eat from the table, it is best to avoid
hovering your chopsticks over the food. If you think about it, chopsticks go in
your mouth, and since everyone is generally choosing food from the same dish
it’s not hard to see how this practice can be considered unsanitary.
10) Do not put your chopsticks on the table
Whether because the table is dirty or your chopsticks are dirty (or both), it’s also considered unsanitary to place your chopsticks directly on the table. If chopstick
rests aren’t provided, it’s okay to place your chopsticks over your plate or bowl.
Eating while walking, known as 食べ歩き(たべあるき）in Japanese, is something
that is generally frowned upon in Japan. Not only is it dangerous, but littering is
a huge concern in Japan, which is why the streets are some of the cleanest in the
world. When you are walking on the street, it is often difficult to find a trash can,
which can lead to littering. Japanese people in general would rather put their trash
in their bag or pocket and take it home with them than litter.
To avoid 食べ歩き, most convenience stores and street food stalls have small seating
areas. If there are none to be found. You can stand or squat somewhere (as long as
you are not in the way) and finish your meal.
That being said, there are certain tourist locations in Japan where 食べ歩き is
acceptable and actually encouraged, so it’s best to do your research about a place
before you attempt it.
Japan’s weather can be unpredictable so most locals carry an umbrella with them
no matter what the forecast says. Most supermarkets offer umbrella sized plastic
baggies for you to place your wet umbrellas in, ensuring that your wet umbrella
doesn’t drip all over the floor and cause a potential safety hazard. These are not a
suggestion, but a requirement, and you may be kicked out if you refuse to use the
colloquially coined “umbrella condom”.
Blowing your nose in a public space is considered inconsiderate and gross. Locals
will often retreat to the restroom for the sole purpose of blowing their noses. This
can be irritating when you have a cold and there is no restroom available in the
immediate vicinity, but it’s just one of those things that you have to adapt to if you
want to fit into Japanese culture and etiquette.
One of the aspects that many people admire about Japan is their meticulous
garbage separation. But it can be a bit frustrating when you actually live here.
There are lots of separation rules, and they differ by city and region. But
nevertheless choosing to ignore trash separation rules is very much looked
down upon, so make sure to do your homework on it before coming here.