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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

personal conversations.

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

as マナーモード.

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

this case.

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

your mouth.

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.