Let’s face it – if you’re new to Japan, you’re probably gonna make a few cultural mistakes. And you wouldn’t be alone.
Deeply rooted in tradition and religion, Japan has a rich and complex culture, with what seems like a million unwritten rules. That’s pretty tough to navigate, even for Japanese people.
Just like with learning the language, you have to learn Japanese culture, and that can take a little time. For now, here’s a rundown of some common mistakes foreigners make in Japan – and what you should do instead.
Luckily, most Japanese people are very forgiving of foreigners who make mistakes if you are respectful. Bonus points if you’re really trying to learn.
1. Wearing Your Shoes in the House
If someone invites you over, don’t wear your shoes into the house. Every Japanese home has an area called a genkan. This is where you take off your shoes.
It would shock most Japanese people if you didn’t. Shoes are considered dirty and impure, and the genkan is usually one step lower than the rest of the house to better keep away the dirty stuff your shoes come in contact with.
Keeping the outside separate from the inside, in general, is extremely important in Japan. Purity is a pretty big deal in Shinto beliefs, and for Japanese people purity begins by removing their shoes before entering a home.
2. Slipper Blunders
Once your shoes are neatly placed at the genkan, you will probably be offered some slippers. Even if you don’t really want to, you should wear them.
In Japan, slippers are everywhere. At the gym, at ryokans (traditional Japanese inns), and even at the doctor’s office.
When you’re visiting someone, refusing the slippers just makes things slightly awkward. It’s just not what’s typically done. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it would be simple enough just to wear them, and by doing so you’re helping everyone, especially the host, feel a bit more comfortable and relaxed (a very Japanese thing to do).
If you’re using the toilet, there are special toilet slippers for you to change into (sometimes they even say “toilet” right on them).
Remember to switch back into your other slippers when you’re done, because wearing toilet slippers around someone’s house is just as offensive as wearing shoes, if not more.
3. Being Late
It would be an understatement to say that punctuality is important in Japanese culture.
Here’s an extreme example: to make up for being 90 seconds late, driver Ryujiro Takami drove a train off its tracks and crashed into a nine-story apartment building in April, 2005.
In the rail system, there is so much pressure to stay on schedule that even a one-minute delay requires an apology from the conductor over the train P.A. system.
It isn’t surprising, then, that being late in everyday life would also be looked down upon, especially in a business setting.
This Japanese quest for punctuality has many origins, one theory being that “during the Edo period, the samurai class considered tardiness and absence to be a sign of foolishness” (Source: Hirgana Times – Kouichi Nakagomi).
Japanese people definitely still hold this to be true, even for casual meetings with friends. Being late shows disrespect for someone’s time and efforts.
If, for whatever reason, you are late to work, it’s a good idea to call the office to let someone know, and to tell them how late you will be. Don’t forget to apologize profusely. Apologize again in person once you’ve arrived, and you’ll likely be ok.
4. Blowing Your Nose in Public
People don’t really blow their noses in public in Japan. It’s seen as dirty and disruptive.
What should you do instead? When Jeremy Atiyah asked this question upon visiting Tokyo, he was told that “the correct behaviour in the circumstances would be to keep sniffing until I could reach the privacy of the nearest bathroom” (Source: Independent – Jeremy Atiyah).
Sniffing your nose instead of blowing it might seem more dirty and annoying to people from other cultures, but in Japan, it’s the polite way to go about it, especially in tight quarters like rush hour trains.
5. Not Knowing How to Onsen
When you visit an onsen, there are two important things to remember:
●You must be naked (no swimwear) to enter the onsen
● You must shower before entering the onsen
There is a dedicated area for you to wash yourself, usually lined with small stools to sit on, hand-held showers, and little buckets. It’s very important to be clean before entering an onsen shared with others, to keep it pure and free of outside dirt and grime.
And if you have a tattoo, a lot of onsens will not let you to enter, at least not without covering them up.
This rule goes back to ancient Japan when criminals were often given tattoos as punishment. In more recent times, tattoos are associated with the mafia or yakuza in Japan, who began to cover up their “punishment” tattoos with very elaborate and decorative designs.
Even foreigners, who clearly have no connection with the yakuza, are not allowed to enter with visible tattoos because they are still seen as being connected with gangs, or at least disorderly behavior.
For the same reasons, gyms and public swimming pools also generally do not allow visible tattoos.
Recently some onsens, especially ones that get a lot of their business from foreigners, have started to relax on this rule. But it’s definitely still a thing, so finding out in advance is recommended.
Keeping these three things in mind will help you relax as you soak.
6. Not Knowing How to Handle Business Cards
In Japan, the exchanging of the business card, or meishi koukan, is a necessary first step to a formal introduction.
Forgetting to bring meishi is a big mistake. Not have a business card, especially the the world of business, is viewed in a negative light.
Sounds a little severe to the Western world which has, in recent times, begun to see business cards as becoming more obsolete in the face of social media and technology.
But in Japan, not only is it required to have business cards, but there is a whole set of rules about how to exchange them.
According to Michael Gakuran on Gaijin Pot, these are the hard rules of meishi koukan:
1) The highest ranking people exchange cards first
2) Give and receive cards using both hands
3) Ensure the card is turned towards the receiver
4) Keep received cards on display for the duration of the meeting
Check out the the full article here.
Breaking any of these rules is considered disrespectful and unprofessional. And don’t even think about shoving a business card in your back pocket!
If you’re going to Japan on business, there are lots of complicated rules that you would benefit from knowing, if you want to make a good impression. But again, Japanese people are way more forgiving of foreigners making mistakes, so it’s ok to learn as you go.
7. Not Slurping Your Noodles
Walking into a ramen shop and hearing the sounds of a dozen people noisily slurping their noodles might be shocking for someone not familiar with Japanese culture. After all, it would be extremely rude to do so in many other places.
But in Japan, everybody slurps their noodles. In fact, slurping is THE way to eat your noodles for maximum deliciousness. Slurping incorporates air with your bite of food, which not only helps to eat steaming hot noodles, but also helps you to taste the flavors better.
Not slurping your noodles, in fact, looks a bit strange and not oishisou (conveying “deliciousness”), and it would be a very obvious sign that you are new to Japan.
8. Misuse of Chopsticks
As if chopsticks weren’t hard enough to master, once you’re ready to eat with them there’s a whole bunch of ways to misuse them.
I’ll share with you the worst two (because sharing all of them would require a separate article).
1) Sticking Your Chopsticks Vertically Into a Bowl of Rice
Most Japanese funerals involve Buddhist rituals. And this is the way food is offered to the spirit of the deceased, with chopsticks stuck vertically in a bowl of rice. It’s also considered to bring bad luck. While it may seem like a good resting spot for your chopsticks between bites, doing this will definitely offend the people sitting near you.
2) Passing Food from Chopsticks to Chopsticks
Also originating from funeral practices, the bones of the deceased are passed from one person to the next after cremation, before being placed into an urn. By passing food from chopsticks to chopsticks during a meal, it is a somber reminder of this ritual. Instead, pass the plate of food instead, or if it’s a casual thing among friends, you can use the opposite ends of your chopsticks to grab the food for them.
While there are dozens of mistakes you could make with chopsticks, these two are the most cringe-worthy. Even if you are a foreigner, doing these things will make people pretty uncomfortable.
9. Assuming a Swastika Symbol is Nazi-related
You might be enjoying a pleasant walk around your neighborhood in Japan when you see it and it doesn’t make any sense: a swastika symbol? Are there Nazis among the Japanese people?
Nope. The swastika symbol has been around for ages, long before it had any association with the Western world.
In Japan, it symbolizes a Buddhist temple on a map, and it also can be seen on some tiny neighborhood shrines. The orientation is often the opposite of a swastika as well.
It’s also a symbol of good luck all around the world.
It’s an easy assumption to make, but don’t worry, that little old lady making an offering at the neighborhood shrine is not a neo-Nazi.
For foreigners new to Japan, it can often feel like you’re offending people left and right with cultural mistakes.
But it would be hard not to. Japan’s culture goes back to ancient times, and while you could learn about the history, most of the day-to-day stuff (the stuff you really need to know) isn’t in a book.
The unwritten rules, of which there are countless, weave a rich and complex tapestry of Japanese culture. It’s what makes it so unique, and so different. And so bizarre, at times.
It’s no wonder people want to visit.
So please, don’t let the fear of mistakes keep you from what is likely to be a life-changing trip to Japan. You might make mistakes, but as long as you’re respectful, you’ll soon fit right in.