102 Must Know Do’s and Don’ts of Japanese Culture

Japanese culture is famous for its politeness and every foreigner that comes here makes their share of social gaffs, or gaijin faux paxs (GFP). Here is a must have list of Japanese Do’s and Don’ts for anyone going to Japan.

Bowing

DO bow when people bow to you.
DON’T come up until they do.
DO come up before them if you happen to be their superior – otherwise you may be there forever.
DO bend from the waist and keep the back relatively straight.
DO bow with your hands at your sides for men & boys or clasped in the lap women & girls.
DO bend lower than the other person when bowing to older people or those of higher rank (ie your boss).
DO bow again if you are bowed to a second time – sometimes it will take 3 or 4 progressively less deep bows to make it back to full standing.
DON’T bow to children or after purchasing something at a store – foreigners bowing to the 16 year old kid at the 7-11 cash register after buying a sandwich is an all too common GFP.
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Eating

DO put your palms together and say “Itadakimasu” before eating – it is a polite way of expressing “Thank you for the meal I am about to receive.”
DON’T burp at the table – unlike some Asian countries, burping is rude in Japan.
DO lift bowls of rice, noodles, and small plates off the table to make eating with chopsticks easier.
DON’T lift large plates off the table to eat out of them.
DO be adventurous with trying new kinds of food.
DON’T blow your nose at the table – do it in the restroom.
DO cover your mouth with your other hand when using a toothpick.
DO put your palms together and say “Gochiso sama deshita” after finishing a meal – it is a polite way of expressing “Thank you for all the effort in creating this the feast”.
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Noodles

DO slurp noodles with broth, especially hot ones and those that are dipped in sauce.
DON’T over-slurp broth with every sip.
DON’T slurp noodles like spaghetti that don’t have a broth or dipping sauce.
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Sushi & Sashimi

DON’T pour soy sauce directly over sushi or sashimi.
DO pour soy sauce into the little soy sauce dish and dip your sashimi in it.
DON’T pour too much soy sauce into the soy sauce dish – wasteful is rude and you can always add more.
DO dip most kinds of sushi in soy sauce – topping side down.
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Chopsticks

DO try and use chopsticks.
DON’T noisily rub disposable wooden chopsticks together in your palms to remove splinters – this GFP is especially rude at sushi restaurants.
DO feel free to rub one disposable wooden chopstick against the other to remove splinters.
DO ask for help in how to use chopsticks if you need it.
DON’T be afraid to ask for a fork if you still can’t use chopsticks.
DON’T point at things with your chopsticks.
DO use the opposite end of your chopsticks to put food on your plate from a shared dish in the middle of the table.
—–DON’T stab food with your chopsticks – OK to do when with younger people.
DON’T pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks – this is done with cremated bones at a funeral.
DON’T leave your chopsticks sticking up in rice or other food – this is done to offer rice at a family altar.
DON’T wave the chopsticks around as you talk – common GFP.
DON’T use chopsticks to move around bowls or plates.
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Drinking

DO fill the glasses of people around you.
DON’T drink until everyone has been served and others around you raise their glasses for a toast.
DO pay attention to the glasses of people sitting around you and top them off when they get around 1/3 full.
DO say cheers or “kampai” when making a toast.
DON’T say “chin chin” when making a toast – this means “penis” in Japanese.
DO hold your glass when someone offers to fill it – finish quickly if there is anything remaining before holding it up.
DON’T finish what’s in your glass if you don’t want another one – someone will fill it up.
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Visiting

DO say “Ojama shimasu” when entering a house – it means something like “I am going to disturb you.”
DO take your shoes off when entering a school, house, temple or shrine – if you see shoes at the entrance, take yours off too.
DO arrange your shoes nicely with toes facing the door after taking them off when visiting someone’s hone.
DON’T forget to put on slippers on after taking off your shoes – they will be visible at the entrance.
DO take off your slippers when entering a tatami mat room – the mats are made from dried rush and are delicate.
DO bring a small gift of food, drink, or flowers when visiting someone’s home – make sure to tell the store it is a present so they wrap it for you.
DO say “Ojama shimashita” when leaving someone’s home – it means something like “I have made a disturbance.”
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Business Cards

DO accept business cards with both hands and read them over thoroughly.
DO put business cards in your shirt pocket or wallet after looking at them for a few seconds.
DON’T put business cards in the back pocket of your pants.
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Toilets

DO try and use Japanese style “squat” toilets.
DO face the wall and pull your pants down past your knees.
DON’T fall in!
DO use toilet slippers when at someone’s house – they will be just outside the toilet door.
DON’T forget to change back into the house slippers after leaving the bathroom – countless foreigners in Japan unknowingly waltz around houses in bathroom slippers everyday.
DO play with the cool buttons on futuristic Japanese Western style toilets.
DON’T play with toilet buttons while sitting on the john, especially the one next to the picture of water spraying into an ass.
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Bathing

DO wash yourself with soap and water at the shower area before getting into the bath.
DON’T get into the bath until you rinse all the soap off your body.
DO try a sento (public bath) or onsen (hot spring) while in Japan.
DO learn the Japanese character for men (男) and women (女) – most public baths rotate men and women areas so yesterday’s section for men may be the women’s section today.
DON’T freak out if you walk into the wrong section – just cop a couple of peaks, show a look of surprise and calmly make your way to the exit!
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Superstitions

DON’T use the word “shi” when counting people – the word for death has the same pronunciation.
DO hide your thumb if a funeral car goes by.
DON’T whistle at night, unless you want a snake coming for you.
DON’T lie down right after eating, unless you want to turn into a cow.
DON’T lie down to the North when sleeping – that’s how the dead are laid down to rest.
DON’T cut your nails at night – unless you don’t want to be with your parents when they die.
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Japanese Language

DO try and use the limited Japanese you know – even a little effort is greatly appreciated.
DO use “san” after someone’s name.
DON’T use “san” after a child’s name.
DO use someone’s title after their name, such as “sensei” for a teacher or doctor and “kaicho” for a company president.
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Greetings

DO say “Ohayo gozaimasu” in the morning until 11:00 am – or when you first walk into work.
DO say “Konnichiwa” from 11:00 am – 5:00 pm.
DO say “Konbanwa” after it starts to get dark.
DO say “Sayonara” when you part with someone for the day.
DO say “Oyasumi nasai” when you part with people at night.
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Sitting

DO wait to be told where to sit at meals or formal occasions.
DO sit cross-legged on the floor if you are a man.
DON’T sit cross-legged on the floor if you are a woman – sit with both legs bent and to the side.
DO sit in seiza style (legs tucked behind with shins touching the floor) when someone makes the first toast or gives a speech.
DO watch how other people are sitting and follow what they do.
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Gifts

DO give gifts to co-workers, friends and relatives in December (called Oseibo) and in June (called Ochugen) – you will find gift boxes in all kinds at all supermarkets during this time of year.
DO use both hands to give and receive gifts.
DON’T be offended if the gift is not opened in front of you – Japanese traditionally don’t open gifts until the giver has departed, though many young people no longer observe this custom.
DON’T open a gift until you leave, unless you are encouraged to do so.
DO open a gift if you are encouraged to do so.
DO give Christmas and birthday gifts if you want to – most Japanese people do so these days.
DO give chocolate to your boyfriend or male friends on Valentines Day.
DON’T forget to return the favor on White Day (March 14) if you receive chocolate on Valentines Day.
DO bring a local snack back to friends or the office when you return from a trip.
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Getting Around

DON’T tip – it can be insulting.
DON’T open taxi doors – drivers open them with an automatic button.
DON’T close taxi door – see above.
DO remember to close taxi doors when you leave Japan – walking away from a cab without closing the door is a great way to make a NYC cabbie angry.
DON’T worry if you see people wearing surgical masks – they are just trying not to pass on their cold to others.
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Weddings

DO bring money in a sealed “wedding envelope.”
DON’T use an odd number of bank notes.
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Funerals

DO bring money in a sealed “funeral envelope.”
DO wear black clothes or dark clothes with a black necktie.
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