Social behaviour and etiquette are considered very important in Japan. While specific rules of courtesy are supposed to be universal, quite a few Japanese manners and habits are unique and should also be respected by foreigners. Please note that some customs outlined below are based on personal observation and experience.

We have currently added chapters on general customs, table manners and bathing and shall continue to expand this section. Feel free to comment on this page on the Japan Forum or in the comments box below.

General customs

  • Shoes: upon entering a house or a Japanese inn (旅館 ryokan), take off your shoes in the entryway (玄関 genkan). You will usually be provided with slippers. Slippers must be removed when stepping on tatami floor, though. In ryokan and sometimes in private homes, you will be provided with toilet slippers, only to be used inside the toilet. A lot of Japanese restaurants (居酒屋 izakaya) also request their guests to take off their shoes. You will be offered a shoe locker to store your shoes.
  • Bowing: Japanese people do not shake hands when greeting each other but bow (お辞儀 o-jigi). The way of bowing reflects each person's social status and social position towards one another, resulting in bows of up to 90 degrees in angle when very deferential to a slight nod when greeting someone of lower social standing or junior rank. While women fold their hands slightly in front of their bodies when bowing, men's hands rest on their flanks. Foreigners are usually not expected to bow and will be readily welcomed with a handshake.
  • Blowing your nose: most Japanese travel guides emphasise the fact that it is considered very rude to blow your nose in public. Don't be mistaken: if you – as a matter of general courtesy that applies to countries other than Japan as well – blow your nose discreetly, no one will mind, even in a crowded restaurant. However, you will find many Japanese people loudly sniffling and snorting on trains or in other public spaces, a behaviour considered quite rude in most Western countries.

Table manners

Chopsticks: while most restaurants in Japan do offer Western-style cutlery, you might encounter situations where you have no choice but to use chopsticks (箸 hashi or お手元 otemoto). The pointed ends of the chopsticks are often placed on chopstick rests (箸置き hashioki), where place them back when interrupting your meal. Chopsticks are never to be stuck into food vertically or crossed on the table, as this is only done when food is offered to the dead. When handling food from a dish shared with others, many Japanese turn their chopsticks to hand out portions, which – according to some – is not considered proper etiquette. It is best to use a new set of chopsticks for that purpose. Needless to say, you should never use your chopsticks to point at people or objects. Whether disposable chopsticks (割箸 waribashi) made of splittable wood should be placed back into their paper wrappers after a formal meal remains a controversial issue.

Please seuniquepecial feature on Japanese chopstick manners.

Eating habits: start your meal by stating the phrase "itadakimasu" (いただきます, lit. "I humbly receive", "bon appetit") to show your gratitude to whoever contributed to your meal by hunting, fishing, cultivating and preparing it, conclude it with "gochisōsama deshita (ごちそうさまでした, "Thanks for a good meal"). Contrary to other Asian nations, it is considered rude to belch at the table. On the other hand, slurping Japanese noodles is not only socially accepted but often expected. Italian pasta, such as spaghetti, etc., however, should not be slurped. It is also a polite custom to clear your plates down to the last grain of rice and put the dishes back in the same position they were initially served. Sushi should be eaten in one piece; soup is consumed by holding the bowl with both hands and drinking from it, while other ingredients can be picked up with your chopsticks. Some dishes, such as Japanese curry or fried rice, are eaten with spoons.

Drinking manners: never pour alcoholic beverages for yourself, always share with others and serve according to seniority. If you have poured for others, another guest will also pour for you. On formal occasions, it is customary for female or junior attendants to pour the drinks. The first drink is traditionally consumed together, so wait until everyone has their glasses filled. You then toast each other by using the phrase "kampai" (乾杯 or 乾盃). Under no circumstances should you use the Italian "chin chin" to toast, as the term is colloquially used to describe the male private parts in Japanese.

Read more on Japanese cuisine and beverages.

Japanese bathrooms

  • Bathing habits: the Japanese are pretty passionate about taking baths (風呂 furo or polite お風呂 ofuro). Despite the introduction of Western-style bathrooms equipped with showers, it is still customary for a Japanese family to take a bath at night in winter and on sultry summer nights. Bathing is not only a matter of bodily hygiene but physical and mental repose.
  • Shower first: when taking a bath in a private Japanese home or the shared bath of a ryokan or a hotel, you will need to take a shower first. Japanese inns, hotels, as well as hot springs (温泉 onsen), offer communal shower facilities satisfying all imaginable needs of body hygiene, often providing even shavers and toothbrushes. Private bathrooms are usually furnished with tiny small plastic stools and wash bowls. Once sponged and scrubbed, make sure to rinse your body thoroughly before stepping into the bath! After soaking, shower your body once again. Pretty quite common for Japanese families to share the same bath: one after another, usually with the paterfamilias in the lead. Guests will often be honoured to be first to enjoy the tub. Make sure not to empty the tub after you have soaked; the rest of the family will still use your water.


Please check out our feature on gift-giving in Japan.