Using chosticks with sushi roll and tea

Proper Behavior and Manners to Observe in Japan

For the most part, Japanese society is more formal and traditional than American society. The Japanese are more likely to warm up to you if you show respect and humility. Remember that your behavior reflects not only on yourself but also on your countrymen.

Expressing Appreciation

Remembering to thank people, even for small favors, is one of the most important keys to success abroad. One common mistake people make in groups is that they expect someone else to say thanks. Make sure you do your own part: write thank-you notes to express appreciation for a special invitation, and so on. This is important. Of course, you don’t actually need a formal thank-you note; a picture postcard is fine, for example. Small gifts are a nice way to show special appreciation.

Visiting Japanese Families

If you are invited to another family’s home, it is polite to bring an omiyage (a small gift such as cakes, fruit, or snacks) and to greet the whole family.

Tipping

Tipping is an unnecessary practice among many Japanese. They consider good service as standard and therefore do not expect to receive tips.

Shoes

Take off your shoes when entering a Japanese home or temple. Slippers are often provided. Socks are also allowed on tatami (straw mats). When changing shoes, don’t touch the floor with your feet. When you take off your shoes, place them neatly together.

Bowing

Bowing is a traditional greeting in Japan. A handshake is also acceptable.

Japanese lady bowing

Meals

Observe these rules while eating with your host family or with other Japanese people:

Using chopsticks

Never place your chopsticks so that they stick up directly out of your rice. (This is the traditional way of offering rice to the dead.) Also, never pass food between your chopsticks and another’s chopsticks. (This resembles the traditional funeral ritual of placing the bones of the dead in a mortuary urn!) Avoid making these mistakes. Read more about using chopsticks here.

Using chosticks with sushi roll and tea

Responses

After food has been placed on the table and you sit down for dinner, it is very common to say, “itadakimasu,” literally, “I will receive.” At the end of a meal, it is common to say, “gochisosama deshita (Thank you for the great meal),” a polite and respectful way to offer thanks. If you feel uncomfortable at first saying these phrases before and after dinner, try listening to your host family. You will gradually feel more comfortable.

Names

The Japanese rarely use first names when addressing colleagues or acquaintances. Last names are used more often, with the polite attachment san (Mr./Ms.) or sensei (for physicians, teachers, politicians) after the name. Always use sensei when addressing your instructors.

These examples of proper decorum in Japan are just a few of many but are a useful guide when traveling in Japan.