It doesn’t matter how crowded the train, how tiny the restaurant, how busy the street – the Japanese mastery of good manners creates an aura of calm and consideration for other people.
Some of the customs are a little tricky for gaijin (foreigners), these tips will help you avoid putting your foot (or your chopstick) somewhere it shouldn’t go.
Phone on silent
The Japanese love their smartphones as much as the rest of the world does, but they don’t talk on their phones on trains – and it’s considered rude if you do. Turn your phone to silent, or “manner mode”, like everyone else.
Although texting is ubiquitous, people also tend not to talk on the phone when in the street. At the most, they answer, speak quickly then put it away. Or go back to texting.
If you are given warabashi – the widely used disposable wooden chopsticks – don’t rub the sticks together. This implies they are cheap and might splinter. You will offend the host, however modest the establishment.
Watashibashi means placing your chopsticks horizontally across a dish and can mean you’re done eating. Doing this in the middle of a meal can also mean you don’t like the food or the food is bad.
It’s considered bad manners to use a chopstick to “stab” food (sashi-bashi) or use chopsticks to pull a bowl towards you.
More offensive is to leave your chopsticks standing up in your rice, which is a reminder of joss sticks at funeral ceremonies.
Don’t pass food directly from your chopsticks to someone else’s – this is similar to a funeral custom, where large bones are picked from the ashes using ceremonial chopsticks and passed to family members. Simply place the food on the edge of the plate for the other person to pick up.
Pour everyone else a drink
When dining in a group, always serve your companions a drink then put the bottle down and wait – someone else will then pour yours.
At the onsen
You are expected to wash thoroughly with soap before going into the communal tub. Sit on the low stool provided (don’t stand), use the small bucket to tip water on yourself but don’t splash those around you.
You go into the communal tub naked but take a small washcloth.
Don’t drop your cloth into the water – that’s very bad form. You will see Japanese with the cloth on their head, and that seems to be the safest place.
Wrap it right
When wearing a yukata – the casual, usually cotton, kimono typically worn at onsens – always cross the material from the left over the right side before tying with an obi. Crossing the other way is used when dressing the dead for burial.
Shoes off, slippers on, slippers off
A change in floor level or floor surface usually means remove your shoes – and line them up neatly. Don’t let your socks or slippers touch the floor before stepping onto the new surface (this can be a balancing act for Westerners!).
You may have to change into bathroom slippers to enter a bathroom. Don’t forget to change them again. Wearing them elsewhere in the house is a definite no-no.
Watch your step
Tatami mats are long lasting but delicate. Remove your slippers and just wear socks, or you can cause damage and serious offence.
On the street, on the metro
Walk on the right side of the footpath. Stand in line as the train pulls into the station. On crowded trains, wear your backpack on your front so as not to bump people.