When you travel, it’s not uncommon to learn – one way or another – about the rules of politeness in the place where you are visiting. Often, they can be different to what’s considered good manners where you live.
What I’ve learned over time is that knowing what’s appropriate or inappropriate can build way more goodwill with the locals you interact with, rather than just shrugging your shoulders and helplessly excaliming, “I’m not from here! I don’t know any better!”
As I travel, I want to note some of these points of etiquette on the blog as a way to help other travellers. While you’ll still obviously look like a tourist, at least locals will see that you got the memo on how to fit in.
Here is a small – and by no means comprehensive – list of things I’ve learned about etiquette in Japan.
Cover Your Mouth
Unless you’re breaking out the pearly whites to say cheese in a photo or smiling in conversation, it’s best to keep them hidden when yawning, coughing, or anything else that is going to expose what’s inside your oral cavity.
Cover Your Mouth : Extreme Coverup Edition
The quickest way to have people give you a dirty look and move away from you is by coughing, sneezing, and sniffling, all while not wearing a face mask. If you ever want to know what someone who has the plague feels like, give it a spin on the train. Or, don’t.
The Japanese take the idea of personal responsibility for one’s cold/flu/sniffles really seriously. When you see someone wearing a mask, it’s because they feel sickly and don’t want to infect others.
You can buy face masks on the cheap at convenience stores, dollar stores, pharmacies, and pretty much anywhere else you stop to get a bottle of soda. And – if you shop around – you’ll find some unique and cool designs.
Snort, Sniffle, But Don’t Blow
Have a runny nose? Suck it up, buttercup. No – literally.
Keep trying to hold back the torrent of snot in your nose as long as you’re in public. Snorting is actually considered okay, but no one wants that goo breaking loose.
Once you’re in a private space like a toilet stall or alone at home, let loose and blow that stuff out. But in public, blowing your nose is just considered disgusting.
Wash Your Hands, Not Your Face
When you go to a sit-down restaurant, you’ll often be given a hot hand towel roughly the size of a face cloth. Resist your urge to wipe your face with it – the intention is for you to use it to cleanse your hands before handling food during the meal.
If you really need to freshen up, there are facial wipes you can pick up from pharmacies and convenience stores which do the trick to get that grime from sweat and dust off your face.
Basic Dining Decorum
Don’t stick your chopsticks upright in rice – it’s the way a bowl of rice is offered to the spirit of a dead person, and doing so will show that you read absolutely NOTHING about the country before visiting!
You might just heap all the disposable garbage on top of your plate at a sit-down restaurant for it to be carried back to the kitchen, but don’t. It’s considered gross, since someone else will be eating off that plate again.
If you’re at a buffet and you’ve taken food – eat it. It’s incredibly rude to be wasteful.
Shoes Off, Please!
Coming from Western Canada, this wasn’t hard to get used to since taking off shoes in our homes is a pretty universal thing to do. But, for the rest of you who come from places where wearing shoes indoors is a thing, you need to know that taking off your shoes upon entering a home is customary in Japan. There’s usually a sunken level near the doorway where the shoes will stay, and slippers to replace them with.
But shoes off doesn’t just extend to the home. Some restaurants will require you to remove your shoes and store them in lockers before entering the dining room. Changing rooms at gyms/spas and dressing rooms in clothing stores are typically also “no shoe zones.” Some temples will also have areas which require you to de-Ugg your feet before exploring.
When in doubt, look to the ground and see what everyone else is wearing on their feet, and go with the flow.
Put On the Toilet Slippers
The Japanese consider the water closet (the small room just big enough for a toilet) to be one of the dirtiest places in a home or hotel room.
Appropriately, you never go to the toilet barefoot. Instead, you’ll find a pair of communal slippers in the doorway to the toilet which have been designated for the space (and should never be worn outside of it). Slip them on and do your business.
You’ll also find these at onsen, spas, and any other place where you don’t wear shoes.
Stay Off The Phone!
Yes, your phone might be vibrating with that call from home you absolutely, positively, have to take. But it can wait until you find an appropriate place to hit the answer button.
Restaurants, cafes, coffee shops, trains, stores – in all of these places, it’s considered incredibly rude to carry on a phone conversation.
If it is an emergency and you can’t wait, you can do as some locals do and cover your mouth with one hand while speaking very quietly in to the handset, but even that is frowned upon and might get you some dirty looks.
Personal calls are better suited for the great outdoors in plazas, parks, or while walking down the street. And even then, keep it quiet, keep it discrete, and don’t impede the flow of traffic by walking too slowly.
Silence is Golden
Phone calls aren’t the only no-no on trains. Loud music, loud conversation – actually, conversation of any kind – is just something you don’t do on the train. Granted – this creates for an eerie, almost post-apocalyptic scene during morning rush hour commutes when hundreds of people are packed in to a train car saying nary a word. But, I can say it helps keep the chaotic-looking scene from sounding like one, too.
There are exceptions to the no-talking-on-the-train rule. Typically, later at night as drunken salarymen pile in to head home, the atmosphere accordingly starts to loosen up and people will quietly carry on conversations. But if you get on a train and can hear a pin drop, it’s best to not be the one to shatter the silence.
Are there points of etiquette you’ve encountered in your travels through Japan? Have questions about what’s right/what’s wrong? Leave your thoughts in the comments, or shoot me an e-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org.
Feature Image Credit : ©Y.Shimizu/©JNTO