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Japanese etiquette is a series of rules and guidelines for socially acceptable behavior. Every culture has specific etiquette rules that help to provide a framework for interaction between people. A clear set of etiquette rules establishes social rank, education, and family background. Japanese etiquette is fairly easy to learn, as it is built on a series of well-understood and well-documented behavior for different locations and settings.
In Japanese culture, there is a clear separation between personal feelings and behavior in public. It is considered polite, not hypocritical, to hide your actual feelings and to display the appropriate response for the comfort of the others. Failure to do this is a sign of low class, social and business standing.
Japanese etiquette guidelines can be divided into the basic situations in modern life: meeting new people, eating, and visiting the homes of others. Although there are specific etiquette tips for each area, the best general advice is to be observant. Hang back slightly in a new situation and watch how your host behaves. If it doubt, make a genuine effort to focus on the person who is speaking to or working with you. Pay close attention to their responses and apologize quickly for any errors and many social mistakes will be forgiven.
When meeting new people, Japanese etiquette is to stand with your hands outside your pockets. In a formal meeting, people usually bow. The person being introduced initiates the bow. If you are the lower ranked person, your bow is lower. This is easy to determine in a business setting, but not as simple in a social setting. When in doubt, bow to the same level as the other person, but dip your head slightly lower.
In a less formal setting, people often nod their head after the introduction instead of bowing. Return the nod and smile. If you are in a business setting, present your business card with two hands, positioning the card with the writing away from you. When you receive a card, take it with both hands, and read the card with care. Keep the card on the table in front of you and do not put it in your pocket.
When eating, it is good manners to keep the chopsticks pointed down or parallel to the table. Do not wave, point or touch anyone with your chopsticks. When serving yourself from a communal dish, use the serving spoon or chopsticks provided. Never stick your chopsticks in the food, and always ask for a knife and fork if you are having trouble. It is better manners to acknowledge your lack of skill with chopsticks than to force others to watch you struggle.
Japanese etiquette rules recommend that visitors should bring a gift for the host when visiting a Japanese home. It should be a small, inexpensive food item, but it presented to your host upon arrival. Remove your shoes and put on the house slippers, which will be waiting for you in the entrance hall or foyer, as soon as you arrive.
I'd say watch the movie "Lost in Translation" to get an idea of how Japanese etiquette works. You do get a pretty good impression of how things work, and I have friends who worked over there for several years who said the movie is pretty well spot-on.
One thing to remember is that Japanese people will rarely, if ever, give you a flat-out "no." They will say they'll think about it, or take it under advisement or whatever, but they feel that saying "no" outright is unpardonably rude. So that's something to think about.
If you're a woman traveling alone in Japan and you ride the subway, make sure to hop on one of the women's only cars. There have been real problems with women getting seriously groped on crowded cars, so the transit authorities started putting women's only cars, painted pink, to help combat the problem.
Something else about the gifts: an inexpensive food item is fine, but it should be beautifully wrapped. Most department stores will do this for you. They're accustomed to wrapping these kinds of gifts for these kinds of occasions.
It's also not a bad idea to consult someone who speaks and reads Japanese pretty well for gift ideas. This is because some words for gifts sound like unlucky numbers or symbols in Japanese.
Another tip is to have your own business cards printed in Japanese on one side of the card, and in English on the other. It's not strictly necessary, but it is thought to be a very considerate thing to do.