A Guide To Street Manners And Etiquette In Japan

One of the most fascinating things about traveling is taking the time to watch and learn how others conduct their daily lives. Manners and etiquette differ vastly between cultures and it can be difficult and often embarrassing to navigate when you are in a foreign place.

Japan is infused with traditional cultural ideals that value respect, decorum, and consideration for others and it has its own unique set of rules, obligations, and manners.

Many of these are completely unfamiliar to most foreigners. It is a great idea to prepare for your forthcoming trip to Japan by educating yourself about the standards of Japanese street manners and etiquette.

This article lists everything you need to know and gives you tips on what to do when you’re not sure.

Street manners when you’re out and about

Much of Japan’s street manners stem from the fact that much of the population live in crowded cities. In order for this to be liveable, everyone needs to follow a few simple customs to make life as easy as possible for everyone.

If you’re snacking on the street, find a seat

In recent years, younger Japanese people have adopted the practice of eating while walking on the street. This is a relatively recent trend that, for years, was considered to be quite impolite.

If you’re in a city, you won’t have to look far to find a convenient snack or meal that you can take with you. But beware, it is considered extremely impolite to eat as you walk along the street.

Take advantage of the seats provided, or look for a spot elsewhere where you can sit and enjoy your food.

Don’t point your finger at another person

In many cultures, it is impolite to point your finger at another person or in a specific direction. Japan is no different. Not only is it considered rude, but also threatening.

If you need directions, use an open hand to indicate where you mean. You’ll find others will do the same, or simply answer without gestures.

Walk on one side of the road (but which side?)

In this instance, your best bet is to do as others around you are doing. This is because there are two schools of thought in Japan about which side of the road you should be walking on.

Option 1: Walk on the left when you’re on the pavement

Japanese cars drive on the left and many people automatically walk on that side of the pavement.

Option 2: Walk on the right when there is no pavement

Japanese students are usually taught to walk on the right side of the road so that they can see the cars that are coming in their direction and avoid them.

If in doubt, copy what the majority of the people are doing.

Don’t walk and smoke

Much the same as the etiquette around eating on the street, it is considered to be extremely impolite to smoke while you walk. And it’s not hard to see why. When you walk behind an active smoker you get a face full of smoke with each puff.

Smoking is still widespread throughout Japan, but in recent years many cities have created designated smoking zones. You can usually spot them with signage, although this will not usually be in English.

If you smoke, make sure you know the rules as you risk being fined up to ¥20,000 if you get it wrong!

Mind how you take photographs

Thanks to strict privacy laws, photography in Japan can be a challenge. Technically speaking you cannot publish any photos where you can recognize the people in them, nor can you fly a drone in a large city without obtaining permission via permit from the local authorities.

When you’re trying to take the perfect shot, make sure you don’t block traffic or step up on a bench or table to take an elevated shot, as this is considered to be unhygienic.

Be aware of others

Always spare a thought for the people around you. Don’t dump your luggage where it will block where others walk and avoid standing where pedestrians have to walk around you.

Never sit on the ground or steps

Not only is this seen as unhygienic and poor manners, but you will block where others are walking.

Carry your trash with you

Japan offers few garbage bins outside train stations and convenience stores. Keep your trash with you, and throw it out when you return to your hotel.

Don’t toss your cigarette butts

If you’re a smoker, you should buy a portable ashtray from a convenience store and use it to stash your butts. Never throw them into the street.

Don’t go overboard with your affections

While you might be used to giving your loved one a lingering hug or even a kiss in public, this is considered to be highly inappropriate in a country where couples holding hands has only recently become common.

Don’t jaywalk

It’s taboo in Japan to disobey street signs and signals, including jaywalking. Not only will you get looks of disdain from fellow pedestrians, but you risk a ¥50,000 fine and up to three months in prison!

Common etiquette when you’re indoors

Learn how to use your chopsticks

While many of us have the skills to use chopsticks when we go to a restaurant, most of us won’t be familiar with the intricacies of Japanese chopstick etiquette.

Here are some key things to remember:

  • Don’t rest your chopsticks upright or vertical in a bowl as this is reserved for funeral services and is considered extremely inappropriate outside these settings.
  • It is impolite to cross your chopsticks.
  • Don’t stab your food as this is the wrong way to use them.
  • And remember, never tip. Not in restaurants, hotels, or wherever you’re used to leaving gratuities. If you leave any money on a table, the waiter will run after you to hand it back or turn it over to the restaurant.

If you want to impress, simply say ‘gochisosama deshita, which means ‘thank you for the delicious meal’.

Remove your shoes

When you enter someone’s house, visit a temple or eat a meal at a particular restaurant, you should remove your shoes. You might even be offered inside-slippers to use. Take advantage of them and ones reserved for the bathroom.

And if you want to avoid embarrassment, just make sure you’re wearing clean socks that don’t have any holes in them!  

Dress to impress

Japanese people wear formal business attire and stylish casual wear. If you want to fit in, make sure you take your travel gear up a notch and pack some fashion pieces.

Take a bow

The art of bowing, known as o-jigi, is characteristically Japanese. While you won’t offend anyone if you don’t bow back to someone who bows to you, it is a nice gesture from a foreigner who respects Japanese customs.

It’s also a great idea to bow lower than the person you are meeting, as this is a sign of respect.

If all else fails, do what everyone else is doing

It is very likely that you will encounter a situation not covered in this list. Your best bet is to take a moment and look at what other people are doing and copy them.

Even if you don’t get it exactly right, as a foreigner, Japanese people will appreciate your efforts.

My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.