Manners And Etiquette When Visiting A Japanese Home

If you have the opportunity to visit Japan for any length of time, one of the best experiences that could be bestowed upon you is the chance to visit a Japanese home. You might go to someone’s home to enjoy a traditional meal or a social visit. Regardless of the reason, there are important manners and etiquette to practice when visiting a Japanese home. 

One of the most unique attributes of Japanese culture is the deep-rooted meaning behind many of their traditions and etiquette rules they hold sacred. It is considered a sign of deep respect to taking the initiative to learn and follow their customs and ways of life. 

A traditional tatami room found in some Japanese homes

Japanese people are also known for being polite and expressing gratitude and thankfulness towards people. They hold signs of respect at great importance, and deeply appreciate receiving respect when sharing their culture with others.

It is a special act of kindness for a Japanese person to welcome you into their home, meaning it’s important to be a good guest and understand some basic rules of etiquette.

Japanese home in the rural suburbs of Tokyo

Homes in Japan vary from very old traditional style types such as the Minka houses, modern homes built in the last fifty or so years, and apartments. Each of which can range in size from a standard western home’s square footage to apartments that is extremely small.

Each family can differ as to their normal household behaviors, there are generally things that most Japanese do conform to across the entire country and so learning the basics can greatly impress your host if you are aware of them.

Take Off Your Shoes

It is not common in Japanese culture to ever wear shoes inside the home. When you do take your shoes off, point them towards the door, as it’s considered to be proper manners.

You also want to ensure you don’t turn away from your host to remove your shoes as it’s considered bad manners. 

You also want to take care to put on some clean socks in good conditions when you know you’re going to a Japanese home. The custom of removing your shoes is also practiced in some Japanese restaurants and places of worship, and even some historical buildings. 

As a general rule, in some informal settings not having socks and going barefoot would be acceptable, in a more formal setting, it’s best to wear socks. It would be considered poor etiquette or even bad manners to not wear socks in a formal visit to a Japanese home.

Wear Slippers Indoors

In many Japanese homes, there will be slippers provided for you to wear indoors. These are often found sitting on a genkan, which is an area of the home that has two slightly elevated parts right by the door. Part of this area is designated for removing your shoes. The more elevated area is not to be stepped on until wearing slippers in some homes. 

The genkan is typically made of different flooring than the rest of the entrance. It’s also important that, if your outdoor shoes aren’t worn with socks, you place a fresh pair on before putting on your slippers. Some homes will also have separate slippers for using the washroom.

You must leave your indoor slippers at the door and wear the toilet slippers only while using the bathroom.

Japanese bathrooms can be small but efficient and have hi-tech toilets or washlets

There are some areas of a Japanese home where you don’t want to wear your slippers. These areas will have tatami mats, which consist of traditional, lightly colored cotton or hemp flooring placed throughout a room.

Be Punctual 

If a Japanese family has been kind enough to invite you for a visit, you don’t want to disrespect them by making them wait for you. Alternatively, you also don’t want to arrive very early either. Try your best to arrive as close to the agreed-upon time as possible. 

Old style tatami room with cushioned seating around a small table

Japanese people tend to put a lot of preparation into having guests over. If there is any reason beyond your control why you might be late, be sure to contact your host to let them know.

How To Greet Your Hosts

You don’t want to just stroll in and fail to greet your host when entering a Japanese home. It is polite to knock on the door and wait for the host to invite you in. It’s also considered good manners to thank the host for allowing you to come over. 

bowing in Japan is a common sign of respect

There is a Japanese phrase commonly exchanged between the guest and host, where the guest says Ojama Shimasu.

This is Japanese for apologizing for intruding or disturbing the host. While this may seem counterintuitive, it’s considered respectful to appreciate the host’s time spent preparing for you to come over. 

Bring A Small Gift 

It’s not unheard of to bring a small present for the homeowners that have been kind enough to invite you over. When visiting a Japanese home, this rings true as well and is considered a sign of respect and appreciation. 

Gift-giving tips:

  • Bringing a gift made or purchased from outside of your host local area can be considered very thoughtful and will be appreciated even more.
  • Wrapping the gift in a furoshiki or a Japanese wrapping cloth can be a great way to show your host your gratitude. However many Japanese food items made for gift giving can be wrapped and packaged in an incredible mannor and further wrapping isnt necesary.
  • Normally the gift is giving to your host once you have entered the home. However if the gift is live flowers this is often given before entering. Remember to avoid white flowers as these are commonly used at funerals.
  • When giving the gift its best to do so in a humble manner and not express the value of the gift as this would be seen as rude and of bad manners.
  • Pesenting the gift is done with both hands. For example a small box would be held with both palms facing upward and the gift resting in both hands.
Furoshiki is a traditional way of wrapping a gift or food item

There is even a Japanese word for this; omiyage. The gift doesn’t have to be extravagant. It could be something small like a snack or a fruit basket, wrapped nicely in some paper or a bag. These gifts tend to be something edible rather than a decoration, so be sure to ask the host if you are not quite sure what they like.  

Don’t Bring Your Own Guests

In Western culture, it’s pretty common that, during a social visit, you can invite your significant other or a couple of friends to a gathering or dinner.

Depending on the relationship you have with that person, you might not even have to ask. This is not a common occurrence when visiting a Japanese home, however. 

Your Japanese host may not have prepared for extra people and will have to rearrange their seating plans and make more food if there are additional guests to partake in a meal.

Where You Should Sit 

The adage of avoiding sitting in Grandpa’s favorite chair is not one exclusive to Western families. In a Japanese home, it is considered good etiquette to avoid just sitting anywhere. Instead, you should wait until your host advises you of where to sit so you don’t sit in someone else’s favorite spot. 

A traditional Japanese low table with cushioned floor seating

In many settings in Japan, sitting upright on the floor is the norm. Meals, for example, are typically served around a Japanese low table on a tatami floor. During the tea ceremony and other formal occasions, it is also normal to sit on the floor, often on a square cushion.

Follow The Family’s Way Of Eating

Many Japanese families will have their own rules they abide by when dining. They have certain customs when it comes to their dinnerware, their cutlery, and the way they serve food.

Take the time to observe how your host interacts with these items before following suit. 

Common eating tips for Japanese meals:

  • Your host may make a toast at the begining of the meal. Often a toast when raising your glass will be accompnied by the word Konpai with the same meaning as cheers in the west. Often said when drinking sake.
  • You may be given an Oshibori or wet hot towel to clean your hands. This towel is strictly used on your hands only.
  • Before taking your first bite of food its traditional to say itadakimasu, Translated it means, I humbly accept this food or meal.
  • When eating from small bowls its customary to bring the bowl close to your mouth and use the chopsticks to eat the food.
  • Bowls of soup such as miso are also picked up and brought close to the mouth and consumed directly out of the bowl. Larger dishes are not picked up but are eaten from the table.
  • If there is a platter of shared food on the table its best to use the ends of your chopsticks that do not enter your mouth or use another utensil to pick up the foods and place them on your plate.
  • If you are using chopsticks once your meal is complete return your chopsticks to the chopsticks rest if there is one.
  • If there is no chopsticks rest place the chopsticks are parallel to each other and place them on your plate horizontally and make sure they are not pointed towards other guest.
  • It is considered good manners to allow the host to eat before the guest.
  • Its proper to finish everything on your plate and can be considered rude and wasteful to not finish it all.
  • Once your meal is complete a common phrase is to say, thank you for the feast, or in Japanese, gochisōsama deshita.
  • In a formal setting its best to pace your eating so that you do not finish before the rest of the particpants.
  • Once finished its considered good manners to return all bowls, plates and lids to their original position as they were when you started eating.

Compliment The Chef 

It is a very important part of Japanese etiquette to let the chef know you are enjoying your food. There are a couple of Japanese words you can use to do so; Oishii and Umai. Your host will be concerned you are not happy with your food if you don’t say anything. 

Offer To Help Clean 

Once you are finished with your meal, it is good manners to offer to help the host clean up the table and wash the dishes. The host may not always take you up on your offer, but it’s important to at least ask. 

If the host insists that they would rather you mingle with their family, at this point, it is okay to relax in the living room. Be sure to compliment the family on their home and show your gratitude for them inviting you over. 

Don’t Stay Too Long 

You do not want to impose yourself on your hosts for too long after your meal.

They may offer you a drink or want to chat and be sure to follow their cues. Getting too casual with a host that you don’t know well can be considered disrespectful. 

Japanese persons are very punctual and aware of time. Often on printed invitations, it’s common to see a beginning time and an ending time listed for the dinner or event. Japanese will very commonly leave once this ending time approaches.

Stay Off Your Phone 

It is not commonplace in Japanese culture to play on your phone during a social visit. If there is something you must attend to, such as making a phone call or sending a quick text, excuse yourself for a brief moment. Its best to interact with your host and other guest and make a genuine effort to get to know each one.

Sitting on your phone might make your host think you’re bored, and you’re missing out on the opportunity to immerse yourself into their lives and their culture.

Lets Ask Shogo 5 Tips On Japanese Manners

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.