What Every First Time Visitor To Japan Should Know (Customs, Manners, Etiquette, And Culture)

For those who are not familiar with the Japanese way of life, visiting Japan for the first time could bring about a lot of culture shock, and plenty of opportunities to make accidental social blunders. 

In order to make your first visit to Japan as seamless and enjoyable as possible, there are a few simple but important customs, manners, etiquette, and cultural norms that are very helpful to know beforehand. 

Bowing

It is customary to bow when you are meeting someone, greeting someone, or thanking someone. There are a lot of rules regarding bowing, which you aren’t necessarily expected to know as a first-time visitor. 

However, knowing the basics of how to bow will show those you encounter in Japan that you respect their traditions and customs.

For example, a quick bow either of the head or with a slight bend at the waist will be accepted in most situations as a tourist. 

If you are going to be in Japan for longer, such as for work, you want to bow at a 70-degree angle at the waist when meeting someone in a professional setting. 

Taking Off Your Shoes

It is considered disrespectful to wear your shoes inside someone’s home, as well as in some establishments. You will usually be expected to take off your shoes as soon as you come to the entrance of such places. 

There will usually be a shoe rack of some sort or a designated area where you can leave your shoes, so they are neatly arranged and not piled up at the entrance. Most places will provide you with a pair of house slippers that you can wear once inside.

If you are visiting a home, they will most likely have slippers for you, but you can also bring your own pair just in case.

It is also usually recommended that you double-check that the socks you are wearing are clean and don’t have holes. If the shoes you are wearing don’t call for socks, bring a pair with you. 

It is also good to keep in mind that most homes will have special slippers for you to wear when using the bathroom.

You should take off your house slippers at the entrance, and put on the bathroom slippers only when using the bathroom. When you are leaving the bathroom, you want to change back into your house slippers. 

Speaking English

You don’t have to be concerned about visiting Japan if your Japanese is limited. Many will invite the opportunity to be able to practice their own English with you.

It would not be considered disrespectful by anyone in Japan that you are not fluent in their language. 

In fact, you might find that you are approached and asked where you are visiting from. You might even see schooled-aged Japanese greeting you in English if they assume you are from an English-speaking country.

Japanese people are very polite and friendly and are also understanding and courteous towards those visiting their country. 

Keep A Low Profile

People in Japan don’t believe in making spectacles of themselves. They also don’t enjoy conflict or big public displays.

While it’s totally acceptable to say a quick hello to someone or have a friendly chat, understand that people in Japan are a modest bunch. 

For example, you don’t want to have a loud chat on your phone while sitting on the train. This is considered especially rude and disruptive to other people on your commute. 

Wearing Masks

It has been common for people in Japan to wear masks when they are not feeling well, even if they just have sniffles.

This is especially true when in the workplace, on public transit, or even just running errands. It is considered a polite way to refrain from exposing others to germs. 

It would be wise to do the same when you are out and about and may not be feeling your best. You won’t get any strange looks by wearing a mask; others will be grateful that you are taking their health seriously. 

Hachiko in Shibuya with face mask

Dining In Japan 

There are numerous etiquette rules and manners to abide by when dining in Japan. Sharing a meal with others is considered to be a very special practice in Japan. If you are invited to someone’s home for a meal, you should feel especially honored. 

As a first-time visitor to Japan, it’s more likely that you will be dining at restaurants unless you are visiting someone you know or are there for a long time and make new friends. 

In restaurants, one of the things you’ll most likely notice is that it is customary to be given a wet cloth at your table.

You want to use this cloth to wash your hands before you start eating. This wet cloth is only for this purpose; it is not to be used as a napkin or anything else. 

Also, when you are served a dish or are served food anywhere, it is customary to say itadakimasu, which means “I will humbly receive this meal.”

Finally, while it might feel wrong, you are not supposed to leave a tip when paying your bill. This is considered rude and insulting in Japan. Any situation where you would usually tip in your country, don’t do the same in Japan. 

Dining With Others In Japan 

If you are eating a meal with others in Japan, especially those from Japan, there are things to keep in mind to show everyone else at the table respect. 

For example, when someone pours you a drink or brings you a drink, you want to refrain from sipping it until everyone else at the table has their own.

At this point, someone will usually initiate a toast and you will all raise your glasses to cheers, or kampai, each other. 

How To Eat Certain Dishes In Japan

Whether you’re at a restaurant or in someone’s home, there are some manners to abide by when eating certain dishes. You’ll probably want to practice your chopstick skills before you make your trip. 

If there are some foods that you are eating that are difficult to keep in your chopsticks, it’s okay to raise your dish to your mouth to decrease the distance between your food and your mouth.

This is preferred to using your chopsticks improperly, or worse, using your hands to pick up your food. 

While in many other countries, slurping your soup or slurping up your noodles might be considered annoying, it is actually considered perfectly acceptable in Japan.

In fact, this communicates to your host or the serving staff that you are having a pleasant time and are enjoying your dish. 

Sentos And Onsens

The idea of a public or a communal bath might be confusing to those outside of Japan, but it is actually quite a special custom in Japan.

Sharing an experience in a Japanese bath, whether it be at a hot spring onsen or a public sento bath, or even someone’s bath at their home is a fantastic way to get to know locals on a different level. 

These baths are considered to be social hubs of Japan, where many people gather to chat and enjoy the healing properties of the baths. They are also kept very clean, and there are strict rules to ensure the water stays clean and the facilities remain pristine as well. 

While it’s not common to see anyone wearing clothes or even bathing suits in these public baths, it is understood among those attending that these baths are not a place to try and find a date or stare at others. There are also plenty of ways to stay covered under the water. 

Crime In Japan 

Japan is a very safe country, and Japanese people would like to keep it that way. As with anywhere, crime does happen, but it does not happen often and it is usually isolated to certain pockets of Japan. 

Since people living in Japan want to ensure crime doesn’t spike, you will notice that locals will care about your personal safety.

They might offer well wishes as you leave an establishment or leave their home, advising you to simply be careful or to keep your eye on your things. 

This is not because Japan is unsafe; it is because they want everyone to feel safe and be cautious regardless of how minimal your actual risk of danger might be.

Your First Hour In Japan

MT Lee
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.