Japanese Customs and Practices You Should Know About

Planning a trip to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Mt. Fuji? Or are you preparing to work, study, or live in Japan?

Before you go, here are some of the most important Japanese customs and practices you should remember.

Japanese Values

Japanese values center around respect, hard work, and harmony.

The modern-day culture of Japan is deeply tied to their ancient Shinto, Buddhist, and Confucian beliefs.

Shinto is the most popular religion in Japan, with over 70 percent of the population practicing Shinto rituals such as honoring ancestors and spirits in public shrines and home altars.

One of the most common Shinto beliefs is wa  (和), or social harmony.

Wa influences all aspects of life in Japan. It means putting unity and peace first over personal interests.

Wa is valued everywhere, from workplaces to households. It allows groups to avoid disagreements and enjoy a harmonious relationship.

It may be good to understand wa when applying for work in Japan or meeting your Japanese spouse’s family for the first time.

Japanese culture and customs
Wa is a key concept in Japanese culture. Image source: Pexels

Japanese Customs 

Understanding Japan’s cultural norms is a great way to foster positive interactions with the locals. Here’s a quick overview of traditional Japanese customs:

Japanese names

Unlike Western names, Japanese names start with the surname first, followed by the person’s given name. 

Let’s say your friend introduces herself as Katsuragi Misato. This means that Katsuragi is her family name, and Misato is her given name.

Japanese people also use honorifics such as sama, san, chan, and kun

You can affix them to the given name or surname, although the more formal honorifics (san, –sama) are often used with the last name.

  • Sama (さま) is meant to show respect to guests, customers, and seniors. “Thank you for your guidance, Tanaka-sama.”
  • San (さん) is similar to Mr., Ms., or Mrs. and is often used to address equals. “Have you eaten, Asuka-san?”
  • Chan (ちゃん) is a female honorific and is used for girls, children, close friends, or lovers. “I gave Sakura-chan my last mochi.”
  • Kun (くん) is a male honorific used for someone junior. “When do you start school, Shinji-kun?”

Don’t use honorifics when:

  • Speaking about yourself. This is seen as arrogant.
  • When the person asks you not to use them. The Japanese refer to this as yobisute (呼び捨て), which means “call” or “throw away”. 
  • When talking with someone inside your circle or uchi (内). For example, when you’re talking with your parents and grandparents.
  • When discussing someone from your inner circle with others outside your circle or soto (外). For example, when you’re talking about your best friend with your boss.
Japanese name honorifics

Bowing

Bowing is a customary Japanese greeting and a key part of everyday life in Japan.

Japanese people bow to their superiors as well as other people to show gratitude and respect.

Men keep their arms by their sides, while women cross their hands or fingers at thigh height.

For casual friends and acquaintances, light nods are enough.

The duration and depth of the bow depend on the situation’s formality and the seniority of the person you’re greeting.

When meeting a group of Japanese people, make sure to greet the person with the highest status first.

Japanese customs in bowing
The types of bowing in Japan depends on who you're greeting. Image source: Pexels

Table etiquette

Before eating, Japanese people say “Itadakimasu!” (いただきます), which expresses thanks for the food.

Be mindful of using chopsticks! In Japan, it’s seen as disrespectful to point them at others, stick them upright in your bowl of rice, cross them, or use them to pass food.

Make sure to say “Gochisōsama deshita” (ごちそうさまでした) to show that you were satisfied with the meal.

Japanese table etiquette
Japanese people can be very particular on table etiquette. Image source Pexels

Entering homes and places

It’s customary in Japan to take off your shoes before entering a home or establishment.

Most places have a designated shoe-removal area called genkan (玄関) at the entrance.

When removing your shoes, make sure they are placed neatly and pointed toward the door.

Usually, homes and establishments offer non-slip socks called tabi (足袋) for you to use when stepping onto tatami (畳) mats.

Tatami mats are woven straw floor coverings for people to sit or sleep on.

If the host didn’t offer tabi, you need to walk barefoot.

Japanese people also have separate slippers for the bathroom. Don’t make the mistake of entering or leaving the bathroom wearing the same slippers!

Japanese customs when entering homes and other places
Japan has customs related to the proper way of entering homes and other places. Image source: Pexels

Gift-giving

Japanese people love giving gifts, especially on special occasions like birthdays, holidays, and even business transactions.

It’s polite to decline the gift at first, but after the giver insists, accept the gift with both hands and bow in gratitude.

Make sure to give a gift back at a reasonable time.

Japanese gift-giving etiquette
Gift-giving plays a big role in Japanese culture. Image source: Pexels

Japanese Etiquette Cheat Sheet

Aside from the practices we mentioned, here are some examples of Japanese practices you need to remember:
  1. Be punctual, and arrive on time for appointments and events. Shitsurei (失礼), which means tardiness or rudeness, is generally frowned upon in Japan.
  2. Remember common greetings like “konnichiwa” (hello), “arigatou” (thank you), and “sayonara” (goodbye).
  3. Give up your seat on public transport to people who need it more. This includes pregnant women, the elderly, and the disabled.
  4. Avoid using your phone to take calls or send text messages in public. As a general rule, it’s best to be quiet when outside.
  5. Dress modestly and appropriately for the occasion. Avoid wearing overly revealing or loud clothing, especially in temples, shrines, or traditional establishments.
  6. Pay attention to your noise level. Speak softly in public places and avoid making loud noises, especially at night.
  7. The Japanese value their personal space. Stand at least 2–3 feet or at arm’s length from another person. The distance needs to be longer when meeting a stranger.
  8. Don’t blow your nose, smoke, or walk while eating.
  9. Don’t litter! Hold on to your trash until you see the designated bins.
  10. Always respect queues. Japanese people like organized systems and prefer lining up for the train, the ramen restaurant, or theme parks.

 

Tips for Learning Japanese Customs and Practices

Of course, there are many other customs and practices that you can only learn firsthand.
Here’s how to be better at learning them:
  1. Participate in activities related to Japanese culture. Visit museums, attend traditional events, and try authentic Japanese cuisine.
  2. Interact with the locals. Practice your Japanese language skills and engage in conversations with people you meet.
  3. Immerse yourself in Japanese media. Read translated Japanese books, watch Japanese movies, or delve deep into anime. Realistic depictions of everyday life in Japan can help you understand Japanese culture better.
  4. Be patient and understanding. Cultural differences may take time to fully grasp.

 

Learn Japanese Culture Before Your Trip!

It’s vital to understand the culture before planning a trip to Japan.
More than being aware, you need to respect their traditions and practices for a more meaningful and enjoyable experience.
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