Etiquette in Japan

In this month’s article I’d like to talk to you about etiquette in Japan. I will tell you about some of my experiences and what you shouldn’t be doing when you arrive here.

Taking A Bath

I’m originally from the United States. In the United States when we take a bath, we wash our bodies with soap inside the bathtub. But this is not the case in Japan. In Japan it is customary to wash one’s body with soap outside of the bathtub. After you wash your body, you rinse off all the lather and enter the bathtub. The purpose of taking a bath here is for soaking and relaxing rather than cleaning our bodies.

The first time I came to Japan, I stayed at a business hotel in Tokyo. This hotel had a public bath for the guests to use. After I got undressed I proceeded to the bathtub area. Now, the public bathtub at a hotel or elsewhere is quite large and can accommodate a number of people. I picked up a bar of soap and stepped inside the bathtub. I then proceeded to wash my body with soap while I was inside the bathtub. A Japanese guest who was also in the same bathtub started to freak out when I started doing this and started saying something in Japanese. I didn’t understand what he was saying but got the impression I shouldn’t be doing that. I later found out that washing your body inside the bathtub is a no no.

Entering Someone’s Home

In Japan when visiting someone’s home it is customary to take off your shoes at the entrance or “Genkan” and put on “Uwabaki” or a type of slippers that is only worn for indoor use. If you are visiting a close friend or relative it is usually alright to wear only socks. But only in rare and informal situations do we ever walk inside someone’s home barefoot. But if it is your own home then no problem. Even though we usually wear “Uwabaki” or indoor slippers, please keep in mind that when we use the restroom in someone’s home, there are other special slippers for restroom use only. Japanese are very sensitive when it comes to hygiene.

Receiving A Business Card

If you intend to spend an extended period of time here there will be times when you are given a business card from someone. There is actually a polite way to receive and give business cards here in Japan. Let me tell you about my experience when I first received a business card from a business person here in Tokyo. This was sometime around 1991 and I was inside the train going to my Japanese lesson. A man standing next to me started talking to me in English. After a while he pulled out a business card from his business card case and handed it to me.

Now what I clearly remember even to this day is the way that he handed his business card to me. He used two hands. After receiving the business card I wondered why he gave it to me with two hands. At the time I thought that it was a really heavy business card so that’s why he used to hands. Later I found out that in Japan, when giving and receiving things, it is considered proper etiquette to use both hands. So if someone gives you something or you give someone something, remember to use both hands.

Also, in meetings if you receive a business card you shouldn’t just put it in your pocket. It should be placed on the table in front of you until after the meeting is finished. The reasoning behind this is if you forget the person’s name, you only have to look at the business card in front of you. Forgetting a person’s name and taking his/her business card from your pocket to confirm their name is considered extremely rude. In addition, writing directly on a person’s business card or making notes on it in front of the person is also very rude.


There are some things that you should avoid doing when eating here in Japan. Here I will go what some of those things are. First of all, if you are eating a dish with a bowl of rice, you should never stick the chopsticks vertically up into the rice. This resembles incense sticks placed vertically into the sand that are burned at funerals.

If you need to pass food to someone you should never do it chopsticks to chopsticks. This too is a practice done in funerals here in Japan. After the body is cremated, the remaining bones are picked up and handled in this fashion. If you want to pass food to someone the proper way to do it is to use the reverse ends of the chopsticks that were not used to put food into your mouth. Then pick up the piece of food and place it on a separate plate. Also, when receiving the food from the plate, you do the same thing. Pick up the food using the ends that were not put inside your mouth and place it on your own plate.

In most western countries slurping is considered impolite. However, when eating noodles here in Japan, slurping noodles is considered normal. It took me a while to get used to this practice since I’m from a country where slurping is considered bad manners.

Gift Giving

When giving a gift to someone, you should avoid an item that displays the numbers 4 or 9. In Japan the number 4 pronounced (SHI) sounds the same as the word for death. The number 9 pronounced (KU) sounds the same as the word for suffering. Here in Japan many hotel and hospital rooms avoid using the numbers 4 or 9. It is similar to the number 13 which is considered bad luck in the West.

Addressing someone

If you meet someone for the first time it is considered good manners to call that person using “SAN” (MR or MS) after his/her last name. When a Japanese person introduces him or herself here they usually only give their last name. This is unlike in the West where a person will give both their first and last name. For example if a person’s name is Taro (first name) Suzuki (last name). He will usually introduce himself by saying something like “Nice to meet you, I’m Suzuki”.

Now this can cause confusion in western countries. In America where I’m from if someone introduces himself by giving only one name by saying “Nice to meet you, I’m Tony”, it is understood that “Tony” is his first name. I remember a few years ago a Japanese person introduced himself to my coworker who was from America. If I recall correctly he said something like “Hi I’m Watanabe” My coworker thought that “Watanabe” was his first name. He then said “Nice to meet you Watanabe, I’m Mark”.

The Japanese person probably thought that Mark was being very impolite since he didn’t use “SAN” when addressing him. And since Mark thought “Watanabe” was his first name he felt there was no need to use “SAN” or “Mister”. In America where I’m from we don’t use the title Mister in front of a person’s first name but rather last name only. As you can see a Japanese person would consider the foreigner rude for not using “SAN” after their name. And a foreigner would think that the Japanese person is being casual and friendly by using his first name. Be extremely careful of this here in Japan.

Another point to consider is that here in Japan, “SAN” is used even in front of first names as well. Even close friends here call each other using “SAN”. So unless a Japanese person specifically requests that you call him/her by his/her first name, a good rule of thumb is to address everyone you meet using “SAN”

Although there are numerous other examples and situations, I will leave that for another blog. If you are mindful of the above then you shouldn’t have any problems when visiting Japan. If you have any questions, leave them in the comment section or message me directly.

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