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Customs & Traditions in Japan

Updated: May 5, 2021

Home> Countries> Asia> Japan> Customs & Traditions

General Etiquette

  • In Japan, it is impolite to yawn or chew gum in public.

  • It is polite to give a soft refusal or show slight hesitation before accepting an invitation or offer, such behavior shows modesty.

  • It is inappropriate for women to cross their legs, and men should only do so by crossing their knees or ankles.

  • It is impolite to sit casually with the ankle resting on the other knee.

  • People who are sick are expected to wear a face mask to prevent the spread of germs in public places.

  • Blowing one’s nose in public is also considered unhygienic.

  • The Japanese often smile and nod throughout the conversation.

  • Avoid being frank about sensitive topics, also avoid discussing sensitive historical and political topics such as World War II.

  • Avoid being openly critical or pointing out mistakes, the Japanese may take criticism quite personally. For example, if they have taken you to a restaurant and you do not like a dish served, commenting on its quality may be taken as a comment on their skills as a host even though they did not prepare the dish.

  • Do not raise your voice or lose your temper. Losing control is a sign of poor upbringing.

  • Do not tell third parties about a conversation you’ve had with another Japanese person unless they have made it clear that it is okay to do so.


  • Some families may have an elderly parent or relative residing with them.

  • During the second half of the 20th century, new laws were introduced reducing patriarchal authority and awarding greater legal rights for women.

  • Marriage is based upon mutual attraction rather than the once traditional ‘arranged marriage’.

  • Family patterns have changed over the decades from multi-generational households to the typical nuclear family’ with two parents and their children (particularly in the more urban areas).

  • Children are the center of the family in Japan and raising kids is seen as an extremely important role.


  • People have two names, the surname, and the given name. The surname comes before the given name and is inherited from the father, accordingly, people are generally addressed by their surname.

  • First names are mainly only used within the household or to refer to individual children. Middle names are not given or recognized.

Meeting & Greeting:

  • Greetings in Japan are very formal and ritualized.

  • It is important to show the correct amount of respect and deference to someone based upon their status relative to your own.

  • Wait to be introduced because it is considered impolite to introduce yourself, even in a large gathering.

  • Use formal titles when addressing someone for the first time and do so until they permit you to do otherwise. Similarly, never call a Japanese businessman by their first name.

  • While foreigners are expected to shake hands, the traditional form of greeting is the bow. How far you bow depends upon your relationship with the other person as well as the situation. The deeper you bow, the more respect you show.

  • A foreign visitor may bow the head slightly since no one expects foreigners to generally understand the subtle differences of bowing.

Visiting a home

  • When you are visiting someone at his home it is best to call your host before your arrival to give them a warning—even if they invited you.

  • Bring a small edible gift (e.g. tea, sweets, fruit) when visiting someone’s home for the first time.

  • Remove your shoes before entering and put on the slippers left at the doorway.

  • Leave your shoes pointing away from the doorway you are about to walk through.

  • Arrive on time or no more than 5 minutes late if invited for dinner.

  • If invited to a large social gathering, arriving a little bit later than the invitation is acceptable, although punctuality is always appreciated.

  • Unless you have been told the event is casual, dress as if you were going into the office.

  • If you use the toilet, put on the available toilet slippers and remove them when you are finished. Do not wear them back out of the bathroom.

Giving gifts

  • Gifts are important in Japan as their quality and choice are reflective of the relationship and the respect the giver wishes to show to the recipient.

  • In Japanese culture, gifts are given on many occasions.

  • If you buy a gift in Japan and have it wrapped, Pastel colors are the best choices for wrapping paper.

  • Give the gift to the recipient with both hands. A Japanese person may also receive or give a gift with a slight bow.

  • The ceremony of presenting the gift and the way in which it is wrapped is as important, and sometimes more important, than the gift itself.

  • Gifts are not necessarily opened upon receipt

  • The gift need not be expensive.

  • Do not give lilies, camellias, lotus blossoms, or white flowers as they are associated with funerals.

  • Give items in odd numbers, but not 9 (the numbers 9 and 4 are considered unlucky in Japan)

  • Food and drink are appropriate gifts for most occasions.

  • Good quality chocolates or small cakes are a good idea.

Dining & Food:

  • The Japanese people use chopsticks to eat their food. Sometimes a large spoon may be used to sip broth.

  • Miso soup is served with most meals and often replaces the purpose of a drink.

  • When eating a traditional meal, the bowl is held to the mouth to avoid bending down to reach the table.

  • It is considered inappropriate for adults to eat while walking. Street food is often eaten on the spot where it is bought.

  • Wait to be told where to sit. There is a protocol to be followed.

  • The honored guest or the eldest person will be seated in the center of the table the furthest from the door.

  • The honored guest or the eldest is the first person to begin eating.

  • Do not pierce your food with chopsticks.

  • Chopsticks should be returned to the chopstick rest after every few bites and when you drink or stop to speak.

  • Do not cross your chopsticks when putting them on the chopstick rest.

  • Place bones on the side of your plate.

  • Try a little bit of everything. It is acceptable to ask what something is and even to make a face if you do not like the taste.

  • Don't be surprised if your Japanese colleagues slurp their noodles and soup.

  • Mixing other food with rice is usually not done. You eat a bit of one and then a bit of the other, but they should never be mixed together as you do in many countries.

  • An empty glass is an invitation for someone to serve you more, so if you do not want to drink more do not finish what is in your glass.

  • An empty glass is an invitation for someone to serve you more, so if you do not want to drink more do not finish what is in your glass.

  • When you have finished eating, place your chopsticks on the chopstick rest or on the table. Do not place your chopsticks across the top of your bowl.

  • If you leave a small amount of rice in your bowl, you will be given more. To signify that you do not want more rice, finish every grain in your bowl.

  • It is acceptable to leave a small amount of food on your plate when you have finished eating.

Communication style:

  • The Japanese rely on facial expression, tone of voice, and posture to tell them what someone feels.

  • They often trust non-verbal messages more than the spoken word as words can have several meanings.

  • The context in which something is said affects the meaning of the words. Therefore, it is imperative to understand the situation to fully appreciate the response.

  • Frowning while someone is speaking is interpreted as a sign of disagreement.

  • Most Japanese maintain an emotionless expression when speaking.

  • Non-verbal communication is so vital that there is a book for 'gaijins' (foreigners) on how to interpret the signs!

  • It is considered disrespectful to stare into another person's eyes, particularly those of a person who is senior to you because of age or status.

  • In crowded situations, the Japanese avoid eye contact to give themselves privacy.

  • The Japanese believe that turning down someone's request causes embarrassment and loss of face to the other person.

  • If the request cannot be agreed to, they will say, 'it's inconvenient or 'it's under consideration.

  • Japanese may wish to avoid giving a flat “no” or negative response—even when they don’t agree with you. Therefore, focus on hints of hesitation.

  • Listen closely to what they say, but also pay careful attention to what they don’t say. It’s a good idea to clarify and double-check your understanding.

  • When communicating bad news, a Japanese person may smile and laugh to diffuse the uncomfortable situation. People may also cover their mouths when they giggle. It is rare to see big bursts of laughter with corresponding gestures.

  • You can expect a Japanese person to immediately apologize if they bump into or brush against you by accident.

  • The Japanese do not gesture very much while speaking as their body language is largely limited. Instead, they often hold their hands together as they speak which prevents them from gesturing throughout the conversation.

  • The Japanese avoid eye contact with strangers as it is considered rude to stare.

  • It is common for Japanese people to maintain a calm expression and smile during an interaction regardless of the topic.

  • Japanese people often nod to recognize what is said. However, this does not always mean they agree or understand. It is primarily a gesture made out of politeness.

  • Displaying the bottoms of your feet is considered rude.

  • It is impolite to beckon people with who you are not close friends. Beckoning is done by facing the palm of the hand to the ground and waving one’s fingers towards oneself. Individual fingers should not be used.

  • In Japan Shaking the hand with the palm facing forward from side to side means “no”.

  • A Japanese person may clasp their hands together in front of their chest when apologizing or accepting something. This expresses gratitude and respect.


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