1. Take off your shoes indoors
Japanese have strong concept of “uchi” (home/in-group) and “soto” (outside/out-group). From that, at Japanese people’s houses and traditional Japanese hotels called “ryokan”, most likely you will need to take your shoes off when entering. Many times, you will be offered slippers to wear inside. In that case, please use them. Some people do not like guests to walk around without slippers. If you are invited to visit a Japanese person’s house, please wear socks since going into someone’s house bare-footed is not polite (especially for a semi-formal or formal invitation).
Here are some tips about indoor slippers. 1) Take your slippers off before entering a “tatami” room. You are not supposed to wear any shoes on tatami. 2) If there are separate slippers in the washroom, wear them only in the washroom area. The separation is important! Keep the house slipper out of the bathroom and the bathroom slippers in the bathroom!
2. Eating in public
This also abides separation of “uchi” and “soto”. There are things you are not supposed to do in “soto”.
Generally speaking, Japanese eat or drink in designated areas only. In most public areas (e. g., at public transportation: trains, subways, buses etc.), you are not recommended to eat something noticeable. For example, eating a rice ball (onigiri), fruits, or drinking canned sodas are not recommended. However, something small to eat, like candy or gum, or drinks with bottle-caps would be acceptable.
For long-distance travels, eating and drinking on Super Express or Bullet trains is normal and accepted. You may bring a bento box, drink beer, and basically enjoy any food or drink you like. There are often places on the train platform to purchase food or drink to bring with you on your journey. However, you may want to be careful not to eat strong smelling food. Consideration to others would be highly appreciated.
3. Talking loud in public places
In general, English speakers talk much louder than Japanese speakers. In places like coffee shops, restaurants, buses or trains, even if you are speaking in a normal level of voice, it is usually considered very loud to most Japanese. However, it varies depending on the situations, so please look around and check if it is somewhat quiet or not, then please be careful about how loud you talk. Most of the time people will not say anything, but there is a chance you might get yelled by a Japanese person (especially old grouchy ones!) to be quiet.
4. Eating Sushi – Using soy sauce properly
One of the most popular Japanese food is sushi. There are different kinds of sushi: nigiri-zushi, gunkan, maki-zushi (roll), te-maki-zushi (hand roll), chirashi-zushi (various sushi in a box with rice on the bottom), etc. Here I would like to explain how to use soy sauce when you eat nigiri and gunkan sushi.
Nigiri is the most popular sushi among Japanese – when they hear “sushi”, they would think about nigiri-zushi. This is the one with rice on the bottom and raw fish or other ingredients (called “neta”) on top. When you eat nigiri, either hold the sushi with your chopsticks or in your hand, and apply soy sauce from a separate small plate that is provided. When you do this, do not soak the rice part in the soy sauce! Your sushi will have too much soy sauce and the rice will fall apart. The correct way is to flip the sushi over, and put the fish into the soy sauce. Basically you do not want to have your small soy sauce dish have any rice in it at the end of the meal.
“Gunkan” is a similar to nigiri in shape but it is characterized by a small piece of dried seaweed wrapped around it. For Gunkan, you want to pour soy sauce directly on the sushi, so that you don’t lose your “neta” by flipping it over like when eating nigiri.
Now you are a pro sushi eater without a messy soy sauce plate with full of wasted rice!
5. Soy sauce on steamed white rice
Steamed white rice by itself is boring with no real taste, right? Let’s pour some delicious soy sauce and make it tasty! W-R-O-N-G! This could make Japanese feel grossed out! Write rice is supposed to be pure and clean. Making your rice and rice bowl dirty with anything is not a good manner, unless it is already mixed before it is served (like fried rice). So how do Japanese enjoy plain steamed rice?
Usually, Japanese meals contain a main dish, some side dishes (called “okazu”), soup and rice. Japanese eat okazu with rice. Eat okazu first and while it is still in your mouth, add some rice as well. They mix okazu and rice like this. If you like, you can have rice first and add okazu right after. One thing you want to remember is that it is considered good manners to eat each dish little by little. Do not finish only one dish first then move onto another one. Eating little by little shows respect and appreciation for each dish. So remember balance everything when you eat your meal.
If you are invited to a Japanese person’s house for a meal, try finishing everything. If you cannot finish, you shuld to tell them that you are full (“onaka ga ippai desu”), that it was very delicious (“totemo oishi-katta desu”) and that you appreciate their served a meal for you saying “arigatou”.
6. Hot springs (onsen) is only for your clean bodies!
Onsens have a couple of clean rules to follow since everybody is sharing the same water in the tub. The basic rule is that only clean bodies can go into the tub. When you go into the onsen, first go to the washing area and wash your body (and hair if you like – body soap, shampoo, and conditioners are almost always provided). Once you are clean, you may enter the hot water baths to soak. You might have small towel with you, but do not soak it into the bath water. If you have long hair, tie it up with a band or towel so that hair does not go in either. You do not want to see anybody’s floating hair in the good-feeling hot tub!
If you are sharing the tub with someone else, make sure not to disturb the others by splashing, staring at others, or swimming! (If you want to swim around little, do it when nobody is around you.) When you go back to the changing area, try to towel off quickly to avoid leaving too much water on the floor.
7. Which side to stand on an escalator?
Even Japanese sometimes get confused about this one, but taking an escalator differs in different places. During rush hours (crowds of people going or returning from school or work), people are in a hurry and you will make a huge line behind you if you are standing on the wrong side. In Japan, people in a hurry always walk up or down on moving escalators. Please be sure to either walk with those in a hurry or stand on the side with the people just riding. You will need to look at which side to wait or walk on because the sides differ in two major areas!
In Tokyo, if you are not in a hurry and do not walk on the escalator, stay on the left side. Stand all the way to the left to make sure that you give enough room for someone to pass on the right side of you. In Osaka it is opposite. People stand and ride on the right side. In any other place – you can remember that most of the places follow Tokyo. Some international places like Kyoto, it could be right or left depending on who is on the escalator. So just look around and see which side you should stand, if you are not sure about it.
8. Women only cars on the train
In big cities like Tokyo, there are women only cars in the train/subway system. This is only applicable during rush hours in the morning and evening as well. The reason for separate women only cars is for preventing “chikan” (pervert) problems – someone touching random women (or men!) in a highly crowded area or in the train. On the platform, they have signs for women only cars on the ground, usually with an easily recognizable pink sign, so as on the train body. Nobody would give you fines if you accidentally hopped into one of them, but you might get an un-approving look by women. Check to see if the car you are riding is for only women or not, before riding a train. It should be easy to see.
9. “Foreigners never apologize! (angry face)”
Foreigners have bad reputations for not saying “I’m sorry” when the Japanese think they deserve an apology. Rather, they say foreigners make excuses and try to justify what you have done. Japanese consider an apology and saying “I’m sorry” (“Gomen-nasai” or in casual, “gomen-ne”) as very important. By hearing an apology first, you will appear sincere in their eyes and can be ready to start forgiving you. If you did something wrong, big or small, apologize first and then move from there.
If you want to explain why you did something, explain after you say sorry. Still, remember to have a sorry-ness in your speech. If you show the attitude that you are trying to justify yourself without sorry-ness even after you apologized, the argument could go longer. Make sure to show that you are truly sorry for a longer time than you think it is necessary, and apologize more than once. That helps for you to finish the argument smoothly.
10. Be on time! Be on time! Be on time!
Japanese are very punctual since they are expected to be in every situation. Buses and trains operate on precise schedules and so do people who are meeting with you. They are trained to be on time from their elementary school life – schools often teach kids “five-to” rules. If you are meeting someone at a station at 5pm, many of them show up around 4:55.
So does this mean that Japanese are never late? Don’t worry! Japanese are also human. They could be late for a meeting of course. But here is a common courtesy for those who run late. If you are going to be late, call or text before the planned meeting time, and inform the person you are meeting where you are and/or how late you will be. This is common courtesy so they do not have to wait and wonder if you are lost or how long they have to wait for you. Giving a heads-up helps a lot, but make sure you do that before the meeting time. Also, avoid being late too often since people may start to think that you are not punctual and cannot be trusted to keep an appointment.
Japanese have a lot of “regulations” but they are usually generous when foreigners make mistakes. So do not feel too stressed about the rules in Japan, but Japanese would be delighted to see you try and show that you want to act as the Japanese do. “When in Japan, do as the Japanese do” is my best advice for your successful Japanese life.