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Japanese Etiquette Guide - 10 things you CAN get away with without offending Japanese manners.

Updated on July 18, 2009

You may have read a lot about what NOT to do in Japan. The list of manners particular to Japan is long and intimidating to most westerners, but it is not all one way. While you’ll have to tighten up your etiquette in some regards, in others you’ll perceive daily actions that would be unthinkable back home. Well, possibly thinkable - but ill-advised in countries where people either (A) have guns or (B) are easily capable of disemboweling you without one.

Here are ten things which are OK in Japan but on the sketchy side in western countries. Note, however, that just because they’re common practice for Japanese people, this doesn’t mean you’ll be afforded the same privilege. There is, indeed, one rule for some and another for everybody else. If this bothers you, then you’d best start making other plans!

1. Slurp your soup and noodles.

Aim for a sound that crosses the Sarlac beast from Return of the Jedi and a vacuum cleaner struggling with a penny, and you’ll blend in perfectly.

2. Keep everyone updated regarding the regularity of your bowel movements.

When asked “How are you?” don’t feel obliged to opt for the traditional “Good, thanks,” “Fine” or “Not so bad.” Feel free to retort with “I have diarrhea” or “Constipated, thanks. And you?”

3. Sniff loudly and frequently.

This shouldn’t be the kind of sniff one would use to sample the scent of a flower or a subtle perfume. Aim instead for the kind of industrial phlegm-hock one would employ to dislodge a leech from one’s sinus. Don’t blow your nose in public however. If it’s a good ‘un, just share it with the pavement. Everyone else does!

4. Stare freely at anyone who looks a little out of place.

In Japan they say that the nail that sticks up gets hammered down, but really it just gets ogled into submission. 40 year old women sporting bunny ears and fairy costumes may be ignored, but anyone who “ain’t from ‘round these parts” must be watched with the utmost vigilance.

5. Sleep anywhere, everywhere, and on anyone.

Sleeping in public is kind of embarrassing in the west, right? The thought of drooling down one’s tie in the library, snoring in class or crying out some random name on the bus during one’s slumber puts most of us off. Not so in the land of the rising sun. Feel free to put your books aside (unless they’ll make a comfy pillow) and grab forty winks in your Japanese lesson. Alternatively, snuggle up to the salaryman sitting next to you for a little subway snooze. Forget the A-team making helicopters from half-eaten cabbages and bulldog clips; the real skill is to turn anything and anyone into a makeshift bed.

6. The age-old question

Once you’ve dispensed with the introductory bowel chat, you can move on to the next stage of pleasantries. “How old are you?” is a common way to proceed. Just put it out there. Don’t ask what year they graduated college and then work it out. That’s the coward’s way. Also, feel free to trap people into guessing your age. If you have to guess the age of a Japanese woman, however, add 75 years to how old you think they are, and you’ll probably guess about right.

7. Comment on the size of womens’ heads or men’s noses.

If you notice that the man you are talking to has a big nose, then you really should let him know. Otherwise, he might be carrying on under the illusion that it’s average, or just slightly big, or even worse – irrelevant to your current conversation. He might be planning to enter a “Mr Average Nose” competition so to spare everyone’s blushes on the day, just deal with it there and then. Likewise, if you’re talking to a woman, then you should fully assume that she’ll be delighted to hear about her miniscule head. All those years clamping it in a vice - when the other kids were out happy-slapping and sniffing glue - will have finally paid off. If she reacts angrily or looks a little nonplussed, then it won’t be your fault; obviously her brain must be incredibly small.

8. Reveal your low expectations of others.

If you see a foreigner using chopsticks or reading katakana, you should gasp and clap with all your might. If you have a fish or peanut to hand, lob it in their general direction with one hand and, with the other, take a quick picture of their happy little face.

9. Throw political correctness to the wind.

If you have any theories about the special, unique development of the Japanese brain in relation to other Asians, or why women are unfit for management, then here’s the place to share them. Likewise, if you want to ask an immigrant “When are you going home?” then do so. Don’t expect that his Japanese wife and kids enrolled in local schools will be considered reasons to stay. If you are in conversation with a woman and find the topic drifting to politics, you should apologize and offer to change the topic to cushions, cute animated movies or handbags. Otherwise, she might die.

10. Lighten up about lighting up.

The brilliance of those hand-free child carriers is that they leave you free to spark up without having to offload the little terror first. Smoking around children is nothing like the taboo it has become in western countries, so let the guilt (like the smoke wafting into their undeveloped lungs) drift away. Also, since secondhand tobacco enriches the flavor of most foods, be generous in restaurants and izakaya. Don’t selfishly expect someone else to provide all the smoke for you!

So, these are some of things you might encounter in Japan; hardly earth-shattering, but interesting nonetheless. Of course, compared with the truly shocking behavior that faces the Japanese people who visit the shores of our home countries, these are trivial. I mention them largely because I think they’re quite funny.

If you’re in Japan or have lived here for a time, please share any other customs you’ve noticed. There are bound to be a few!


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    • cheerfulnuts profile image

      cheerfulnuts 6 years ago from Manila, Philippines

      Hi bugsy81, this is funny!:) I've been to Japan once and stayed there for only a few days, so I didn't get a chance to get to know the Japanese people. However, our local tour guide told us a bit about them. She said that it's ok for Japanese to read porn in public places, and worn undies can be bought from vending machines.

    • vaguesan profile image

      vaguesan 7 years ago from Osaka, Japan

      yes. So true. sigh...

      This basically sums up almost everyday of my life in Japan.

    • luvintkandtj profile image

      luvintkandtj 7 years ago from USA

      This was soooooooo funny. I read this to my japanese mother (who was raise dint the states). #4,5, and 8 were our favorites.

    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 8 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      I've never been to Japan, but living close to the Canadian Rockies, it seems Japan comes to us. One thing I can't get used to is how a crowd of Japanese people set on getting somewhere pays no heed to anyone in their way. If I wasn't so much bigger than they are, I'd be trampled.

    • profile image

      Dualta 8 years ago

      Dainty, well-dressed women, squatting in public places with their knickers in full view.

    • profile image

      Blaze 8 years ago

      Don't forget yelling at the waitstaff when you want something. Unless you've been handed the buzzer, you can expect to holler "SUMIMASEEEEEEN" at the top of your lungs to get your waitresses attention. And yet, STILL get smiling, happy service.

      And you don't even have to leave a tip.

    • profile image

      Buri 8 years ago

      I find that old women come up to me and touch my hair. I'm African American and I have an afro, so I get a lot of attention as it is "fuwa fuwa" fluffy.

      Also, peeing in the street doesn't seem to be as taboo. And Kurisu is right about the brushing the teeth/gargling/spitting in the office. I'd add staring at your co-workers and breathing heavily, but perhaps that's just my particular office. :D

    • profile image

      kurisu 8 years ago

      How about picking your nose in public, gargling in the office, chewing with your mouth open.....the list goes on...

    • The_Drizzle profile image

      The_Drizzle 8 years ago from The Far Side of the World

      I haven't been to Japan, but I am living in South Korea at the moment, and several of these are also true there, especially the "Reveal your Low Expectations of Others." Just saying an-ye-ha-seo (hello in Korean) every morning at my job draws a spectacle.

    • probyte2u profile image

      Eidul Ameen Bin Sahul Hamid 8 years ago from Part Buntar, Malaysia

      Nice & Funny hub. Enjoy reading it !

    • bugsy81 profile image

      bugsy81 8 years ago from Devon, England

      Thanks, Wanderlust. Don't let this hub put you off! I'm sure you'll have a great time in Japan.

    • Wanderlust profile image

      Wanderlust 8 years ago from New York City

      Very informative and a lot of fun! Thank you. I'll be in Japan in September, very looking forward to this trip, that would be my first time in your country....

    • bugsy81 profile image

      bugsy81 8 years ago from Devon, England

      The kancho isn't such a big deal here; it's somewhere between a wedgie and a wet willy. By "somewhere in between" I don't mean anatomically of course...

    • profile image

      Divinity 8 years ago

      Adding 75.. so true...

    • profile image

      domni51 8 years ago

      Wow, just read up on the Kancho thing. That sort of thing got people seriously hurt where I come from.

    • mwaky profile image

      mwaky 8 years ago

      cool! interesting

    • bugsy81 profile image

      bugsy81 8 years ago from Devon, England

      Nice addition, mercedesjin. I can't believe I forgot that. And of course, there's the infamous kancho. (Wikipedia has an hilariously straight-faced definition if readers are unfamiliar with the term.)

    • profile image

      mercedesjin 8 years ago

      Ha, this is a funny list. Grabbing other's private parts is something that could be added to it. That seems to be a pretty acceptable thing to do - at least, it is in high school.

    • bugsy81 profile image

      bugsy81 8 years ago from Devon, England

      Hi Ku-chan, I'm glad you enjoyed it. You make an excellent point. I actually just meant to write *add* 75 years and somehow wrote the opposite. How unprofessional. I've changed it now. Tsch!

    • profile image

      Ku-chan 8 years ago

      Hahaha, haven't laughed so much in ages. How true. Not sure about the 'take 75 years off a Japanese woman's age and you'll probably get it right' one though - Japanese women usually look SO young!