Japan etiquette rules for tourists: 17 things you need to know

It's on. After all the build-up, all the waiting, the Rugby World Cup has kicked off in Japan. And that event is just the entrée to the sporting smorgasbord ahead – next year the Olympics comes to Tokyo, which means more focus on Japan, more visitors, more hype.

Plenty of those visiting sports fans will be enjoying their first outing in this magnificent and yet baffling country, which means a crash course in Japanese etiquette might not be a bad idea. The Japanese are a polite, welcoming and accommodating people – however, a little cultural understanding will go a long way.

Here's how to avoid offending the locals when you're in Japan.

Always carry business cards

Business women exchanging business cards iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. Japan etiquette for tourists tra25-online-japan

Photo: iStock

It doesn't matter if you're in the country for work or pleasure: the exchange of business cards – called "meishi" – is an important transaction in Japan, a way of demonstrating your interest in another person and respecting their position and career. Always carry yours, and receive other people's with two hands, reading it carefully before storing it in a case.

Don't eat on the run

No one eats on the go in Japan. You don't grab a takeaway burger and scarf it on the train. You don't pick up a Starbucks coffee and drink it while you stroll. If you want to fit in, consume your food and drink in the place you bought it. If you're eating street food, stand still or find somewhere to sit.

Don't blow your nose in public

It's considered pretty bad form to blow your nose in public in Japan. Go to a bathroom – they're all spotlessly clean. If you're going to be coughing all day, wear a surgical mask to avoid being seen to be spreading germs.

Dress well

Japanese people, especially in the larger cities, dress extremely well. They dress formally for work, and stylishly for play. If you want to fit in and show respect, put some thought into your outfits and avoid too much specialist travel gear (unless you're out hiking, in which case "leisure chic" is strongly encouraged).

Don't tip

One of the true glories of travel in Japan is that you never have to worry about tipping the right amount. You just don't tip. At all. Don't even leave your change on the table – someone will run after you to give it back.

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Take off your shoes; use the slippers

iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. Japan etiquette for tourists tra25-online-japan

The Japanese have special slippers for the bathroom. Photo: iStock

Any time you're entering someone's home, remove your shoes. Keep an eye out, too, for restaurants in which people take off their shoes (you'll see them neatly lined up in racks by the door), and certain temples. In some homes and guesthouses you'll find that slippers are provided to use indoors, and separate slippers will be offered to visit the bathroom. Use them.

Bow (or just shake hands)

If feels a little awkward at first, but if you want to greet people in the way they're accustomed, then you need to bow. Don't worry too much about the exact etiquette – locals will cut you plenty of slack. Just tilt forward at the waist, with arms by your sides, and you're all set. If that still feels too weird, simply shaking hands will do the job.

Cover your tattoos

If it's good enough for the All Blacks, it's good enough for you. Members of the New Zealand rugby squad have been covering up their distinctive tattoos while in camp for the World Cup, given tattoos are still associated with the yakuza organised-crime group, and tend to make locals, particularly in smaller towns, feel uncomfortable. If you're all tatted up, try to wear trousers and long sleeves.

Don't rub your chopsticks together

Any time you're presented with wooden chopsticks at a restaurant, it's considered rude to snap them apart and then rub them together – the suggestion being that the chopsticks are of poor quality. Just lay them on their rest. Don't wave them around or point with them either. Chopsticks are just for eating.

Always queue

This is no place to be pushing in, no place to take an elbows-out, every-man-for-themselves approach. The Japanese are fastidious queuers who will wait patiently in line to board a train, or to buy a coffee, or to do pretty much anything, really. Take your place and shuffle forward.

Obey any signage

Take a look around – there are always signs in Japan. Signs telling you what to do; signs telling you what not to do. If you're in any doubt about where you're going or how you should be behaving, have a quick scan for a sign and heed its advice.

Save your rubbish

You'll notice that there are almost no public rubbish bins in Japan. Vending machines will usually have a small receptacle for recyclable cans, but that's it. The idea is that you'll carry your rubbish with you and dispose of it all properly at your home or hotel.

Pour other people's drinks

Should you find yourself out drinking with new Japanese friends, bear in mind it's bad form to pour your own drink from a communal vessel. Always pour others' and wait for someone to top you up. Also, don't eat straight from communal dishes. Place food on your own plate before eating it.

Wear your yukata; wear it properly

Plenty of guesthouses and traditional ryokans in Japan will supply a "yukata", a light, casual robe that's designed to be worn during your stay. Wear it to pad the halls as you grab a beer from the vending machine; wear it to the breakfast room when it's time to hit the buffet. Unless you're staying in a very upmarket hotel chain, this will be fine. Just ensure you wear the yukata properly, wrapping the left side over the right, and tying it tightly with the sash.

Learn the onsen rules

young Japanese woman in a hot open air onsen bath with snowflake falling around iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. Japan etiquette for tourists tra25-online-japan

Photo: iStock

I could write an entire post on the complex set of rules and etiquette expected at an onsen, or Japanese hot spring. For now, all you need to know is that these rules exist, and you should research them before visiting.

See: No tattoos, no alcohol: The rules of getting naked in Japan

Don't chase geishas

Maiko geisha walking on a street in Kyoto, Japan during a storm with red umbrella iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. Japan etiquette for tourists tra25-online-japan

Photo: iStock

The geishas in Kyoto – who are actually called "geikos" and "maikos" – have been mobbed recently by tourists trying to get a photo as they make their way to work. Don't add to this problem, as it's extremely bad form, and risks this ancient tradition's long-term viability.

Observe before you act – and relax

If in doubt in Japan – and you will be in doubt – one of the first things to do is just look around and see what everyone else is doing. Copy them. It's also worth remembering that Japanese people don't expect you to know everything, and they're usually very accommodating with foreigners. Make an effort, and you'll be welcomed.

What are your tips for fitting in in Japan? Is it important to know local etiquette here? Have you made any big mistakes?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

See also: Twenty things that will surprise first-time visitors to Japan

See also: Why Tokyo is the world's most exciting city right now

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