Japanese Life Rules That Might Seem Foreign To Visitors


Japanese Life Rules That Might Seem Foreign To Visitors Published Today

Japan is a very old nation, and as a result, it has numerous customs that have been followed for many years. While many of these Japanese customs, like bowing or using chopsticks when eating, are fairly well known to strangers, there are still quite a few customs that are typically difficult for foreigners to understand. Due to the island nation’s long history of isolation, the majority of these traditions are wholly exclusive to Japan. Continue reading for the most intriguing and peculiar ones!

Proper Pouring Etiquette


Anywhere you go, there will undoubtedly be local customs regarding serving and drinking to guests. Japan is no exception. In Japan, it’s typical for one individual to pour the drinks for everyone else at their place first having one’s own drink poured. This means that even if you are the one pouring drinks for the others at the place setting while they pour their drinks first, it is considered impolite to serve your own drink.

It’s the moment to enjoy, which typically begins with “kanpai,” which is essentially the Japanese equivalent of cheers, once all the drinks have been poured. Once this has been spoken, you may now enjoy your beverage.


Being Loud In Public Is A Bit Taboo

Many Japanese customs emphasize politeness and consideration for others, particularly when you’re in a public place. Therefore, it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s inappropriate to use your phone excessively loudly in public. If someone must answer the phone while in public, they typically speak quietly or in a low voice.

If the talk is particularly intimate, the person may even put off picking up the phone until they are at home or in a private setting.

It’s Frowned Upon To Leave Work Before The Boss

To quit work before the boss is a no-no in Japan, which a few Westerners might find a little strange. In contrast to the West, where being the “first one in and the last one out” is seen as a sign of an excellent work ethic in a boss, Japanese staff members are expected to stay at the office for the same amount of time as their superiors. Given the strong emphasis on labor in Japan, it wouldn’t be unusual for workers to put in extra time if their boss wasn’t yet done.

If you worked in a Japanese office, we think you would merely have to pray that your supervisor isn’t the kind that stays late and work.

It’s Not Uncommon To See Strangers Sleeping On Shoulders

There are a lot of work-centric customs or traditions on this list, and that’s because work is a large part of Japanese culture. Many people in Japan tend to work very long hours, which may be why it’s considered normal to see strangers sleeping on others’ shoulders during commutes on trains and buses. While the Japanese aren’t usually big fans of physical contact, shoulder sleeping is tolerated because people work long hours.

So, if you happen to be traveling through Japan and you see people sleeping on shoulders, just know that person probably worked a very long day and they’re just trying to get what rest they can.

Slurping Is Okay In Japan

In numerous Western societies, slurping can be seen as impolite or unpleasant, yet in Japan, it is actually accepted. This is so that people don’t burn their tongues, which can happen when eating a lot of really hot Japanese cuisine like soups and noodles. In this sense, it is regarded as a gesture of respect because it demonstrates that the individual is truly appreciating their meal. But when it concerns dining manners, there is one element that both Western and Japanese cultures concur on.

Within many Southeast Asian nations, belching or bursting while seated at the table is completely acceptable; nevertheless, in Japan, it is considered impolite.

You Shouldn’t Eat While Walking In Japan

As with many other Asian countries, there are a plethora of customs associated with food and eating in Japan. One such custom involves eating while walking. Basically, don’t do it. Although, there are a couple of exceptions. Apparently, it’s okay to eat while in transit, such as on a bus or subway train. For whatever reason, it’s also considered okay to eat ice cream while walking down the street.

It’s probably because ice cream tends to melt and won’t wait for you to find a place to sit down and eat before doing so. It’s also considered okay to enjoy your beverage if you’re beside a vending machine.

Don’t Use Oshibori To Clean Your Face

If you’ve ever traveled anywhere, then you probably received a wet towel while on a flight. “Oshibori” are like those, except they’re used to clean the hands for praying before a meal. As such, it’s considered rude to use these towels to clean your face. We’re sure people wouldn’t make a big deal out of a tourist doing so, especially if they didn’t know any better, but it’s still something to keep in mind.

This probably goes without saying, but it’s also frowned upon to use these as napkins during a meal. Oshibori are usually kept on the corner of a table, so if you’re unsure, just check the towel’s location.

Blowing Your Nose In Public Is Frowned Upon

Public etiquette is very important in Japan. There are plenty of things that might be acceptable to do in public in the West, that are frowned upon in Japan. For example, while it’s perfectly acceptable to blow your nose in most countries in the West, the act is frowned upon when done in public in Japan. It’s simply seen as something that’s a bit gross and should be done in private.

For that reason, you may notice that people are sniffling quite a bit if you ever travel to Japan. And the reason may not be that they’re feeling under the weather.

Friends Don’t Visit Friends’ Homes In Japan

Unlike in the West, it’s not uncommon to never visit a friend’s home in Japan. This is because homes are considered private areas in Japan, and people highly value their privacy in the country. People in Japan usually just go out and do things in public when they’re hanging out with friends. This might be one of the reasons there are so many public venues in Japanese cities, such as bars and places to sing karaoke.

This is also worth remembering if you’re visiting Japan and a friend doesn’t invite you into their home. It’s simply not something that’s as common in Japan as in the rest of the world.

Drivers Turn Off Their Headlights At Intersections

This custom is probably much more prevalent around the countryside of Japan, but it’s still important for visitors and tourists to know, especially if they plan on driving around Japan. It’s not unusual for drivers to turn off their headlights when they pull up to an intersection at night. This is done to ensure that headlights don’t blind the person at the other end of the intersection as they go to turn.

It also shows just how courteous Japanese drivers can be, which isn’t very common in many other places throughout the world. So, if you ever find yourself traveling and driving around Japan, remember to turn off your headlights when you pull up to an intersection at night. 

Dancing In Clubs Is Rare

This following one can leave you feeling a little let down if you enjoy going to clubs to dance. In most clubs in Japan, dance is not permitted. The legal need that a club to offer a certain amount of room for patrons to dance is the root cause of this situation. As a result of Japan’s exorbitant real estate costs, most clubs don’t match the prerequisite.

Actually, the likelihood of seeing a sign warning people to refrain from dance is certainly higher than the likelihood of seeing club patrons dancing. Although it might seem strange, always obey the law.

Taking A Bath While Dirty Is Frowned Upon

This Japanese custom is probably going to make a ton of sense to all of the shower people out there. In Japan, it’s frowned upon to take a bath while you’re still dirty. This means that it’s traditional for people to take a shower and get clean and rid of debris before relaxing with a warm bath. We totally get this one, and it doesn’t really seem all that strange at all.

In Japan, soaking in a bath is considered more of a relaxation activity than an actual way to get clean. This is definitely one tradition we could totally get behind.

Number Four Is Considered Unlucky

There are plenty of superstitions surrounding luck and numbers in Asia. For that matter, there are plenty in the West as well (we’re looking at you, number 13). So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Japanese culture has its own unlucky number, which is four. The number four sounds a lot like the word for death in Japanese, so people will go out of their way to avoid the number.

For example, tourists might notice that their hotel is missing a fourth-floor button on their elevator. If their building has over 40 floors, the 40th – 49th might be missing entirely.

Japan Has An Entire Language Devoted To Politeness

“Keigo” is a form of the Japanese language that is meant to be used in formal settings. The language is meant to show respect, and there are actually three different versions of it, making learning keigo all the more difficult. Luckily, the language is usually taught in language schools to foreigners learning Japanese. However, it can be very difficult to master. Not using Keigo in a formal setting can be seen as a sign of disrespect.

However, using Keigo when it’s not required can also be seen as a sign of disrespect. So, one must be aware when it comes to social settings that do and don’t require Keigo.

Taxis Have Automatic Doors In Japan

Taxis are common around the world, including in Japan. In every regard except one, Japanese cabs are identical to their equivalents in other nations, thus a visitor traveling across Japan wouldn’t be overly unfamiliar with them. In Japanese cabs, the passenger doors are automated and open on their own. Passengers should therefore refrain from physically opening the doors and instead wait for them to do so.

Even if you’re in a rush, you should still follow this rule because the taxi driver can find it rude or unpleasant if you open the front door on your own. The doors typically lift on their own within a short period of time as well.

Japanese Ceremonies Require Flexibility

There is a special seating position in Japanese culture that’s called “seiza.” If you’ve ever seen a movie or T.V. show set in Japan, then you’ve probably seen someone seated in this position. It basically requires you to sit on your legs with your posture straight. As you might imagine, seiza takes a bit of practice for foreigners to master first, as you have to be a bit flexible to pull it off properly.

Alternatively, crossing your legs in front of you is also considered acceptable. However, that can also be a bit difficult to do without a bit of flexibility.

The Person Nearest The Elevator Door Pushes The Buttons

Determining who pushes the buttons for a floor in an elevator in the West can sometimes be difficult. However, in Japanese culture, it’s always going to be the person nearest the door. You just politely tell that person what floor you want to go to, and they’ll push the button for you. This might seem a bit different or even rude for tourists who aren’t aware of the tradition at first, but it’s perfectly normal.

It also takes a lot of the guesswork out of if you should or shouldn’t press the buttons while you’re in an elevator. In addition, the person pressing the buttons is the last to get out once they reach their floor.

Pointing Is Considered Offensive In Japan

In the West, pointing out directions can seem innocent, but in Japan, it is incredibly disrespectful. This is so because in Japan, pointing is a sign of aggression. So, if you were to gesture in the right direction but unintentionally point at someone, you would essentially be threatening them. As a result, it’s not advisable to point when attempting to direct someone’s attention to anything or even when trying to show them where to go.

Instead, using hand gestures to attempt and convey something or draw attention to something is much preferable and more accepted in Japanese society; this way, you are not intimidating a chance onlooker.

Working Extra Doesn’t Always Equal Extra Pay

Japan is one of the most productive nations in the world because work gets taken very seriously there. Employees may occasionally be forced to work longer hours without getting paid more, though. Although the nation has made efforts in recent years to combat this along with other work-related problems, they continue to persist and are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

Officially, Japanese workers have the right to be paid overtime and are limited to a set number of overtime hours per week, however many businesses do not adhere to these regulations.

Having An After Work Drink With The Boss

While it’s not completely unheard of in the West, most people do tend to try and separate their work life from their personal life. This usually means keeping after-work drinks with the boss to a minimum. However, in Japan, visiting multiple bars with the boss and coworkers after work is customary. This may be tied to the entrenched work culture in Japan, but either way, employees are expected to partake.

If they don’t, then it could hurt their office relationships. Of course, this varies by office, and not every boss is going to require their employees to go out bar hopping with them.

Japan’s Gender Pay Gap Is Wide

Japan’s gender pay gap is extremely wide. It’s so wide that it’s among the worst in the world, particularly among highly developed nations. That’s because women are basically expected to make less than men, and the issue is ingrained in Japanese culture. However, recent Japanese prime ministers have tried to address the issue with middling success. That said, Japanese women are put in charge of finances when they marry.

In fact, husbands are expected to hand over their earnings to their wives so that they can do with as they will. Still, companies in Japan have a way to go in addressing the gender pay gap.

Tourists Won’t Find Many Public Trash Cans In Japan

Travelers will probably be a bit annoyed at not finding many public trashcans in Japanese cities, especially considering the number of vending machines in urban areas. However, the reason for this is actually quite interesting. A domestic terrorism attack in 1995 resulted in many urban areas removing public trash cans. However, it isn’t really considered that much of an issue since littering is, culturally, not something that you do in Japan.

Most people in Japan will simply store their wrappers in their bags and bring them home with them to throw away. In recent years, trash cans have started to return, but you’ll often see them locked up during public events or holidays.

There Are People Pushers In Japanese Subway Systems

Japan has one of the most efficient rail networks in Asia and the world. Millions of commuters rely on these rail and subway lines. Because of this and the sheer number of people living in Japanese cities, the evening commute can get quite crowded. That’s why it’s not uncommon to see official “pushers” or “oshiya” trying to fit as many people as possible into subway cars during rush hour.

Their entire job is to make sure that they push people into the subway cars and ensure that the doors on the cars are able to shut when things get crowded.

Most Japanese Dishes Contain Animal Products

Japanese food is notoriously delicious. However, vegan and vegetarian travelers might find it hard to find dishes that don’t contain any animal products. Even items like soups usually contain sauces that were made using some kind of animal product. There’s also just less awareness or interest in veganism in Japan than there is in some Western countries, so travelers might have a hard time even trying to explain what it is they’re looking for or want in a dish.

That said, it’s not impossible to find vegetarian or vegan dishes but it does require a bit of research before heading out for a bite to eat in the evening.

How To Begin A Meal In Japan

It’s not hard to imagine a foreigner or tourist being a bit overwhelmed by the sheer number of customs and traditions associated with food in Japan. However, there’s one custom that anyone visiting Japan should know about. When someone offers you a meal, it’s considered polite to begin that meal with “Itadakimasu,” which roughly means “I humbly receive.” This goes for just about any meal you’re offered, whether it comes from a stranger or a friend.

It’s also worth stating that this is more so a cultural tradition and doesn’t really have anything to do with religion, so there’s no reason it can’t be observed by everyone.

Help Isn’t Always Appreciated In Japan

While helping someone with a task is often seen as a polite thing to do in the West, the same isn’t necessarily true in Japan. Helping someone in Japan can sometimes be viewed as an attempt to take their job, so it’s best to just allow them to do something themselves. This might be due to the fact that employment is highly competitive in Japan — and many other parts of Asia.

It might also just be because people in Japan prefer to do tasks on their own. Either way, you don’t want to give someone the impression you’re after their job.

Avoid Using Chopsticks To Stab

The fact that people in Japan eat with chopsticks is a very well-known fact. Fewer people, nevertheless, are acquainted with the traditions associated with eating chopsticks. If you’re a visitor to Japan and you find yourself using chopsticks to eat, try to avoid stabbing your food if you’re not yet accustomed to doing so. This is due to the possibility that using chopsticks as a fork could be considered disrespectful.

Instead, even if you’re still learning how to use chopsticks properly, hosts and other guests will be much more pleased with your at least making an effort to do so.

Stay Out Of People’s Personal Space In Japan

This may not come as that big of a surprise, but physical touching is not really a thing in day-to-day life in Japan. For example, friends and families aren’t greeted with hugs and kisses in Japan and doing so would seem out of the ordinary. This one might take a little while to get used to if you’re a visitor to Japan, but it’s an important tradition to remember when meeting people.

Interestingly, one of the only public displays of physical touch that is accepted or considered normal happens among strangers. It’s not uncommon to see strangers sleeping on the shoulders of others during commutes.

Business Cards Are Respected In Japan

In Japanese culture, business cards are viewed as an extension of one’s business and, therefore, one’s self. So, there is a bit of ceremony associated with giving and receiving a business card in Japan. They are typically given and received with two hands and a small bow. Not doing it this way could be seen as disrespectful. Business cards are also stored carefully in the pocket and not just crammed in with other cards.

The word for a business card in Japanese is “mesh” and there are actually a lot of other customs associated with business cards. Curious travelers expecting to visit Japan can find resources on business etiquette online.

Everyone Has Bathroom Slippers In Japan

Most homes in Japan are shoes-free, meaning that guests take off their shoes upon entering a home and leave them by the door. Because of this, most people keep a pair of bathroom slippers for people to wear when they go into the restroom. These slippers can be worn by anyone visiting the home, but they should be put back just as they were found, as not doing so breaks etiquette.

Using these slippers to walk around the home is also considered rude, so make sure you leave them in the bathroom if you ever visit a home in Japan.

Karaoke Etiquette Is Important In Japan

Kaoroke is probably one of the most popular pastimes in Japan and in many other parts of Asia. However, it comes with its own set of rules in Japan. People are expected not to join in when someone is singing karaoke and to let that person finish their song. Interrupting or joining in can be interpreted as being rude or offensive, so it’s best to wait your turn when you’re out singing karaoke.

Karaoke is on of the most popular activities in Japan, so visitors can bet that they’ll find themselves out doing karaoke at one point or another while in Japan.

Laundry Day Is Every Day In Japan

It’s likely that you’ll notice that there are constantly clothes hanging outside to dry if you’re visiting in Japan. This is due to the fact that laundry is done daily in Japan. Wearing an item of clothes multiple times without cleaning it is regarded as filthy. In the West, several items are similarly true, but perhaps not to the same extent as in Japan.

Expect to witness many washing lines when traveling to Japan because there are not as many clothes dryers as there are in certain Western nations.

Visitors Are Expected To Bring Gifts

As in some other countries throughout the world, visitors are expected to bring a gift with them when they’re being hosted in a Japanese home. This gift must also be wrapped. In addition, there are a couple of other customs around gifts that visitors must be aware of in Japan. Unlike in other situations, where someone may initially try and reject a gift, hosts must accept gifts as soon as they’re offered.

A failure to bring a gift or for the host to accept a gift can be seen as rude or offensive. In short, know you’re gift-giving customs before visiting a Japanese home.

Sleeping Capsules Are Common In Japan

Cultural traditions and norms around sleeping in Japan can be a bit quirky. Maybe because of the deeply entrenched work culture of Japan, it’s normal to see people taking a nap just about anywhere they can. Because of this, sleeping capsules or extremely small hotel rooms have become quite popular in Japan. These tiny rooms cater to people that just need a place to catch some shut-eye between shifts or thrifty travelers.

Apparently, they’re much cheaper than hotel rooms, so honestly, they seem like a good option if you’re traveling through Japan and you’re trying to save some money, despite their small size.

Tipping Is Offensive In Japanese Culture

There are a couple of common themes among all of the Japanese traditions on this list, and one of those themes is respect. As such, it’s considered rude or degrading to tip people in Japan. Visitors should be aware of this and not be too surprised when tips are returned to them in a polite manner. If you really want to show your appreciation for a service or deed someone has done for you, gifts are more acceptable.

That said, there are a couple of occasions when tipping is accepted, but even then, there are certain customs that are expected to be followed by those leaving the money.

Drinking Soup From A Bowl In Japan

Here’s one that’s opposite to most customs in the West. Sipping your soup from a bowl is perfectly fine in Japan, and it’s even preferred to use a spoon when the soup is almost finished. Travelers need not worry when it comes to sipping up soup directly from the bowl, which is a good thing because there are sure to be plenty of occasions where soup is part of the meal.

In Japan, most meals are accompanied by some sort of broth or soup, and it can be considered rude to not lift the bowl up and have a taste directly at some point in the meal.

Direct Speech Isn’t Used In Japan

While direct speech can be quite common in many countries in the West, the same is not true of Japan. People are more likely to talk indirectly about an issue or drop hints during a conversation. This is probably due to the fact that politeness is considered very important in Japanese culture. Either way, you’re not likely to hear speech that could be considered confrontational while hanging out with people in Japan.

For some, this indirect way of addressing things might seem a little bit difficult without practice, but being too direct can also come off as rude or offensive in a social setting.

Customs Surrounding Chopsticks

There are a few things visitors visiting Japan should be aware of because chopsticks play a significant role in Japanese society. For instance, using chopsticks for any other than feeding is frowned upon because they are primarily eating utensils. It is considered impolite to point with chopsticks or wave them in the air. When the food is finished, it must be placed on the table in a specific manner.

When someone finishes their meal, chopsticks are traditionally placed next to the other person on top of a dish. Never cross them or put them on the table.

Bowing Etiquette In Japan

It’s probably not a surprise that bowing is the traditional method of greeting in Japan, but there are a lot of other aspects of bowing that foreigners usually don’t think about. For example, there are different methods of bowing that are used in different social settings in Japan. When greeting friends, people usually use a quick and simple slight bow. However, this would be considered rude in a more formal setting such as work.

In professional settings, people are expected to take a longer and more acute bow. Of course, not doing so could be interpreted as a sign of disrespect.

Christmas In Japan Is A Little Different

Christmas in Japan differs slightly from Christmas in the West. That most likely has nothing to do with Christianity’s lower level of acceptance in Japan. The festival is still observed, nevertheless. It simply has a much more traditional Valentine’s Day appearance. Typically, couples will eat at their preferred restaurant and then sometimes exchange gifts. Family members aren’t given gifts for Christmas in Japan.

There are a few different theories as to why Xmas is truly celebrated in Japan as well as how it first became popular, but the majority of them involve missionaries.

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