A Few Observations on Japanese Culture and Etiquette

Like many travellers out there, I follow a rule where I tell myself that I’m not allowed to visit a country twice – unless of course that country is Japan.

A country so rich in culture, tradition and culinary experiences I just couldn’t help but bend the rules. And whilst on my last visit I was busy having my mind blown by the country's famous sights and my first real taste of sushi as it should be made, this visit (because second time basically = local) saw me more pre-occupied with the real Japan, understanding all of its little nuances, quirks and ticks. And what did I learn? Only that it's unlike anywhere else on the planet, and visit number 3 is not off the cards. The following is what I observed...

#1: Robots and technology rule

Japan is a futuristic country built around convenience, sustainability, and state of the art technology. Giving excellent service is important in Japan. And what better way to provide impeccable service than innovative technology to match?

A few observations:

Robot restaurant, Shinjuku
  • Vending machines are literally every 100 metres
  • Parking is vertical. Space is a luxury in Japan and over 540,000 car parks have gone vertical
Japan vertical parking

#2: Bowing is a sign of respect

This gesture is used to greet (hello or goodbye), apologise, and display gratitude. A simple bow to your waist will do, but the real observation is the depth of the bow between one person to another as it’s reflective of the status of that person.

Japan bow - culture in Japan

#3: Footwear policy, please take it very seriously

The ‘No shoes’ policy applies everywhere, from accommodation to restaurants, even shop changing rooms. This shoe etiquette is a customary tradition and well-respected with many establishments providing spare slippers for you to change into. So shoes off on Tatami – remember that!

Japanese ryokan
No shoes on tatami!

#4: Train-tiquette

When in Japan you’ll no doubt catch a train or subway, or ride the infamous Shinkansen that travels at the speed of light. Shinjuku alone is the busiest train station in the world with an average 3.64 million people using the lines every single day.

A few observations:

  • Trains are rarely ever late
  • Try to restrict conversation
  • Eating is frowned upon on the local lines
  • Keep your phone on silent
  • Learn how to navigate your way through the complex train systems. Ticket purchasing is done through vending machines and fares are based on how far you go.

Good to know: Queue jumping is not tolerated, especially on trains. We learnt this the hard way. No matter how much of a hurry you’re in, don’t jump the queue.

Ticket machines in Shinjuku

#5: Food culture and table manners

Food is an important element of Japanese culture, so be mindful of what you should and shouldn’t do.

A few observations:

  • At most restaurants you will be served with a wet towel and chopsticks
  • It’s considered rude to not finish everything on your plate
  • Thou shall not slurp, burp or blow your nose when food is involved
  • If you decide to have a drink or two, wait until everybody at the table has a drink and remember, ‘Kampai‘, meaning – cheers!
Japanese food culture and etiquette

#6: The KAWAII epidemic

In the 1970’s, the Kawaii culture well and truly began as advertising agencies looked for ways to mass-market “cute things” to the population. And boy did it work, with so much of Japanese culture now revolving around this concept. Currently there’s a “Kawaii cooking” epidemic that’s gone viral on the internet that focuses on miniature cooking. Add to that a themed “Kawaii Monster Cafe” in Harajuku, decorated in crazy and vibrant colours and complete with Harajuku waiters to welcome you to your table, and that’s just a taste of Japan’s obsession with cuteness.


Kawaii Monster cafe - Harajuku

#7: Ometanashi isn’t just a word, it’s a way of life

Familiarise yourself with “O-me-te-na-shi”, short for, “Japanese service and hospitality.” Its derived from the practice of politeness with intent to create harmony and avoid conflict. You will experience customer service to a whole new level, that goes above and beyond anything that you’re used to. From traditional ryokan’s to shop assistants running out the door to return your 1yen coins – you’ll be showered with kindness and amazed at their attention to detail to keep you smiling.

#8: There’s a zero tolerance policy on rubbish

If you’ve ever been to Japan, you’ll soon realise that rubbish bins are scarce. Most sites and public spaces are immaculate and clean. It’s basic etiquette to take your rubbish home with you and word on the street – all local residents receive a garbage guide with rules for trash collection broken down from plastic, paper, cans, newspapers, burnables etc.

Japan recycling

#9: Automated toilets

There’s something truly astonishing about Japanese toilets, with many places providing heated seats, automated flush and even (if you’re lucky) sounds to conceal other (not so pleasant) noises. The tricky part? Trying to navigate between the buttons!

Japanese toilets

#10: Big on gaming and manga

Akhihabara is the go-to ‘Electric town’ and the largest electronics and appliance district in Tokyo, Japan. Expect to find the best arcades, infamous maid cafes and manga (Japanese comic) left, right and centre.

Japan gaming, Akhihabara

#11: Animals and humans coexist in harmony

From cats to snow monkey’s of Nagano and wild deers roaming around Nara, truthfully told, in Japan they believe that animals and humans can co-exist naturally in harmony and really, the proof is in the pudding.

Japanese snow monkeys

Written by Natalie Siagian, on a six-two assignment through Japan. 

Read more on her blog We Are Wildlings, and book your own Japan adventure on www.contiki.com.