Travellers Guide to Japanese Etiquette

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You’ve arrived in Japan and you’re unusually optimistic and very charismatic today – your dopamine levels have reached almost unprecedented levels as your anticipation and excitement are out of control. As you board the train to transfer to your accommodation, you begin spamming phone calls to your friends and family, making loud gestures and – let’s be honest, probably boasting about it. However, you notice something is peculiar with what you’re doing. Everyone in the train is silent, and you stand out like a beached whale blowing on a megaphone. The locals look at you with suspicion. Did you say something wrong? Possibly, but do you remember that saying your mum and dad punctured through your head as a child “where are your manners?” Speaking out loud in trains isn’t considered appropriate in Japanese culture. In fact, many things you consider normal and appropriate in Australia might be inappropriate in Japan. So, read carefully to prepare yourself on how you should act with Japanese etiquette!

Table of Manners:

1. Bowing

As I’m sure you all know, people in Japan greet each other by bowing. I’ll have you know that most Japanese will understand that mindless foreigners like me may not know the proper bowing rules. Firstly, here are the main situations that would apply to most foreigners when a bow is required:

  • Greetings or goodbyes
  • Thanking or apologising
  • Congratulating someone
  • Worshipping someone or something


  • Feet together, back and neck straight, and bend at the waist
  • Men: Keep hands to the side of your thighs
  • Women: Keep hands clasped in front and below your waist
  • DON’T bow and walk at the same time (Stop and bow)
  • DON’T bow and talk at the same time

The two main types of bow movements you should know:

  • Eshaku: Done in a casual and informal setting, which only requires a simple small nod of the head.
  • Keirei: Done in a formal setting, such as business situations and accepting business cards, which requires a 30-45 degree bow of the torso.

Two Men Bowing in Suits | Free SVG

2. Receiving gifts and business cards

As far as I’m concerned, it’s few and far between that some people haven’t given a single gift to someone, its just a simple gesture of appreciation that’s universal around the world. Whether it’s a box of delicious chocolate favourites or a little souvenir from your trip, I applaud you. In Japan, you may notice that gift-giving is more frequent than usual, it is recommended for those staying in a homestay to give a small gift, maybe some vegemite if you’re willing to take the risk in possibly destroying or improving that wonderful bond you had. If you’re visiting Japan for business, you’ll most likely encounter a few business cards coming your way. If any of these situations are related to you, then there are a few tips you must know if you’re either the receiver or deliverer of a business card or gift.

What to know:

If you’re in the business side of things in Japan, you should definitely get a cardholder. Always offer your business card with your right hand and your cardholder in your left hand. Please make sure that you don’t cover any names or logos and remember to bow. Whatever you do, do not put that card in your wallet or pocket, as that is offensive. The same goes for gift-giving and receiving, ensure to politely bow and receive the gift with two hands to show respect and appreciation.

Gift-giving season

Did you know that Japan has two gift-gifting occasions in each year: Ochugen and Oseibo.

The premise of each occasion is to give a gift for those who’ve shown kindness to you during the year. Ochugen is during the 15th July in Kanto and the 15th August in Kansai. Whereas Oseibo is during mid-late December.

3. Indoor

It’s customary to take shoes off when entering someone else’s home in Japan. This is done to ensure that any dirt, gum or dreadful dog poo dwelling underneath your shoes is not entered into the house. In exchange, you’ll either have to walk in your socks or be provided with slippers. However, please note, you’re not supposed to wear slippers in a tatami room.

Tatami Room in Aizuwakamatsu | Tatami Room in Aizuwakamatsu.… | Flickr

Tatami Room

4. Eating

Itadakimasu! From slurping noodles to not walking while eating, there is a whole article for you to read about the discipline of eating in Japan. Please click the link below to learn more about Japanese etiquette!

5. Temples/Shrines

As you gallivant across Japan, you’ll notice Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples are ubiquitous. Even if you’re not an adherent, many of these sacred sites are permissible for visitors. Please remember to be quiet and dress appropriately – yes, that means no bikinis. There are shrine rituals in place to show respect and cleanliness to the site and the gods. Within Shinto shrines, there’ll be a water source in front with ladles provided. Use the ladles to pour the water over your hands to rinse them, followed by pouring water into your left hand to rinse your mouth and then spit out onto the ground.

Temizu - purification ritual in Toshogu Shrine, Japan | Flickr

6. Transport

Before you board any train, you must stand behind the thick lines at the platform and wait in a line until all the leaving passengers of the train exit. As you board the train, always ensure to give up your seat to those who need it more. Whether elderly, disabled or pregnant women (some women use pink tags as recognition for them being pregnant!) Don’t smoke, eat, phone or drink (unless water) on the train. The Shinkansen train does have an area for smoking and calling, while during long-haul train rides, eating and drinking are accepted.

7. Other: Quick tips!

  • Don’t blow your nose in public
  • Say goodbye to your clothes and strip away naked for the onsen (You can’t wear clothes in an onsen)
  • Don’t jaywalk – Rules are rules, don’t do it.
  • Don’t smoke in public, unless you’re in a designated smoking area in a restaurant, bar or street where it is permitted.


Now you get some ideas of how Japanese behave and act in their daily life. Although you are a traveller while you are there in Japan, why not try to act like local Japanese!!

Also, if you plan to visit Japan as your next holiday, please get useful information here: Pre-Travel Guide to Japan