Japan is an etiquette-driven society with many unspoken rules on what to do and how to behave in public. Although Japanese people don’t expect tourists from overseas to know all of the etiquette rules, a little understanding of the basics can go a long way, as not only it can help avoiding unnecessary offence or embarrassment, it is also a courteous gesture that demonstrates your respect to the local culture.
This article lists out some of the common faux pas tourists make in Japan. After mentioning 7 gaffes in the first part article, I will look at another 6 no-nos in this second part article, as well as some tips on how to avoid them.
#8 Litter indiscriminately
When it comes to waste disposal in Japan – you don’t see many dustbins, and when you see one, you have to separate your rubbish according to the labels on the bins. As puzzling as it may be, resist the urge to throw your rubbish indiscriminately because tourists are expected to follow the basic rubbish sorting rules too.
What to do:
Knowing the common trash categories can help, such as bin ビン for glass bottles and containers, kan カン for tin cans and aluminum cans, PET bottles ペットボトル for plastic drink bottles, and burnable garbage もえるごみ for common trash like food waste, peelings, food wrappers, candy wrappers, paper scraps, plastic bags etc.
You also need to separate the parts that are made from different materials, for example, removing the caps and labels of PET bottles and toss them into the plastic プラスチック or burnable garbage bin, while the bottle goes into the PET bottle bin.
Still confused by the system? Then do as the Japanese do, most of them bring their rubbish home so that they can separate it properly. For tourists, this is much easier because the hotels will take care of the sorting part for their guests. Always carry a plastic bag or two for this purpose, keep the trash until you back to the hotel and dispose of it.
#9 Smoke wherever you please
Attention smokers! While smoking is permitted in many bars and restaurants or any privately owned business (most places have both smoking and non-smoking seats), lighting up outdoors is a no-no and is punishable by fine if caught doing so.
What to do: You can smoke in the designated smoking areas which appear to be an enclosed smoking room (commonly found at train stations) or a smoking corner in front of stores or buildings, look for ashtrays or the sign of a lit cigarette to locate these smoking areas.
#10 Blow your nose in public
While blowing your nose is normal when you have a blocked or runny nose and want to get rid of the mucus inside, it is considered a rather impolite act which you rarely see people do in public because the locals tend to associate it with the spreading of germs.
What to do: If you feel like blowing your nose, find somewhere private like a toilet to attend to a running nose, rather than reaching for a tissue or handkerchief and have a good blow on the spot. If you have a cold, wear a mask, because you wouldn’t want your germs flying all over the place and infecting others.
#11 Mistake a temple for a shrine, or vice versa
Many tourists like to join the locals in paying respects to the deities while visiting shrines and temples in Japan. But they sometimes confuse between a shrine and a temple, this can lead to an embarrassing faux pas – mixing up the praying rituals of these places. While the ritual of bow-pray-bow is customary at both places, there are differences between the two in how many times you bow and whether you need to clap your hands.
What to do:
At a shrine (jinja, 神社), a Shinto place of worship, you first place a coin into the offertory box, ring the bell if there is one, bow twice, clap twice, place your hands together and pray, bow one more time when you are finished.
At a temple (tera, 寺), a Buddhist place of worship, you first offer an incense stick and/or purifying yourself with some incense smoke, put some coins into the offertory box, bow once, place your hands together and pray, bow once again after finished praying.
Good manners at Japanese temples and shrines are not limited to praying properly only. Be sure to take a moment to look up also on etiquette with regard to temple and shrine visiting so you can make the most of your visits to these sacred sites.
#12 Have someone queueing up for the whole party
This often happens at popular restaurants where long queues are observed, whereby tourists who are not aware of the rule send one “representative” to stand in line so that the rest of the group can join later. This is a no-go in Japan, and the group will be disappointed to learn that they will not be seated unless they line up all over again with the whole party present.
What to do: Restaurants and other diners estimate the waiting time based on the number of people in the queue. Having a group of people suddenly turn up and joining a person at the head of the line frustrates the people behind, and the restaurant has to enforce the rule in order to be fair to other diners. So, be sure to have all members of the party lining up with you, not just when waiting for a table but also in other places such as theme parks!
#13 Harassing others for photos, or not asking at all
Taking photos of individuals that clearly show their faces without asking for permission, chasing after “exotic” targets like geishas or maikos, maid cafe waitresses, and cosplayers in order to capture their pictures, or photographing an ongoing wedding ceremony too closely, these acts are very disrespectful and could even land you in serious trouble.
What to do: Be respectful, keep a distance, and make sure to get their permission whenever necessary (accept it if your request is declined). When it comes to taking photos of individuals, it is more about respecting other people’s rights to privacy which are taken seriously in Japan (unlike pictures of a large crowd which are normally okay). Put yourself in their shoes, you wouldn’t want a stranger to keep taking photos of you even you said ‘no’, right?
I hope you find this article useful in learning about the common etiquette rules in Japan, a lot of which actually come down to common sense driven by the thoughts of being aware and considerate to others. While you might worry about offending the locals by “not doing things right”, the truth is Japanese people give foreigners a lot of leeway when it comes to local customs.
A good way to know whether you are doing all right is to simply look around and see how other people do it. When in doubt, don’t do or at least ask first. As long as you act with respect and courtesy, most will just laugh off even if you make a mistake or two!