Going to Japan for the first time? There are a lot of manners and commonsensical behaviors that people do here and just take for granted that everyone knows. But the fact is that if you’re visiting Japan for the first time, you probably don’t know most (or maybe any) of the local customs.
If I had a 1 yen coin for every time I saw a foreigner doing something “wrong,” I’d have a fuckload of 1 yen coins. They get in the way, mess up everyone’s routine, or just do things that will annoy everyone around them. None of these things is the end of the world; you can be oblivious and still have a great time. After all, ignorance is bliss.
But if you take the time to learn a few basics, you’ll look like a pro, people will think “what an urbane and polite foreigner,” and in my honest opinion, you’ll have a lot more fun because of the insight into the culture. I really believe the proverb “When in Rome, do as the Romans” is some of the best advice ever. You’ll experience Japan more deeply and you’ll come away with a so much more profound experience.
As I said, there are a lot of “rules” (or “manners,” if you will). But they’re not hard to learn. After a few basics, you’ll start to see patterns and probably be able to figure out the rest for yourself. I’m going to start my list with the big mistakes that I see tourists make all the time, then I’ll go into the smaller things.
4 Manners You Must Know In Japan
Walking & Using Escalators
Walk on the left side of the streets and hallways.
Stand on the left side of elevators; the right side is for people in a hurry to walk.
I see foreigners standing side by side relaxing on the handrails blocking the flow of traffic all the time. There’s a long line of people standing behind them looking irritated about being slowed down.
Pro-tip: In Osaka, for some strange reason, the elevator rule is reversed. People stand on the right side and pass on the left. Often you’ll see Tokyo people doing it wrong here – sometimes intentionally as a snub – so if you do it correctly, you’ll be doing better than even some Japanese!
Getting On Trains
Make a line. Japanese trains stop at the same spots, the doors are marked on the platforms or across on the facing wall.
Stand to the right or left of the door, so you don’t block people getting off the trains.
People exit the doors in the middle of the left & right lines first. After everyone has gotten off the train, the people waiting will board the train.
The Japanese like lines and order. It’s this sort of behavior that keeps people calm when there are typhoons, earthquakes, etc.
It’s really just common sense. Let people off first, then get on yourself. Stand to the sides so you don’t block people. You can parlay this skill to every other situation in Japan.
Silence is Golden
Don’t talk loudly anywhere (but especially on trains).
Don’t sit across from your friend on the subways and have a loud conversation. Sit next to each other and talk at a reasonable volume.
People are generally quiet in elevators when unknown people get in with them.
Always keep your phone in silent mode (vibrate), called “Manner Mode” in Japanese, especially in public places.
Don’t talk on your phone on the train. They even make announcements saying this. If you have to take a phone call, get off the train and talk on the platform. The next train will come soon anyways.
Pro-tip: Don’t take phone calls at the table, step outside. You’ll score lots of “cool foreigner” points for this one.
Saying Thank You
Don’t say arigato to staff. They are not your friends. You say arigatō gozaimasu (polite) or dōmo arigatō gozaimasu (super polite).
Pro-tip 1: After a meal, instead of saying arigatō gozaimasu, you can say go-chisō-sama desu, which means something like “Thank you for the bad ass feast.”
Pro-tip 2: The Japanese bow a lot. You don’t have to do a 45 degree bow or anything, but whenever you feel appreciation for someone, give a little bow or at least a nod.
There they are.
4 rules that will help you enjoy Japan while the Japanese enjoy you too.
If you wanna go the extra distance, I have a few more rules that will help you!
Here: Japanese Manners 2