When you visit another culture you inevitably run into situations where local people speak or act in ways that seem surprising or even rude, based on your internalized rules of behavior. In Japanese restaurants, you will hear people loudly slurping their bowl of ramen (picking it up with both hands) or miso soup (soybean flavored soup) or tea or coffee. If you go out to eat with a group of Japanese friends, you may be surprised that everyone orders the same thing from the menu, and that they pour drinks only for others and never refill their own glass.
To help you find your way, here’s a quick list of dos and don’ts when living in or visiting Japan:
- Carry a pack of tissues and a handkerchief; public bathrooms may not have paper.
- Wear slip-on shoes and clean socks with no holes—you’ll be taking your shoes off a lot.
- Take a small gift when visiting someone; if you go on a trip, bring back something (sweets, rice crackers) as omiyage (souvenirs) for your colleagues or host family.
- Make an offer more than once, whether it’s your seat, carrying something, picking up the tab, or inviting someone to your home. In Japan, it’s polite to refuse once or twice, so if you offer only once, they will not have a chance to accept.
- When you see an acquaintance, always mention the previous time you were together and thank them—it builds a connection.
- Touch or put an arm around friends of the same gender only.
- Remember the people who were kind to you by sending them a Christmas or New Year’s card every year after you leave Japan.
- Chew gum at work or in class.
- Stick your chopsticks in your rice bowl (looks like incense for the deceased).
- Pour shoyu (soy sauce) over white rice. The side dishes are well seasoned—take a bite of rice and a bite of the side dish and chew to blend.
- Sit cross-legged on the floor if you’re a woman—it’s just not done (although in Korea it’s common).
- Hug and kiss in public unless you like being stared at—these days you do see some couples showing affection. Holding hands is fine!
Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Living Abroad in Japan.