Destination Guide | Tokyo Japan
Lifestyles and Customs
In Japan traces of the old “mysterious East” are easy to find. However, Japan is a high-tech, twenty-first-century country. In the last 150 years Japan evolved from an isolated feudal state into a modern country with a free market and some of the world’s most advanced technologies.
In society, however, many old traditions and customs continue to survive. Understanding these customs will make your day-to-day life easier. Faux pas are the order of the day. Japanese people are very forgiving when one is perceived to be sincerely trying to understand. Patience and sensitivity will help through.
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Etiquette is extremely important to the Japanese. It is difficult for foreigners to understand Japanese culture, customs or even habits, but an awareness of these will benefit you in the long run. Followings are some general guidelines, and remember, majority of these gestures and mannerisms are expressions of modesty and humility;
- Address individuals by their family names adding “–san”. Never address individuals by their given names.
- Meishi (business cards) are essential in Japan. Prepare meishi as soon as you arrive in Tokyo with all your relevant information. We recommend you to make English/Japanese bilingual business card in Japan.
- The most senior person or the guest of honor sits furthest from the door. The seniority may be social status, so always just observe and wait to be told where to be seated. It is polite to pour drinks like beer, sake or tea for others, not for yourself.
- Greetings in Japan take the form of a long, low bow. Bowing is complex in Japan. The angle of the bow is determined by the relationship with the other person, to company rank, age and circumstances. Foreigners are not expected to understand all the subtleties of this custom. When meeting a person for the first time, you should bow slightly and say hajimemashite (pleased to meet you). When in a business situation, proceed to exchange business cards (meishi). Using both hands, give the card with either the English or Japanese side up to the recipient.
- Do not point with your index finger.
- Be on time.
- Do not eat or drink while walking outside.
- Money is the traditional gift at weddings and funerals. However, be careful! Only denominations of three, five or ten are acceptable, as the numbers two, four and nine are unlucky. If it’s needed at business occasion, your office staff can provide guidance as to the correct amount of the gift based on the each business relationship back ground.
- Do not blow your nose in public.
- Direct eye contact is to be avoided. Japanese people are averse to casual body contact. They battle to speak with gestures.
- Avoid groups of 4 things--in gifts, flowers, fruits, etc. The kanji character for “four” is associated with death through Japanese pronunciation. The same applies to no. 9, which pronounces (Ku) and means “pain, anxiety”.
- Japanese modestly say when giving a gift as Tsumaranai-Monodesuga, that direct translation is “here’s something boring for you” but actually means in mind “here's something I thought you might like”. This is a mode of humility and modesty, not a question of taste towards the recipient.
- Do not get embarrassed about making mistakes. Simply say “Sumimasen” (Please excuse me) or “Gomen-nasai” (I'm sorry). This is an instant pardon.
- Line up for subways and trains at appointed places on the platform.
- Do not make/receive a phone call in public transportation. Japanese businessmen understand the cultural code, and are fine as long as the calls are returned when off-board.
- Silver seats (priority seats) on public transportation are reserved for the elderly or handicapped. Switch off your cellular phone near these seats.
- Put your wet umbrella into a plastic covers prepared at the entrance of buildings and stores.
- Smoking in Tokyo is becoming more restricted. Smoking while walking in the streets is fined 3,000 yen to 5,000 yen in many wards in Tokyo.
- Do not get angry when Japanese people smile and nod without answering “Yes” or “No”. Following descriptions would often help to interpret this mannerism;
- They did not really understand what you said.
- They cannot give you a straight answer before consulting with his boss.
- The answer is no, but they believe it is not polite to say “No” in front of you/others. He may say “Let me think a little” which usually means no.
Japanese table manners
The most senior person (Otoshiyori) or the most honored guest (Okyaku-sama) sits furthest from the entrance described as Kamiza (usually with his back to the treasure alcove (Tokonoma) when in a Tatami guest room. Therefore always observe and wait to be told where to sit (the hostess will take a seat closest to the door). A polite guest always pours drinks for the most senior person and the other guests, not for himself.
Japanese people use chopsticks (Hashi) to eat. Do not point with them, never stab your food with them and avoid pulling plates with them. You may put your chopsticks on a small chopstick-rest (Hashi-oki) if you take a break.
Generally, Japanese-style meals are full of variety all presented on the table. One or two dishes may be served later. There are no “between courses” (like the Chinese or French). So eat from dishes randomly. Soup is served at the end of the meal. Rice and soup (usually miso-soup) will be served with the Japanese pickles. You may use soy-sauce (shōyu) for the pickles but do not pour it on your rice.
Here are some common Japanese table manners:
- Never stick chopsticks vertically into a bowl of food, as this is the traditional presentation form for an offering to one's ancestors.
- Accepted practice in helping oneself to a communal dish like salad, is to reverse the chopsticks.
- In communal dining or drinking, the youngest person present should pour alcohol for the other members of the party, serving the most senior person first. The server should not pour their own drink, rather they should place the bottle of sake, beer, wine or spirits back on the table or bar and wait to be served by a senior.
- Japanese soup is eaten holding the bowl to one's mouth, never with a spoon. The exceptions to this are o-zoni, the traditional soup served on New Year's Day; soups with noodles are served in larger bowls, such as ramen, are acceptable to eat using chopsticks, although the soup itself is still consumed from bowl to mouth.
- It is usually polite to finish your meal at the same time as everyone else. It is recommended that one should eat from one dish and then eat some rice.
- Although this is counter-intuitive, making a slurping noise is accepted when eating hot noodles such as udon, ramen or soba. This is standard behavior in Japan and Japanese maintain that inhaling air when eating hot noodles improves the flavor.
- When taking a break from eating during a meal, one should place one's chopsticks on the chopstick rest (hashi-oki) provided. A hashi-oki is usually a ceramic rectangle about 3-4cm long.
- Unlike Korean table manners, it is acceptable to cradle one's rice bowl in one hand when eating. Japanese rice bowls are thicker and are made with heat insulating materials while Korean rice bowls are made with heat conductive metals.
- Do not gesture with chopsticks.
- Never pass food from one pair of chopsticks to another. This technique is used only in Japanese Buddhist funerary rites when transferring cremated bones into an urn.
- When pouring wine or beer, the hand holding the bottle should pour forward, not backward (over the back of the hand). This is considered an insult.
- Do not tip in Japanese restaurants.
There are additional etiquette rules specifically for sushi, especially in a traditional restaurant:
- It is acceptable to eat sushi with one's fingers, rather than chopsticks when the dining situation is relatively casual (this also applies to dining out at a kaitenzushi restaurant).
- When possible, sushi pieces and sections of cut rolls should be eaten in a single bite or held in the hand until finished. Putting a half eaten piece back is considered rude.
- Nigiri sushi (fish on rice) and maki (rolls) may be eaten with the hands; sashimi (pieces of raw fish) should be eaten with chopsticks.
Unless specifically admitted, never address individuals by their given name, but call his last name with San, for both sexes. Greetings in Japan take the form of a long, long bow in formal occasions and a short (not quick) bow to seniors and friends in the mornings and on leaving office. At initial introductions a person stands up and bows slightly saying “Hajimemashite” (you may say, How do you do!).
Using both hands, a businessman will immediately offer his business card/ Meishi (it is essential to bring business cards with you in Japan), add brief introduction of his company, then of himself (the company is very important in the Japanese framework) and he ends Dōzo-Yoroshiku (meaning “please be kind to me”, although the definition tends to be context-sensitive). However, at the next meeting, he will simply shake hands and say “Hello”. You will be on first name terms if previously understood.
Dress is relatively conservative in the Japanese business community. Patience is a necessity, as many Japanese are reluctant to give quick, definitive responses and are particularly reluctant to give clear-cut, negative responses. Under these circumstances Japanese people often use is “Kangaete-okimasu” (Let me think about it for a while). It actually means no.
Do not tip. However, gift giving in Japan is ritual. Through gifts they express gratitude for past or continuing favors, show respect for a superiors or are given in return for previous gifts. Always take a gift when going to someone's home for dinner or tea. That gift could be a bottle of wine, sweets, fruit or flowers. In Japan, one is not expected to open the gift immediately. If you are the recipient, do not open it unless you are asked to do so.
Gift-giving & receiving
Many occasions call for a gift of money, as well as a present. When giving money, the bills should be new notes in denominations of 3's, 5's, or 7's (never 4 or 9) put in money-envelopes. These are available at stationery shops and convenience stores. Occasions include: birthdays, a new baby, Xmas, New year's day gifts to children, weddings and funerals.
Nationwide biannual gift giving should be noted here; these are Ochuugen or Shochuu-Omimai given out around Obon in early July and Oseibo given out around Kure around year-end. These presents are sent or given to teachers, bosses, relatives and reciprocations. The presents include seasonal fruit, beverages, seaweed, soap and so on.
When invited to dinner at a home, bring a small but nicely wrapped gift of fruit, wine or sake or flowers. Bringing home-made cookies or a box of dessert will be greatly appreciated.
When you visit somebody at a hospital, do not take plants as a gift as it insinuates a message that you are willing to have that person stay in hospital for a long time. Rather a cheerful bunch of pink flowers in a vase is best. Or take a basket of fruit.
Japanese people will not open the gift immediately in front of the giver, particularly when other customers are also giving present. However, westernized Japanese may request to do so.
Write a letter of thanks to the host/hostess after a few days. After receiving a gift send a thank you card. Otherwise just call up or send an e-mail.
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