Cultural Characteristics and Etiquette in Japan

Japan’s culture is very different from that of the US. For example, did you know there are sometimes ‘women-only’ sections during rush hour that you, as a man, should not enter? Or do you know how to behave in the onsen? I will give you some tips on how to act positively during your trip to Japan.

Photo by Roméo A.

There are many behavior rules in Japan. Some relate to specific activities, such as visiting an onsen, while others generally apply in public.

General Etiquette Rules

Some behaviors that are entirely normal in the US are considered rather rude in Japan. For example, you should not:

  • Eating or drinking while walking.
  • Smoke outside of designated areas.
  • Blow your nose loudly in the presence of others.
  • Expecting a handshake or hug when greeting someone.
  • Consuming any alcohol under the age of 20.
  • Photographing strangers on the street.
  • Openly display tattoos, which are often associated with the Yakuza and can be unpleasant for locals.
  • Keep your shoes on indoors. You can tell if you need to take your shoes off by the behavior of other visitors, for example. A good indication is if you must walk up a small step after entering.
  • Go into stores with dripping wet umbrellas. In front of most stores, you will find either umbrella stands or plastic bags for your umbrella.

Tattoos are a complex subject in Japan, usually wholly forbidden on the onsen and beach. Especially older people can be bothered by the sight of them, even on the street.

In contrast, many points are okay or even welcomed in Japan, whereas in the States, they are not. It is appropriate if you:

  • Wearing a face mask when you have a cold.
  • Making eating noises (e.g., slurping soup).
  • Drinking alcohol in public.
  • Picnicking in the park. You should take any garbage back with you.
  • Bringing small souvenirs to locals.
  • Walk on the left (in train stations, on escalators, etc.) as long as there are no other signs. In Osaka, strangely enough, you walk on the right.

Photo by N00

Waste segregation is significant in Japan. Even at events, various trash cans are provided for this purpose.

Code of Conduct For Specific Situations

In addition to general rules of conduct, there are a few things you should be aware of in certain situations in Japan.

When traveling by train:

  • Do not talk loudly.
  • Don’t run to the train.
  • Don’t eat on public transportation.
  • Put your cell phone on silent.
  • Stand in line in the designated area.
  • Give priority seats to pregnant women, the elderly, etc.
  • Watch out for ‘women-only cars’ in cities in the morning, and don’t get into them if you’re a man.
  • Watch out for reserved seats on the Shinkansen. Reserved seats are located in different cars.

When visiting a shrine or temple, you should:

  • Show respectful behavior.
  • Follow the prescribed procedure during prayers.
  • Do not take pictures of the staff without being asked.

When you visit a restaurant:

  • Do not tip.
  • Do not pass food from chopstick to chopstick.
  • Do not insert chopsticks vertically into food.
  • Use the bell at the table to call the waiter. If there is no bell, a ‘sumimasen’ will do.
  • Pay at the checkout counter and take the bill with you.
  • At an izakaya, they usually split the meal and the bill.
  • In ramen and fast food places, buy a ticket from a vending machine before eating and give it to the staff to order.

When you visit an onsen, you should:

  • Keep calm.
  • Pay attention to prohibitions on tattoos.
  • Wash before entering the pool.
  • Go into the water naked. When walking around, you can cover yourself with a towel.
  • Do not let your towel and hair touch the water.

Japanese – How much should you know?

Especially in big cities, you can get along quite well with English these days. Transportation, restaurants, and so on often show the most important terms in English. In the countryside and lesser-known tourist destinations, it is linguistically more complex, and the use of translation apps is worth it. To make the trip a little easier, learning some phrases and characters is still an advantage. In addition, you will appear much more polite if you can answer at least a few basic terms in Japanese. I have compiled an overview of travel vocabulary for you.


Besides all these codes of conduct, there are also a few obstacles that I was surprised by in Japan. These include:

  • Trains do not run in big cities at night.
  • Maps are aligned in line of sight and not to the north.
  • General smoking ban on streets. A smoking room is recommended for smokers.
  • Vegetarian and vegan food is relatively rare and should be researched in advance.
  • Waste segregation is pervasive in hotels but mostly irrelevant. You should pay attention to the pictures on the trash cans in public places.
  • Especially in Tōkyō, the water is very chlorinated.


There are many rules and unwritten social norms in Japan. As a tourist and foreigner, you will be forgiven for most mistakes as long as you are reasonable and friendly. If you behave in a straightforward ‘proper’ manner, the locals will usually be pleased and praise you. Stumbling upon a cultural idiosyncrasy may be annoying initially, but in retrospect, it can become a valuable memory.

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