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Japanese Etiquette

Good etiquette and following social norms is an integral part of Japanese society. Most Japanese etiquette is based on being considerate of others. As such, rude behavior is easily noticeable and strongly frowned upon. Many of these social rules carry over from Western standards, such as not invading someone’s personal space unnecessarily. Others are easily inferred, such as not being too loud or rambunctious on the trains. Yet some etiquette is not obvious, and must be learned by research and observation.

Escalators or Stairs

Description There is a certain order people are expected to follow when using the escalator or stairs. For stairs, pay attention to how the traffic is flowing. Stairs in busy areas often have marked ascending and descending sides. Try not to go up the descending side or down the ascending side, as you might run into people. For escalators, people who want to stand are expected to stay on the left so those who wish to walk can do so on the right.

Public Toilets

Description Concerning public toilets in Japan, the most important thing to remember is to simply treat the toilet respectfully. Do not flush anything but toilet paper down the toilet, as you could clog the system. When washing your hands, try not to splash water all over the sink and floor. And if you do, do your best to clean it up. This is the basic rule in public facilities such as toilets; try not to make a mess, but if you do, clean it up to be respectful to the next guest.

Public Baths

Description When using a public bath, there are several social rules that people are expected to follow. First, you should undress fully in the locker room. Wearing a swimming suit into the bath looks strange, and will not be appreciated. Second, wash up before entering a bath. There are individual showering stations equipped with soap, shampoo and conditioner. Third, rinse off your body between baths to get off excess chemicals. Fourth, when entering a bath, get in slowly. Try not to make a splash as it may disturb other guests.

Gift giving

Description Gift giving in Japan is very common, and tends to have someone stricter rules of etiquette than in Western countries. First, it may be best to avoid gifts with a prominently visible number 4, since the number 4 can symbolize death. Second, when bringing a gift somewhere, wrap it and place it in an opaque bag so as not to draw attention to it. Finally, offer the gift in private, as the act of receiving a gift can be embarrassing to Japanese people.

Letters and postcards

Description When writing a letter to a Japanese person, it is common to use extremely polite language, even for a close friend. Therefore, when addressing the letter, most people use the suffix –sama after the person’s name to show respect. The letter should be written in black ink; never red, as writing someone’s name in red suggests a death wish for that person. While sending postcards from trips is uncommon in Japan, it is standard to send a New Year’s greeting postcard, especially if you receive one yourself.

Respectful language

Description Harmony is seen as an important value in Japanese society, and one of the ways to preserve harmony is through language. Japanese has multiple tenses dedicated to being polite, including sonkeigo (respectful language, referring to others), kenjogo (humble language, referring to self), and teineigo (general polite language). It is polite to use sonkeigo when speaking with a superior or boss, and casual language when speaking with someone equal to or lower than yourself. Sonkeigo is also used when first meeting someone to be sure not to offend them.

Business manner

Description While Japanese business etiquette is not completely different from what one might find in a Western company, it does tend to be more formal, especially at first. The most important thing to remember is to always be polite, thoughtful, and show good manners. That said, it’s good to remember that people in Japan are more sensitive about touching than most Westerners, so it may not be a good idea to grab a Japanese person’s hand for a handshake or pat them on the back.

Business Seating

Description When sitting with your bosses or superiors, there is a clear arrangement that people follow in Japan. The basic idea is that the highest ranking person sits farthest into the room, while the lowest ranking sits closest to the door. This unspoken rule is so that the person closest to the door can deal with small interruptions or making tea, and so forth. When inviting Japanese businessmen for a meeting, make sure you seat the guests farther inside the room, away from the door, to show respect.

Business Telephone

Description When making a business call, it is polite to state your name and where you work before inquiring about your business. Try to avoid calling during early morning, lunch hour, or right before closing time. When taking a call, try to answer the phone quickly; don’t let it ring too long. If you are transferring a call to a colleague, put the phone on hold first. If the person you’re talking with is a customer, let them hang up the phone first. Finally, try and hang up the phone quietly.

Business Hours

Description Working hours vary based on industry in Japan. For example, working hours for banks are strictly 9 AM to 3 PM, whereas post offices are open from 9 AM to 5 PM. For department stores and shops it depends, but you can expect most places to be open from 10 AM until about 8 PM. As for business offices, the working hours are generally 9 AM to 5 PM, though it might change depending on the industry. Banks, post offices, and business offices are all closed on the weekends and on national holidays.

Business cards

Description One major difference between Japan and most Western nations is the importance of business cards. When meeting a Japanese businessman or woman for the first time, you can expect to receive a business card from them, and they will expect the same. Therefore, it is necessary to always carry a stack of business cards with you when doing business in Japan. Always present your business card to your partner with both hands. When you receive a business card, treat it with respect, and never forget to bring it with you when you leave.
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