Japanese Culture: Faux Pas 101

A brief overview of some of the more common etiquette mistakes made by foreigners in Japan.

By Gil Forsyth

Japan. The Land of the Rising Sun. The Land of the Gods. The love child of Izanagi and Izanami. Where failed Western rock stars come to succeed. The most bureaucratic country on the face of the Earth. And above all, the most orderly.

Order is built in to Japanese culture. The language is ordered in several levels of politeness, each with a specific use for a specific status. The Emperor even has his own conjugation pattern! Well, he did. I think he forgot it. The point is that order and manners, etiquette (if you will), plays a very important part in Japanese culture. Now I’m sure you all know to take your shoes off inside the house and not to jump into a public bath all soaped up, but there are hundreds of cultural taboos waiting for you to stumble upon them.

A disclaimer: If you mess something up, it’s OK. You’re a foreigner and you are accorded a certain number of Mulligans when dealing with Japanese etiquette. The more obscure the point of etiquette, the lesser the shame you heap on your name, your family, your honor and, if applicable, your liege lord.

Shoes
Yes, you take them off inside, but there are a few other points to keep in mind. If you’re going to a Japanese person’s house, or a temple or a shrine, remember that you’re going to be taking your shoes off, and be prepared. Don’t wear the last pair of socks in your drawer. You know the ones, with the faded S&M Hello Kitty decals and a hole at both ankles and your left big toe. We don’t want to see those and neither do the monks. Also, you may notice that your shoes are frequently turned towards the door by your host or at a Japanese-style restaurant. It is OK to do this yourself, but do not turn your back when stepping out of a genkan. Step out of your shoes facing forward and then reach down to turn your shoes around.

Chopsticks
One in the right hand, one in the left and a lot of patience. If you tell a Japanese person that’s how you learned to use chopsticks, the chance that they’ll believe you is disturbingly high. But you’ve mastered the art of picking up soft tofu in your chopsticks. You’re noticeably more talented with them than your elementary school students, so don’t mess it up.

Never stick your chopsticks into a bowl of rice and leave them there. This is how rice is offered to the dead at Japanese funerals and it’s very, very unlucky. Also, never pass food from one pair of chopsticks to another. If you want to give your friend a taste of something, put it on his plate. Japanese cremate their dead at a lower heat than Western countries so the bones are still solid. Family members then pass the bones from the urn in a circle, chopsticks to chopsticks. Doing this with food is also very, very unlucky.

Shrines
When you visit a shrine, there will usually be a chozusha, or water basin, near the entrance. The chozusha is a disaster waiting to happen. You are supposed to purify your hands and your mouth with the water from the chozusha. Do not drink the water no matter how hot the weather is. Also, do not pour the water all over your head. Scoop out some water and pour it over your left hand, then right hand and then pour some water into your hand and sip. Do not sip directly from the bamboo cup thing. Also, do not swallow the water. Instead, spit it out near the base of the chozusha. There should be a drainage area. Lastly, hoist the cup upright on its handle and use the remnants of the water in the cup to purify the handle where you touched it with your impure hands. You may notice many people foregoing the mouth purification. These people are heathens; do not emulate them.

Other points
Never pour a beer for yourself. This is equivalent to screaming “I’m an alcoholic” to the room. Whether or not that’s true, it’s best to avoid the reputation. Pour for the person next to you and then wait for him to pour for you. Coughing politely and staring at your glass when it’s empty is acceptable behavior. If you’re alone at the bar, chances are you’re an alcoholic.

At meals, always try to finish all of your rice. You can leave the rest of the meal untouched but finish the rice. Also, never pour soy sauce over white rice. If you’re having sushi, try to eat each piece in one go. If you try to separate it into two pieces, you will likely fail. Hands or chopsticks can be used to eat sushi.

Blowing your nose and burping are considered incredibly bad manners but slurping your noodles or soup is a compliment to the chef. Spend some time at a ramen shop observing to learn prime slurping techniques.

Accept business cards with both hands and don’t put them into your wallet. Either buy a business card holder or hold on to them until you’re out of sight. Then put it in your wallet.

As a last rule of thumb, when giving or receiving anything, use both hands and bow a lot. If you’re giving omiyage, you can try to bust out tsumaranai mono desu kedo (It’s a bit boring, but…) when you hand over gifts, to earn brownie points.

Whatever happens, don’t worry too much. You will commit cultural faux pas, it happens to everyone. In a new situation, “monkey see monkey do” will serve you well. Make mistakes and learn from them and you’ll be fine.