View over Tokyo

Ten ways to avoid making etiquette mistakes in Japan

Japan is one of the most intriguing and exciting tourist destinations in the world. But before you book your holiday, take note of these important rules – from how to hold chopsticks to never, ever opening taxi doors, it’s easy for visitors to slip up. Here is a list of the top ten most common faux pas in Japan – and how to effortlessly dodge them all

Inside Signature restaurant at Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo

Don’t tip in Japan

It may feel deeply uncomfortable, particularly in a country where service is impeccably smooth and polite, but from taxi hops to restaurants, tipping simply isn’t necessary (or expected). If you do insist on tipping, prepare to find a waiter running down the street after you, with your ‘forgotten’ coins.

Use the little money tray in shops

Be it a designer flagship or a supermarket, most stores in Japan have small trays on the counter where you should place your cash or card. Be warned: shop staff, however polite and friendly, will struggle to hide their feelings of mortification if you attempt to thrust payment directly into their hands or fling notes down on the shop counter.

Red Japanese shrine

How to enter Japanese shrines

A visit to a shrine often involves a complex web rituals and customs. Top tip? Copy the locals – from washing hands at the entrance to flinging coins, ringing bells, clapping hands and bowing heads in prayer before the main sanctuary. Failing to do the right thing could make you, inadvertently, appear disrespectful.

Show that business card some love

It’s all about business cards – known as meishi – in Japan (it’s worth packing several kilos). The number one rule is to handle all cards – whether offering or receiving – with two hands, ideally accompanied by a modest tilt of the head. When accepting someone else’s card, it’s polite to look at it in appreciation for a moment, before either holding it for a while or respectfully placing it on the table in front of you – whatever you do, don’t just stick it straight in your pocket.

Vitality pool at Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo

Cover up tattoos

Hot spring onsen bathers and spa-goers take note: although views are changing, tattoos are still fairly stigmatised in Japan, thanks to their lingering associations with organised crime groups, known as the yakuza. Hot springs, especially traditional ones, often have signs stating “no tattoos!” in English – so to avoid disappointment, be discreet and give your swimwear packing some advance consideration, to ensure that you cover up any inkings.

Don’t be late

Punctuality is elevated to an art form in Japan, a country where workers are handed notes from train companies to give to their bosses if running even minutes behind schedule. So, in a nutshell, try to be on time – or at the very least, if delayed (by jet lag or confusing train station layouts) send a message apologising as early as possible.


Train on a bridge over a river in Japan

Be train smart

It’s common to queue up neatly for trains; look out for markings on the train platforms that indicate door locations. Once on board, try to avoid eating, drinking or talking on mobile phones (if the latter is absolutely necessary, chat Tokyo-style, by whispering apologetically with your hand over your mouth).

Never touch the taxi door

Taxi drivers in Japan pride themselves on their pristine white gloves, sparkling interiors – and automatic doors. And nothing annoys them more than foreigners opening or closing the doors themselves, so wait patiently while the white-gloved drivers work their door magic.

Plate of sushi

Learn Japanese table manners

The food is fantastic, but the Japanese table is a minefield of potential etiquette blunders. In a nutshell: don’t stand chopsticks upright in your bowl of rice (an inauspicious ritual reserved for funerals); use the opposite end of your chopsticks when helping yourself to communal dishes; try not to nab the last piece of food on a plate. And try to avoid mixing the wasabi directly into soy sauce: instead, dab the wasabi on top of the raw fish and gently dip the upper side of the sushi (not the rice) into the soy sauce.

Face masks on public transport

Face masks have been a common sight in Japan for years, particularly on public transport: rows of passengers wearing anonymous white face masks while looking at their phones was already a familiar scene pre-Covid. As with the coronavirus pandemic, the motivation being to prevent other people around the mask-wearer from catching their germs. In a culture in which consideration for others is paramount, most Japanese people will be more concerned that they are offending you, than that you might be offending them. While other countries may have relaxed their laws, you are still expected to wear a face mask on public transport in Japan and when in indoor locations. 

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Mandarin Oriental Tokyo

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