Japan is many things, and among those, a very orderly and structured society. Rules are strictly adhered to, people know their place, and acting out of the norm is unthinkable. To put it simply, Japan is a place where you want to be well behaved during your travels, and you’ll need to know a few things to make your time less confusing and smoother. Stick to these Japan Travel Rules and you’ll do just fine.
Japan Travel Rules: Things to ALWAYS DO
Observe and mimic the locals.
If they aren’t doing it, you probably shouldn’t do it either.
Take off your shoes when entering a home, dining or other personal spaces.
You can tell where this “no shoe” zone starts by the change in flooring material.
Respond to any bow-like gesture or head-nod in like kind.
Not doing so will be mildly offensive. This is not a show of submission or dominance, it is a show of mutual respect and will go a very long way.
Refrain from touching or hugging people that you have not gotten to know.
Handshakes are acceptable but not common.
Be patient and remain calm in your everyday dealings.
Getting mad usually makes matters worse in Asia, as a general rule.
Make Japanese friends to go out with.
Best way to experience Japan.
Pour others’ drinks when they pour yours.
And keep your drink full if you don’t want to be drunk. They will keep pouring if you don’t.
Wait for others to get their drinks or food before partaking.
Then everyone can cheer and have a good time.
Place cash or credit card in the small tray at any point of sale.
In restaurants or stores. That’s what it is there for.
Accept a Japanese business card with both hands…
…and spend 5 seconds looking at it. Even if you can’t read it, it’s polite.
Refer to people you meet with a “san” at the end of their last name.
In informal settings, this can be relaxed for younger Japanese people, but never for those older than you. To play it safe, always use LAST NAME-san until you’ve become more acquainted. Never use only a first name upon meeting someone.
Ask permission or confirm that it is ok prior to making yourself at home at any establishment.
It will save you the embarrassment of putting your shoes back on. “Ok?” will do just fine.
Wait in line.
You will never see Japanese people mob or cut in line. You should do the same.
Give your train seat to women and elderly people.
Don’t be a jerk, even if some Japanese men are.
Carry plenty of cash…
…and use the change as it accrues. Cash is used much more frequently than credit cards.
Check to ensure your payment method is acceptable prior to ordering anything.
If attempting to pay with a card.
Drink responsibly, and avoid being slipped drugs…
…mostly in the Tokyo nightlife areas.
Look for the RED light in the taxis, not the GREEN.
The RED light indicates the taxi is available.
Japan Travel Rules: Things to NEVER DO
Talk loudly on public transportation, restaurants or in any public setting.
If you’re the loudest person around, everyone probably hates you. This includes phone calls.
Eat on public transportation.
Also considered rude. They will hate you for this also. However, eating IS acceptable on long trips on the Shinkansen (bullet train).
Smoke in public areas or on the street.
Smoking is allowed practically everywhere else, including inside restaurants. It’s a little counter-intuitive, I know.
Sneeze or cough without a mask or without covering yourself.
People wearing masks in Japan are the ones who are sick. They’re being polite to not spread germs. Not the other way around. Cough on someone and you WILL get numerous death stares.
Stick chopsticks into food vertically.
This is a bad omen related to death. Lay them horizontally.
Rest your feet up on seats or other public furniture items.
Even with your shoes off.
Enter establishments when enticed to do so by other foreigners.
Again… applicable in the Tokyo nightlife areas. Most of the time, nothing good will come from this.
Use your credit or debit card in the entertainment areas of Tokyo.
The chances are high that you’ll be disputing something later due to fraudulent charges.
Take the Tokyo or Osaka Metro trains during rush hour OR the last train…
…if it can be avoided. Try to find another time to travel. For more on transportation, go ahead and read Japan Train, Plane and Taxi Tips.
Carry 10,000 yen (~100 USD) notes and expect change.
High likelihood you’ll end up in a predicament, due to the receiving party not having change.
Partake in drug use of any kind.
None. Japan doesn’t play games. Do you like fish heads and rice? That’s what you’ll be eating in prison. For your safety, probably the most important of the Japan Travel Rules.
…or fail to separate trash when throwing it away. Trash bins have multiple bins for each type of trash. More death stares for not abiding.
Cross the street without a signal.
Especially if Japanese people are behind you. Some WILL follow you blindly. Don’t be responsible for someone else being hit by a bus.
Keep money wadded or crumpled…
…unless you want to offend everyone you give money to.
Enter Onsens, waterparks, pools or public baths with tattoos visible.
This is very taboo, and they must be covered in a shirt or otherwise.
Fight or argue, either with Japanese people or other foreigners.
Just create distance and move along if instigated. The Police won’t hesitate to arrest unruly foreigners, especially if the other part is Japanese.
Drive after drinking
None…at all. The very low 0.03% blood alcohol limit means you go to jail if you drank, perhaps even yesterday.
Bring up anything related to World War 2.
Unless you want to have an intelligent conversation with someone you have gotten to know very well, the odds are great that bringing this topic up will backfire on you. The term “sore subject” comes to mind.
Be nice, be courteous, and don’t do anything you wouldn’t do in your country.