Culture and Etiquette in Japan

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The Olympic and Paralympic Games are the greatest sporting events in the world. In 2020, hundreds of thousands of overseas visitors will travel to Japan to experience the very best of the Tokyo 2020 Games.

There’s a wealth of things to do in Japan, so prepping before your trip can ensure that you get a stress-free travel experience during the Games. If you want to blend in, adopt these tips to learn how to behave as a local and enjoy all that Japan can offer.

Greetings

In Japan, people greet each other by bowing. The bow ranges from a small nod of the head (casual and informal) to a deep bend at the waist (indicating respect). A bow of the head from a foreigner is usually enough. Most Japanese people don’t expect foreigners to know the bowing rules.

Kisses and giving hugs are uncommon in Japan. In most situations, a polite bow will work as an appropriate greeting. Handshakes, however, are becoming increasingly popular for those who work with international guests and clients. In any case, remember that personal space is highly valued.

Public transportation

As soon as you step into a train in Tokyo, you'll immediately realise how quiet it is, even during rush hour. Being quiet on the train is considered polite throughout Japan, as people tend to avoid bothering others around them. This does not mean that you cannot speak but it is necessary to adjust the volume whenever you can.

Avoid taking phone calls while on the train, as people tend to speak in a louder voice when talking on the phone. In general, try to keep noise to a minimum.

Trains tend to be very crowded so be careful when moving around with your luggage, especially if you have large suitcases. Usually, there is an overhead space for bags. On most trains, the very first and very last carriages have a large space for standing customers, and the last carriage will normally also have a pram space.

It is good manners to queue up at the side of the train to let passengers alight before boarding yourself, and priority seating should always be given to the elderly, pregnant women or riders with impairments.

People who wear backpacks should take them off and carry them in their hands or put them on the racks above the seats. Sitting with your legs crossed is also considered rude when the train is crowded.

To move around Tokyo, it is very useful to get an IC Travel Card. These are rechargeable cards that can be used to conveniently pay fares on public transportation.

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Queues and lines

Most of the Japanese population are concentrated in densely packed cities. People must queue regularly. And unlike in many other places, the queues are quite orderly. It is normal to see people standing in perfectly formed queues, waiting for the train carriage to open.

When you use escalators, take into consideration that it is common practice for people in Tokyo to stand on the left side and leave the right side clear for other people to walk up or descend.

Dining

While some restaurants may offer forks or spoons, it is best to be prepared, as chopsticks in Japan are used for everything from traditional dishes like rice and noodles to non-traditional ones like pizza and pasta.

Be careful not to stick your chopsticks vertically in a bowl of rice because it is perceived negatively in Japan. It is incredibly taboo because it reminds Japanese people of funerals, where a bowl of rice is left with two chopsticks standing vertically in the centre.

Sushi is generally eaten with chopsticks or with your hands. This is not a set rule, as many Japanese will use both methods for eating depending on the situation. With ramen, udon or soba, Japanese people will slurp the noodles as they eat them. This is an accepted practice. Don’t be shy to enjoy your noodles!

At ramen restaurants and casual restaurants, like some udon and soba chains, you will pay before you receive your meal. Ordering at vending machines is common at ramen restaurants.

An essential phrase for dining in Japan is “itadakimasu.” Said before eating, it means “I am glad to receive this meal”. Another important phrase is “gochisosama desu”, said after finishing a meal, loosely translated as “thanks for the food”.

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No tipping

In Japan, there is no habit of leaving tips for any service. Good service to all customers is something that is taken for granted.

If you try to leave a tip on the table in a restaurant, it is very likely that a waiter or waitress will chase you down the street to return your money once they find it.

Smoking

Tokyo 2020 has decided to adopt a stricter non-smoking policy to protect the health and safety of athletes, spectators and officials. All the indoor venues, outdoor venues and in venues’ secure perimeters operated by Tokyo 2020 will be 100 per cent smoke-free.

In 2018, Tokyo's city government separately enacted tougher rules to protect from second-hand smoke. All provisions kick in during the run-up to the Olympics.

Inside some districts in Japan, it is forbidden to smoke on the street. You are only allowed to smoke at specific smoking areas, usually near stations or parks. Many convenience stores, malls, department stores and hospitals have designated smoking areas, usually just right outside the premises. These typically have large signs with an image of a cigarette on them.

If you want to smoke, you can also find many restaurants, bars and cafes that have indoor smoking areas. Even some fast-food chains have enclosed smoking rooms for their smoking patrons. Smoking is still allowed in small eateries and bars.

Marijuana for recreational use is forbidden in Japan by law. The law makes growing, importing or exporting marijuana and other drugs punishable by up to seven years in prison.

Drinking

The legal drinking age in Japan is 20. People under the legal age of 20 cannot purchase alcohol. Some stores and bars will ask you for identification to confirm your age. Don’t forget to carry an ID at all times. Of course, drinking and driving is illegal, but passengers who are not the driver are free to drink.

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Take off your shoes

There are some rules regarding indoor manners which are related to footwear. Shoes are removed not only in the home but also in many traditional ryokan (Japanese style inns), restaurants, temples, castles and other historic buildings. The border is not the door itself but the entrance area, called the “genkan”. Shoes should be always pointed towards the door rather than the interior of the building.

Don't forget to check your socks every time you leave home. There is nothing more embarrassing than discovering a hole in your sock when you take off your shoes in front of your friends and colleagues!

As in Japanese homes, most clothing stores also require you to remove your shoes when you enter the fitting room.

Rubbish

One of the questions most frequently asked by tourists in Tokyo is ‘where can I throw my rubbish?' On the street, it is difficult to find rubbish bins. For several decades now, Japan has been a world leader in encouraging its citizens to recycle as much of their waste as they can. People take recycling seriously here.

Places where public garbage cans can be found include some train stations and convenience stores, while many vending machines have an attached container for PET bottles, bins and cans.

Tokyo 2020 will be the most sustainable games ever. It is the goal of The Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games to reduce and recycle waste. At the venues, you will find six types of categories on waste bins. Make sure to separate your garbage accordingly before leaving the venues.

If you're not sure where to leave your garbage, the best option is to carry your rubbish home to throw it away.

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Tattoos

For people with tattoos, travelling through Japan can sometimes be challenging. If you show your ink you could be refused entry to certain places like swimming pools, onsens (natural hot springs), sentos (bathhouses), gyms and many ryokans (Japanese inns).

Tokyo 2020 does not have regulations in place regarding tattoos. As outlined by our core concept 'Unity in Diversity', Tokyo 2020 will provide a welcoming environment to everybody.

Vies on tattoos have also changed in the Japanese travel and leisure industry and rules are more flexible now than before. Still, some facilities do not allow tattoos, so on some occasions you may be asked to cover them, or you will be denied entry.

Masks

First-time visitors will notice that a lot of Japanese wear surgical masks. Until recently, masks were primarily worn by people who had already come down with an illness to prevent them spreading germs. Nowadays, many people use them due to allergies or to avoid interactions with others from time to time. Some people even see masks as a fashionable accessory.

Follow the rules

When it comes to rules, Japan can be quite strict. The best thing to do if you are not sure about something is to watch those around you. It will give you an idea of what you should be doing or not doing. When in Tokyo, do as the Tokyoites do. Enjoy!

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