8 Cultural Norms You Need to Know to Not be Judged by Japanese

girl on the train in Japan

As Japan is known for the super organized society with many disciplines and customs, some of you may be wondering what you should be aware of while you are in Japan so you don’t get judged.

Today I will talk about really important tips on cultural norms for those who are planning to go to Japan.

One note, just because I listed a bunch of don’ts, I don’t want you to think Japanese are judgmental. I am giving out all the possible no-no’s you should at least know, so you will feel confident and be able to enjoy the trip without worrying! 🙂


1. Behave on the Subway

You will be using subway quite many times during the trip in Japan, especially in big cities like Tokyo. Be aware, subway is tricky. More so in the morning when it is packed with commuters who are not pumped to go to work (7am-9:30am).

But it’s not so bad, as long as you don’t do these 3 things, you should be totally fine using subway.

  1. No food (meaning food food. not chewing gum and stuff)
  2. No talking on the phone
  3. Let elderly, pregnant women, little kids sit first

For the first point, people are most likely gonna judge you if you are eating actual food on the subway. Drinking a bottle of calpico or eating candies is fine, though.
For the third point, it is probably a universal rule, but I listed it just in case because people will definitely judge you if you don’t.


2. Stay on the Right/Left Side on an Escalator

escalator in japan

Oddly enough, which side depends on regions in Japan. In Tokyo, you should stand on the left. In Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, stay on the right.
I know it’s a pretty weird rule, but trust me, you will be surprised by how people can really get annoyed by it (especially in the morning!)


3. Smile When Sales Person Greets You

When you enter a shop, store personnel are likely to say “Irasshaimase (welcome to the store)”.
You will probably feel like you should be saying something back. But don’t worry and don’t overreact.
Most of the time, store personnel are not actually trying to start a conversation, so just smile unless you want to ask something or make friends maybe.


4. No Tipping

In Japan, nobody tips unless it’s a super rare occasion like a dance show or other performance events where it’s explicitly stated that tipping is recommended.
Sometimes tipping will convey a negative message (like you are looking down on servers).
It is absolutely not expected by Japanese workers, so the rule of thumb is no tipping while you are in Japan.


5. Use Wet clothes to Only Wipe Your Hands.

wet cloth oshibori

Most of Japanese restaurants give you a wet cloth called Oshibori (I love it.)
It’s safe not to wipe your face or other body parts with it. You will occasionally see some people wiping their entire face or ears, but many people will feel uncomfortable seeing this especially at a nice restaurant.


6. You Don’t Have to Use Chopsticks

If you are not used to using chopsticks, you should ask for other utensils. No one will judge you because Japanese understand it’s not always easy for people from other countries to use them.
It is more likely that people will judge you if you are making a mess while struggling to eat with chopsticks.


7. It Is Safer to Assume to Always Take Out Shoes

When you enter someone’s house or Japanese Ryokan, you should always assume to take off your shoes.

take out shoes in japan


8. Use Masks If You Have Excessive Cough and Don’t Blow Your Nose in Public

During winter, you will notice many Japanese have masks on.

Some of them actually have a cold, and others just wear them to prevent from catching a cold. Wearing masks are way more common in Japan and becoming part of the etiquette.
If you caught a cold and have to cough all day, you should wear a mask.

And finally, don’t forget, blowing nose is not OK in public in Japan!

Born and raised in Japan. Studied in the U.S. 100 % Japanese food and fashion enthusiast with a hint of an entrepreneurial mind.

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