Food · Japan

Social Norms in Japan: Bowing, Eating and other helpful tips

One of the things that is most striking to any gaikokujin (foreigner) about Japan is the differences in social norms, some of which are quite evident and others that only become evident with time. After much embarrassment and misunderstandings it gradually becomes easier to recognize these differences, sometimes. That being said here is a list of a few differences that I have found to be helpful to know.

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The subtleties of bowing etiquette

Manners:

  • Essentially social norms in Japan are all about manners but manners can different between countries. One of the most obvious examples of this is bowing which is used as a greeting, a thank you, a goodbye and as an apology. I for one found that after months of doing this, I ended up still doing it even after I had left Japan (to the amusement of others and to my embarrassment). In Japan everyone bows and how deeply you bow represents how much respect is being conveyed. 30-degrees keirei bows show respect to superiors while 45-degree saikeirei bows represent deep regret. The most common are 15-degree eshaku bows used as greetings or the casual head-nod towards shop keepers.
  • Another aspect of Japanese manners is that blowing one’s nose is not only extremely disrespectful but dirty and rude. To blow one’s nose, it’s best to do it in private or as discreetly as possible.
  • On that note talking excessively loud is seen as rude also. To my embarrassment I was often stuck with other U.S. students that did this despite me not doing it myself.  Talking loudly is especially not seen fondly on trains where most people are quiet and of course in places like temples that are meant for contemplation and being solemn.
  • Even something as simple as being sick requires being careful around others. Wearing a face-mask is a courtesy to protect others from any potential contagious viruses or bacteria. As such one is also expected to not cough or sneeze too much in public.
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What not to do with chopsticks

Work Culture:

  • Japanese work culture is highly stratified and hierarchical making respect one of the most important aspects in order to succeed. Punctuality is held in high-regard in Japanese society and especially in business where first impressions are very important. Luckily for me this isn’t a problem but I know a lot of people who are late to everything.
  • In order to avoid confrontations, people in Japan don’t outright say “no” but rather may say “it is inconvenient” or it is under consideration” as a way of turning down an offer.
  • Dressing conservatively is important to be taken seriously and men are expected to wear suits even in extreme heat. For women their hair should be tied up and skirts worn though not too short.
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Remember to use proper eating habits

Food:

  • While it is not expected  for foreigners to know how to use chopsticks, if one does use them, avoiding sticking them straight up in rice is crucial due to the fact that this is associated with funerals and death. For that matter do not use chopsticks to point at someone because this too is a very rude thing to do.
  • Avoid dousing rice with soy sauce as rice is a point of pride in Japan and over-use of condiments may insult restaurant staff.
  • Walking and eating is inadvisable due to it being seen as sloppy; this ties in with the fact that cleanliness is highly revered (as can be noted from the impeccable streets of even the ‘dirtiest” Japanese cities).
  • Unlike in Western cultures where eating loudly can be seen as a negative, in Japan eating loudly as in the case of slurping noodles is a positive. In fact not slurping food is a sign that perhaps the meal was not enjoyed.
  • When eating at a restaurant, tipping is unnecessary. Rather it can be seen as rude given that waiters and waitresses are just doing their jobs and might feel strange about receiving money aside from their paychecks.  You may even have a panicked staff member running after you to return the money that they believe you accidentally left on the table. This just goes to show again that tipping is a relatively strange thing to do outside of the U.S.

While there are doubtless even further more social norms that are far different from our own, this is just a small list of more common customs and norms that are practiced in Japan. Understanding the reasons for their existence is key to remembering them and thereby avoiding  many embarrassing moment.

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