Geisha preparing the tea ceremony in Japan

Local customs to keep in mind when visiting Japan for the first time

9 min read

In this guide we will explore some key aspects of Japanese culture and provide essential tips for navigating public spaces, practicing proper etiquette, and engaging in gift-giving customs.

9 min read

When planning a trip to Japan for the first time, it's important to familiarize yourself with the local customs and etiquette. Understanding Japanese culture will not only enhance your experience but also ensure that you respect the traditions and expectations of the country.

Understanding Japanese Culture

The symbol of Shinto in Japan
The symbol of Shinto

The Importance of Respect in Japanese Society

In Japanese culture, respect is of utmost importance. This respect extends to different aspects of life, including interactions with others, behavior in public, and adherence to societal norms. Japanese people place great emphasis on politeness and humility, and it is expected that visitors do the same. Greeting others with a bow, using honorific prefixes when addressing people, and speaking softly and politely are all ways to show respect in Japanese society.

Respecting personal space is also vital. It's important to be mindful of others' boundaries and avoid intrusive behavior. For example, it is considered impolite to touch someone or engage in overly familiar gestures unless given permission to do so.

The Role of Tradition in Everyday Life

Japanese culture is deeply rooted in tradition, and many customs and rituals are still observed today. From tea ceremonies and flower arranging to wearing traditional clothing, such as kimonos, tradition is an integral part of everyday life in Japan.

Visitors should embrace and appreciate these traditions, even if they may seem unfamiliar at first. Attending a tea ceremony or experiencing a traditional Japanese festival can provide a deeper understanding of the country's rich cultural heritage.

Three geishas standing next to a wooden wall

Essential Japanese Etiquette for First-Time Visitors

Greetings and Bowing: The Basics

In Japan, greetings are essential for establishing positive relationships. When meeting someone for the first time, it is customary to bow as a sign of respect. The depth of the bow corresponds to the level of formality and hierarchy between individuals. A slight bow is appropriate for casual encounters, while a deeper and longer bow is expected in more formal settings.

Furthermore, it is polite to address individuals with their honorific title, such as "san" for adults and "kun" or "chan" for children or close acquaintances. This demonstrates politeness and shows respect for age and social status.

Dining Etiquette: Do's and Don'ts

When dining in Japan, there are specific customs to observe. It is customary to say "itadakimasu" before starting a meal, which is a way of giving thanks for the food. Slurping noodles, such as ramen or udon, is not only acceptable but also considered a compliment to the chef.

On the other hand, blowing your nose at the table or sticking chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice are considered disrespectful behaviors. Instead, it is customary to place the chopsticks on the provided holder or across the top of the bowl when not in use.

Additionally, it is considered impolite to leave food on your plate. Japanese cuisine emphasizes appreciation for the ingredients and effort put into the meal, so finishing everything is a sign of respect.

Japanese tea pot with cups

Navigating Public Spaces in Japan

Public Transportation: Rules and Expectations

Japan has an extensive and efficient public transportation system, consisting of trains, buses, and subways. When using public transport, it is important to be mindful of others and follow the rules and expectations.

Queueing in an orderly fashion when waiting for the train or bus is a common practice. Additionally, it is considered impolite to talk loudly or engage in disruptive behavior while on public transportation. It is also expected that seats reserved for elderly or disabled individuals are left vacant unless necessary.

Furthermore, it is customary to turn your phone to silent mode and refrain from talking on the phone while using public transport to maintain a peaceful environment for other passengers.

People standing in a crowded public transport
Public transport in Tokyo

Visiting Temples and Shrines: A Respectful Approach

Japan is known for its beautiful temples and shrines, which hold great cultural and religious significance. When visiting these sacred sites, it is important to show respect and follow proper etiquette.

Upon entering a temple or shrine, it is customary to bow slightly as a sign of respect. Removing your shoes before entering the main hall is also mandatory. Additionally, it is polite to make a small donation or offer a prayer as a token of appreciation for the visit.

While exploring the temple or shrine grounds, be mindful of your behavior and avoid touching or climbing on statues or structures. Taking photographs is usually allowed, but always check for any specific rules or signage indicating restricted areas.

Temple located in Japan
Temple in Tokyo

Gift-Giving Customs in Japan

The Art of Giving and Receiving Gifts

In Japanese culture, gift-giving is a common practice and carries its own set of customs and traditions. Gifts are often exchanged to express gratitude, goodwill, or as a token of friendship.

When presenting a gift, it is important to use both hands and bow slightly as a gesture of respect. The recipient will typically reciprocate with a bow. It is customary to offer gifts in beautifully wrapped packages, as the presentation is highly valued.

Appropriate Gifts for Various Occasions

Choosing the right gift for different occasions can be challenging, but there are some general guidelines to follow. Many Japanese people appreciate small, thoughtful gifts rather than extravagant ones. Popular choices include regional specialties, traditional handicrafts, or items that reflect the recipient's hobbies or interests.

When in doubt, edible gifts such as high-quality local sweets or tea are always well-received. It is important to avoid giving gifts in sets of four, as the number is associated with death in Japanese culture.

Cherry blossoms next to a wall with hieroglyphs in Japan
Cherry blossoms

Business Etiquette for Professionals

Business Card Exchange Ritual

In Japan, the exchange of business cards is a formal ritual that holds great significance. Business cards, known as "meishi," serve as an introduction and are exchanged when meeting new people in a professional setting.

When receiving a business card, take it with both hands while offering a slight bow. Take a moment to examine the card and show genuine interest before carefully placing it in a designated holder or pocket. Avoid writing on or damaging the card, as this is considered disrespectful.

Attending Meetings and Conferences: What to Expect

Japanese business meetings and conferences follow a hierarchical structure, with senior executives leading the discussions. It is important to arrive on time or slightly early, as punctuality is highly valued. Greeting each participant individually, using their honorific titles, and showing respect to higher-ranking individuals are essential.

During meetings, it is polite to listen attentively, avoid interrupting others, and respond thoughtfully when speaking. It is also customary to present and receive business cards at the beginning of the meeting as a way to establish connections.

In conclusion, when visiting Japan for the first time, having an understanding of the local customs and etiquette is essential. Showing respect, following traditions, and practicing proper etiquette will not only make your experience more enjoyable but also establish positive relationships and leave a lasting impression on the Japanese people you encounter. By embracing the unique cultural practices of Japan, you can truly immerse yourself in the rich tapestry of this fascinating country.


Lizzie Z.

As a top level corporate executive, Lizzie embarked on a soul-searching journey of adventure and slow living, passionately sharing her insights as the founder of RLM.


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