๐Ÿ™…๐Ÿปโ€โ™€๏ธ Etiquette in Japan: 13 Things Tourists Should Not Do

A stone carving of a fox with a Japanese building behind it.

Many visitors, especially from Western countries, experience culture shock when they travel to Japan for the first time.

I committed a few faux pas myself when I visited Japan. To help you learn about the unwritten rules of Japanese culture, this post covers:

  • ๐Ÿ‘Ž๐Ÿป Things not to do in Japan
  • ๐Ÿคฒ๐Ÿป Cultural norms unfamiliar to tourists
  • ๐Ÿ‡ฏ๐Ÿ‡ต The reasoning for each etiquette
  • ๐Ÿ’ก Practical tips for foreign tourists

This list has been informed and reviewed by several Japanese locals for accuracy.

Planning a trip? Here’s what to know about Japan.

Lists By Lukiih is readers-supported. If you buy through an affiliate link on this post, I may earn a small commission. Thanks!

Overview of Japanese Culture

Japan is a country that highly values rule-following, orderliness, and thoughtfulness for those around them. The social norms are deeply ingrained into Japanese culture and heavily influence how people behave and treat others.

If you want to respect Japan’s cultural differences, here are thirteen things to avoid doing as a tourist in Japan.

1. Talking Loudly in Public Places

One of the first things you’ll notice when visiting Japan is that it’s a remarkably quiet country. The lack of noise is immediately clear, including in major cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, where you expect it to be loud.

๐Ÿคซ Why?

Japanese culture places special emphasis on respecting those around you. Talking loudly in public spaces is considered impolite as you’re disrupting the peace and tranquility of others.

Zen Buddhism, which emphasizes tranquility and mindfulness, has deep roots in Japan’s history and influences daily life today.

๐Ÿ€ Lukiih’s Experience

I never saw any Japanese locals having phone calls or watching videos with the volume on crowded trains or streets. The loudest people on trains were most often tourists, which felt embarrassing given how quiet everyone else was.

A clean metro station with digital time tables with stores in the background.
Japan is typically quiet, even in train stations.

2. Eating While Walking

Japan has numerous street food vendors and convenience stores, so quickly grabbing food and going is tempting. But you’ll never see a local eating while walking.

A store aisle selling sandwiches and snacks wrapped in seaweed.
Quick meals at a convenience store in Japan.

๐Ÿฃ Why?

It’s considered bad manners to eat and walk in Japan because doing so tends to lead to littering and nuisances to those around you. This goes against Japanese society’s emphasis on cleanliness and social harmony.

Eating is also considered a ritual and an experience in itself in Japanese culture, so doing it while walking is perceived as not fully appreciating the food.

In some markets, like Kyoto’s popular Nishiki Market, food stalls have signs that say things like, “Please eat the food in front of this store” to discourage walking and eating.

๐Ÿ€ Lukiih’s Experience

As an American who views eating and walking as “efficient”, this was one of the easiest social norms to forget. The one time I accidentally did it, I saw subtle glances thrown my way and I was later told by a local friend that I was being impolite.

Also, Japan doesn’t have many street trash cans, so if you eat and walk, you’ll need to carry your trash with you. The streets are overall very clean, so make sure to do your part to preserve the cleanliness.

3. Wearing Shoes Indoor

In some indoor spaces, including Japanese homes, hotels, restaurants, and onsens, you’ll notice that outdoor shoes are left by the door and not worn inside. Taking off outdoor shoes is highly encouraged, but not required, at all Japanese accommodations.

Many places provide indoor slippers for you to wear instead. Some places even provide separate toilet slippers.

๐Ÿฉด Why?

Removing outdoor shoes is a Japanese tradition with a long history dating as far back as 700 AD or earlier.

This practice helps keep the indoor space clean, which is particularly important in places where people sit on the floor or on tatami mats, which is a flooring material used in traditional Japanese rooms.

A woman sitting on a tatami, a traditional Japanese flooring.
Sitting on tatami in a Kyoto restaurant.

๐Ÿ€ Lukiih’s Experience

All eight accommodations I stayed at in Japan, including my Mt. Fuji mountain hut, provided indoor slippers to encourage shoe removal.

I also ate at two Japanese restaurants that asked customers to remove their shoes. The establishments had tatami-style dining areas where people sat on the floor to eat.

If you’re not comfortable walking around with your bare feet, it’s a good idea to wear socks.

4. Bowing and Greeting

Upon arriving in Japan, you’ll constantly see locals bowing and greeting you. This includes bus drivers, hotel concierge, restaurant workers, and others.

๐Ÿ™‡โ€โ™‚๏ธ Why?

Bowing is an important way to show good Japanese manners and respect during a greeting. The culture around bowing can be complicated, as the depth and duration of the bow can signify different non-verbal things.

As a visitor in Japan, a quick bow is usually sufficient because locals understand that tourists come from different cultures.

๐Ÿ€ Lukiih’s Experience

The rule I followed was that I always bowed back if someone bowed to me. A quick bow seemed better than no bowing.

Even construction workers did a quick bow to me while I passed them during my cycling trip on the Shimanami Kaido, a 37-mile path through Japanese islands.

5. Wearing a Towel or Swimsuit in an Onsen

Japan is known for its onsens (hot springs) and public baths. Most of them are sex-segregated, and nudity is required. Exceptions include private onsens, which are usually more expensive, and mixed-gender baths.

A view of a peaceful, Japanese garden with a private bath.
Onsen in Kyoto. (Photo by my sister, Kat.)

๐Ÿ’ง Why?

Not only is bathing nude a Japanese custom that dates back centuries, but it also ensures that your skin makes direct contact with the mineral-rich water. Showering nude beforehand is also considered good manners for hygienic reasons.

Tattoos are looked down upon in Japan as they are associated with the Yakuza and other criminal groups. Some onsens may deny entry to heavily tattooed individuals. However, each onsen’s policy varies and a few are tattoo-friendly.

๐Ÿ€ Lukiih’s Experience

As an American unaccustomed to public nudity, I did research on Japanese etiquette in onsens. I encourage you to do the same if you’re unfamiliar with them as it can help you feel less confused when arriving at one.

Having gone to two public onsens in Japan, I’ll also add that being nude feels less uncomfortable when everyone else is nude and behaving casually about the experience.

6. Tipping Service Workers

Japan does not have a tipping culture. Except for the standard 10% tax for most shopping items, you should expect to pay the stated price and not tip.

๐Ÿ’ด Why?

Tipping is not a common practice in Japan because providing good service is the standard. Japanese people take pride in their work and don’t need a tip incentive to do their jobs well.

In some cases, tipping can create an awkward and confusing situation.

A good way to express gratitude in Japan is by saying thank you in its polite form: Arigatลgozaimasu. Many foreign visitors say “arigato”, which is the informal form and should only be used for close friends and family.

๐Ÿ€ Lukiih’s Experience

As an American, tipping is very normal for me. In some instances, it even felt wrong to not tip. I got massages twice and found both services to be exceptional. Against my better judgment and due to habit, I tried to tip to show my gratitude.

One masseuse accepted it after I thanked them profusely while the other one refused it. Based on my experience, I recommend not tipping in most cases, but if you offer, don’t insist after they refuse because it can get awkward.

7. Standing on the Wrong Side of Escalators

Public transportation is the best way to get around Japan. As you travel around the country, you’ll see many escalators at train stations and Japanese people uniformly standing on one side of them, usually the left side.

๐Ÿš‡ Why?

Standing on the left side of the escalator is more efficient as it allows people who want to move quickly to take the right side. This is commonly understood in many places, but no country seems to execute it as well as Japan because the people there highly value being courteous to others.

Similarly, you’ll see that Japanese people tend to respect and form orderly lines. Train stations tend to have signs on the floor indicating the designated area for where to stand and form lines.

A group of people forming a line at a train station.
A long, orderly line for an escalator in a train station in Japan.

๐Ÿ€ Lukiih’s Experience

I was amazed by how respectful people were of long lines and others even during times of rush hour. I even saw several couples stop holding hands and immediately line up single file up an escalator even if no one was around them.

If you’re unsure about which side you’re supposed to stand or walk, a general rule of thumb is to copy what all the locals are doing.

8. Pointing With Your Index Finger

You’ll notice that Japanese people will point or direct you to things with their whole hand instead of with their index fingers.

โœ‹ Why?

Japan has strict social norms to not offend others. In Japanese culture, pointing with an index finger is associated with calling out someone for bad behavior and should therefore be avoided if that’s not what you’re trying to do.

Picking up objects, like credit cards, with just two fingers should also be avoided for a similar reason. It’s more polite to receive things with two hands facing up.

๐Ÿ€ Lukiih’s Experience

This etiquette most frequently came up when I had to pay. I tried to remember to take back my credit card with two hands instead of just grabbing it.

Japan has a good credit card infrastructure, but many places are still cash-only. This Japan trip budget breakdown has tips on using cash there.

9. Jaywalking

Jaywalking in Japan is uncommon. Many people wait at the traffic lights for the walking signal to turn on even when there’s no oncoming traffic.

๐Ÿšฆ Why?

Japanese culture stresses rule-following, so most locals will wait for the red light before crossing.

If you need more motivation to respect the rules of the road, you should know that the police will often enforce the rules by issuing warnings or fines.

๐Ÿ€ Lukiih’s Experience

I found that Japan’s infrastructure and cities are well-designed for efficient flow of traffic. It was easy to be patient and not jaywalk like I often do in places like New York City.

10. Ignoring the Garbage Sorting Bins

Public trash cans are not common on the streets of Japan, but you’ll find them in convenience stores, train stations, and parks. You’ll notice most of them have labels that separate trash into different bins, including paper, cans, and plastic.

Three trash cans with different labels of the type of trash.
A trash can with sorting bins in Japan.

๐Ÿ—‘๏ธ Why?

Japan is not a big island and there’s limited space for landfills. Not sorting your trash correctly into the bins can be considered a disgrace since you’re perceived as not taking care of others in your community.

Most trash cans that have sorting bins will have a picture (e.g., of a plastic bottle, can, or newspaper) and English words to help you sort trash correctly.

Vending machines often have a trash can with a circle-shaped opening to indicate that only plastic bottles should be thrown in there.

๐Ÿ€ Lukiih’s Experience

Different cities have varying recycling and trash sorting rules, so it can be a bit confusing to follow all of them.

I found that Kyoto had the most confusing rules, but knowing that someone might have to reclassify my trash later motivated me to try to abide by them as much as possible (I even got a thank-you note from the hotel for sorting my trash correctly, which felt nice).

11. Taking Photos Without Asking for Permission

Japan is a beautiful country where many visitors want to take photos of the scenery, attractions, and even the locals. However, make sure to not take photos of others without asking for permission first.

๐Ÿ“ธ Why?

It’s a social norm to ask others whether you can take photos of them in Japan. Not doing so is considered an invasion of privacy and is disrespectful.

Some Japanese attractions (which can even include food stalls) will have a “no photography” sign, which you should respect.

For example, the Gion district in Tokyo is known as the “Geisha District” for the many geisha walking around. Taking photos of them is not only considered disrespectful, but can result in a fine close to $100 USD.

๐Ÿ€ Lukiih’s Experience

While I didn’t purposely take photos of people, I did notice that when I was taking a photo of a scenery, food stall, or attraction, many locals would move away to not be in the photo.

Likewise, one of my local friends said that many tourists take photos of kimono-wearing women without their consent in Kyoto, which is considered disrespectful.

12. Facing the Wrong Way When Using Squat Toilets

One of the most incredible ordinary things you’ll notice in Japan is how clean public restrooms are. Occasionally, you’ll also see squat toilets (usually in parks or more rural areas) and those tend to be clean as well. Make sure to face the toilet “hole” when using squat toilets.

Japanese toilets are also some of the most high-tech toilets you’ll ever see. Many of them will have two flushing modes (“flush” and “light flush”) to conserve water.

A Japanese attached to a remote control panel on the side.
A Japanese toilet with a remote control panel on the side.

๐Ÿšฝ Why?

Facing the right way when using the squat toilet helps minimize splashing. Maintaining a clean bathroom is part of the Japanese culture’s emphasis on cleanliness.

๐Ÿ€ Lukiih’s Experience

I was blown away by how clean public toilets are in Japan, especially compared to any public restroom in America. While most Japanese bathrooms had high-tech toilets, I did have to use a squat toilet twice during my two-week trip.

13. Sticking Your Chopsticks up on a Rice Bowl

Chopsticks are the preferred utensils in Japan and you’ll see that locals do not stick theirs up in a rice bowl. Instead, they place theirs facing horizontally on trays and tables.

๐Ÿฅข Why?

Chopsticks sticking straight up from a rice bowl resemble the Japanese ritual of placing incense in rice at funerals. Because of the association with death, sticking chopsticks up is considered bad luck and disrespectful in Japan.

๐Ÿ€ Lukiih’s Experience

I admittedly didn’t pay attention to how others placed their chopsticks while eating, but a local friend highlighted this as something that tourists should avoid doing while visiting Japan.

Ready for your trip? This Japan itinerary features two off-the-beaten-path adventures.

Japan Trip Planner

To make your travel planning easier, download the trip planner below and use it as a starting point. The planner has country-specific travel information, an itinerary, a packing list, and a map with key places pinned.

The trip planner is built on Notion, which I use for all my travel planning (I genuinely love this tool). If you don’t have Notion, creating an account is free.

Three Notion template screenshots are shown: travel information, itinerary, and map + packing list templates.
Preview of Japan trip planner.

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