Many visitors, especially from Western countries, experience culture shock when they travel to Japan for the first time. Japanese people value politeness and courtesy to an extent that is unfamiliar to most tourists.
Given Japan’s unique culture, it’s easy to commit a faux pas as a tourist there. To help you learn about the unwritten rules of Japanese culture when visiting Japan, this post covers:
- 👎🏻 Things not to do in Japan
- 🤲🏻 Cultural norms unfamiliar to tourists
- 🇯🇵 The reasoning for each etiquette
- 💡 Practical tips for foreign tourists
This list has been informed and reviewed by several Japanese locals for accuracy.
Planning a trip to Japan? This Japan travel guide covers other things to know before arriving, including the best places to visit, a hack to find authentic food, how to get around, and more.
Disclosure: 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
🇯🇵 What To Expect: 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, especially in major cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, where you expect it to be loud.
🤔 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.
🍀 My Experience: I never saw any Japanese locals having phone calls or watching videos with the volume on in crowded trains or streets. The loudest people on trains were most often tourists, which felt embarrassing given how quiet everyone else was.
2. Eating while walking
🇯🇵 What To Expect: Japan has numerous street food vendors and convenience stores, so it’s tempting to quickly grab food and go. But you’ll never see a local eating while walking.
🤔 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.
🍀 My 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
🇯🇵 What To Expect: 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.
🤔 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.
🍀 My Experience: All eight accommodations I stayed at in Japan, including my Mt. Fuji mountain hut, provided indoor slippers as a way 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
🇯🇵 What To Expect: Upon arriving in Japan, you’ll constantly see locals bowing and greeting you. This includes bus drivers, hotel concierge, restaurant workers, and others.
🤔 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.
🍀 My 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
🇯🇵 What To Expect: 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.
🤔 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.
🍀 My 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
🇯🇵 What To Expect: 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.
🤔 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: Arigatōgozaimasu. Many foreign visitors say “arigato”, which is the informal form and should only be used for close friends and family.
🍀 My 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 end up offering, don’t insist after they refuse because it can get awkward.
7. Standing on the wrong side of escalators
🇯🇵 What To Expect: 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.
🤔 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.
🍀 My 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
🇯🇵 What To Expect: You’ll notice that Japanese people will point or direct you to things with their whole hand instead of with their index fingers.
🤔 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.
🍀 My 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.
🇯🇵 What To Expect: 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.
🤔 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.
🍀 My 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
🇯🇵 What To Expect: 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.
🤔 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.
🍀 My 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
🇯🇵 What To Expect: 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.
🤔 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.
🍀 My 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
🇯🇵 What To Expect: 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.
🤔 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.
🍀 My 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.
Ready for your trip to Japan? This Japan itinerary takes you through Kyoto, Tokyo, and Osaka as well as on two off-the-beaten-path adventures.
13. Sticking your chopsticks up on a rice bowl
🇯🇵 What To Expect: 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.
🤔 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.
🍀 My 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.
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 as well as an itinerary, packing list, and map with key places pinned.
The trip planner is built on Notion, which is what I use for all my travel planning (I genuinely love this tool). If you don’t have Notion, creating an account is free.
If you have any questions or thoughts, feel free to leave a comment below.
Japan Travel Guides
- 🇯🇵 Planning a Trip to Japan: 11 Practical Things To Know
- 🇯🇵 10 Epic Days in Japan: A Unique & Active Itinerary
- 💰 Trip to Japan Cost: 2023 Travel Cost Breakdown
- 🌋 How To Climb Mt. Fuji: My Subashiri Trail Experience
- 🚲 How To Cycle the Shimanami Kaido: Complete Guide
- 🙅🏻♀️ Etiquette in Japan: 12 Things Tourists Should Not Do
- ☀️ Visiting Japan in September: Tips + What To Know
🧋 This site is run entirely by me, Lukiih. I spend hours researching each destination to ensure its accuracy. If you find my tips helpful, say thanks by buying me bubble tea!