Things to Do
Travel Tips

Manners in Japan: A Traveler’s Guide

Public manners is one of the most important aspects of Japanese society. Behavior in private is different from behavior in public, but such rules of conduct are often lost on travelers. For tourists in general, it is important to understand what actions are acceptable or not acceptable in public, so everyone can get along as well as possible.

BY Richard Milner

inside temple
A temple in downtown Shinjuku waits for respectful visitors

For many travelers, visiting Japan represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Tourists want to make the most of their time, learn as much as possible, and create everlasting memories.

There are many unspoken rules of public behavior that every native Japanese person understands, but might be lost to travelers unless they are told directly. In order to have the smoothest trip possible, especially in a city as densely populated as Tokyo, it’s helpful to be aware of tiny rules that might otherwise be overlooked. That way, both travelers and Japanese people can learn from each other and have positive experiences that provide insight into each other’s cultures.

Aside from universal, common sense advice such as “be kind” and “smile,” here is an outline of manners specific to Tokyo that will provide tourists insight into Japanese customs and help a trip that is both enjoyable and educational.

General Etiquette in Public Spaces

As a small island nation, many Japanese mannerisms center on being mindful of space. This is true in the suburbs or in the openness of the countryside, and in an incredibly dense metropolis of 35 million, like Tokyo, it’s even more important.

Komaranai you ni is a Japanese word that essentially means limiting the amount of trouble you cause others. This is the singular highest rule to follow at all points when visiting not only Tokyo, but anywhere in Japan. Causing trouble for others could include being noisy in a quiet situation, obstructing a walkway, taking up too much space on a train, or generally having a rough attitude in public.

As a general rule, it’s advisable to stay small and quiet when walking, talking, sitting, eating, or basically doing any everyday activity outside of your own room or personal space. Every action should be evaluated based on whether or not it intrudes in someone else’s space. This is true not only for bodily space and sound, but smells, as well.

The same basic, human courtesies apply in Japan as anywhere else: please (kudasai), thank you (arigato gozaimasu), and excuse me (sumimasen). There are different words that more advanced speakers of Japanese can use to modify their level of formality, but in general these three terms can be used in nearly every situation. Always make sure to say excuse me when passing someone, please at the end of a request, and thank you when completing a transaction.

Bowing is one of Japan’s most well-known aspects of manners, but it’s not truly necessary on a daily basis, as a traveler. A quick nod “thank you” (not a proper bow from the waist) is enough. If you think you might have inconvenienced or disturbed someone (like if you had to abruptly sit down next to strangers in a small space), then by all means give a small nod. When in doubt: smile. Smiling goes a long way in bridging gaps in communication, well beyond many language barriers.

Smoking, even just a couple decades ago, used to be allowed on the streets and in most restaurants. Now, though, smoking is highly regulated. If you smoke outside of your home or hotel room, it must be in designated outdoor smoking areas that resemble boxes with glass walls, no ceiling, and smoking signs on them. Otherwise, in certain heavily-touristed areas like Shinjuku, you might get stopped by workers patrolling the streets with portable ashtrays.

smoking area

A designated smoking area

Restaurants and the Service Industry

Having good manners in restaurants is exceedingly important in Japan. Omotenashi, the Japanese term that describes the county’s philosophy of hospitality, should be respected at all times. Conceptually, omotenashi is very simple: look after guests with care, consideration, and the highest quality of service as an end in and of itself. So, as a guest of Japan, when placing orders, receiving food, making requests, or paying bills, it’s best to be as polite as possible, as well. Arigato is ok, but arigato gozaimasu is better. Concessions are made for non-Japanese people, but those kinds of biases shouldn’t be taken advantage of.

table settings

Buttons can sometimes be found at table settings to call servers

When entering and leaving a restaurant, employees will likely call out welcome and thank you for coming, respectively. It is not necessary to reply to this courtesy, and doing so might in fact make employees a bit uncomfortable, as the deviation in standard gestures will likely leave them unaware of how to respond. No matter if it feels counterintuitive or rude to ignore them, it isn’t.

Also contrary to what feels comfortable to a Westerner, calling out to servers is actually ok in Japan using the word sumimasen to get attention (rather than silently raising a finger when they happen to pass by). Some restaurants also have buttons that you can press to call a member of the staff to your table, so keep an eye out for that.

Speaking of food, it’s supremely important to note that food substitutions are rarely accepted in Japanese restaurants. The kind of flexibility that Westerners have come to expect from menu choices (swapping meat for non-meat items, changing side dishes, adding or subtracting things, etc.) is not very common in Japan, and it is sometimes considered rude to ask. The attitude on the part of the restaurant owner is: if you couldn’t eat it, why did you come here? There is also a heavy emphasis placed on intangibles like the integrity of the dish, or the essence of its composition.

When paying, it’s important to note what kind of payment a place accepts. Japan is still largely a cash-based society, even though Tokyo is more card-friendly than other areas. Look for signs by the entrance regarding accepted payment or ask. It’s best to have cash ready. When you pay, you also have to state whether the card is debit, credit, contactless (“ID”), etc.; clerks will not assume one way or the other.

When paying for your bill, it’s customary to put your cash on the counter next to the register, or in a small dish found next to the register, rather than in an employee’s hands. Also note that there is no tipping in Japan, although some bars and restaurants have table charges they might not tell you about (there might be signs, however), so don’t be shocked if your bill contains such a charge.

cashier

A dish at a counter for placing cash next to a card machine

Certain establishments such as izakaya (Japanese-style bars) also sometimes have tatami rooms, or Japanese floor mat areas, that require customers to take off their shoes. Keep an eye out near the entrance for shoehorns or racks of slippers to determine if the restaurant is such a place. Wearing footwear into that kind of establishment is a terrible breach of manners.

At the beginning of the meal you can say itadakimasu, which is essentially saying thank you to all the individuals, effort, and time that went into creating your meal. It is also a way to say thank you to the lives that were given (fish, animals, etc.) so that the meal could be prepared. Also, when you finish your meal, you can also say gochisosama deshita, which indicates that you’ve finished the meal, and also says thank you to the staff. You should especially try to remember the latter if you have to return a tray to a counter and staff are within earshot.

Disposing of Trash

Most travelers, upon landing in Tokyo and heading out into the city, instantly notice the lack of public garbage cans. In short: if you generate trash (small plastic bags from convenience stores, paper wrappers for food, etc.) it’s your responsibility to hold onto it until you come across a trash receptacle. If you happen to be near a garbage can at a festival, or in a park, a shop, or sometimes public toilets, by all means take advantage and get rid of your trash.

recycling bins

Vending machines and nearby recycling receptacles

Otherwise, garbage cans are often found at convenience stores. It’s not necessarily frowned on to walk into a random 7-11 or Family Mart and throw away your trash, so long as it’s within reason. One or two small items, even an aluminum can, are totally fine; just don’t walk inside with a huge sack of greasy, sticky garbage large enough to fill up an entire trash can.

garbage can

A small garbage can inside of a convenience store

Aside from trash can locations, Japan is fairly strict about recycling. Trash areas are almost always separated into burnable trash (usually red-colored), and two types of recycling: glass and cans (blue), and plastic bottles (green). Some places have differently divided categories, or additional categories (like take-away food containers), but by and large these general categories are true.

color-coded recycling bins

A set of color-coded garbage and recycling bins

Public Transportation

Manners on public transportation are widely scrutinized and closely obeyed (especially trains). Eating and drinking on local trains (unless it’s very late at night) is generally frowned on, and being noisy on trains is possibly the most taboo act that a traveler could commit. Simply keep your voice down, be mindful of others’ space, and don’t intrude on the relative calm of anyone else. During rush hour, when people are packed together and struggling to stay composed, this is especially true.

When getting on trains always obey the signs on the platform’s edge that indicate where to stand, and always queue in order and do not cut the line. Japanese people will rarely call you out on this kind of behavior, but not paying attention adds to any poor reputation that travelers might have.

signage for train

Signage indicating where to stand to enter a train

On the train, or bus, also always take off your backpack (if you have one) and keep it low. Face out towards the doors, minimize your space as usual, and keep your possessions out of anyone else’s way. It’s also a good idea to not stand near doors if at possible, in order to leave lanes clear for people departing and getting on the train. When trains arrive at stops during a busy time of day, passengers near doors will typically step off the train and re-queue to help make room for people getting on the train. If it’s difficult to know when to do this, just pay attention to locals and follow their lead.

In each train car (and each bus) there is a differently colored priority seating (with pictures to illustrate) for the elderly, pregnant people, disabled, those with strollers, and so forth. It’s a good practice to not even sit in one of these seats unless the train is empty and it’s clear that no one needs it. Otherwise, always give up your seat for someone in need, and try to stay aware of who around you might need assistance. It’s rare that someone will say directly that they need to use those kinds of seats.

priority seat

A high priority seating sign on a train

Also note that elevators and other enclosed spaces (waiting areas in restaurants, for example) abide by the same manners.

Queuing and Navigating on Foot

Queues in Tokyo are extremely important, if not absolutely essential, to maintaining order. Never simply walk up to a storefront, or slide by people, or press into a mob. There will always be a queue, even when walking down the street, so be on the lookout for signs on the ground directing where to stand, and in what direction. Barring explicit signage, you can assess a situation on a case-by-case basis.

Despite people in Japan being incredibly mindful of space, it’s also impolite to over involve yourself in someone else’s business. As a result, a lot of times it seems like people are not paying attention while walking and navigating on foot. Near-collisions are common, especially when so many faces tend to be buried in phones. Despite all norms, then, never assume anyone else will pay attention; simply take responsibility for yourself.

queuing sign

Signs on the floor of a convenience store showing you were to queue

When walking in Tokyo, as a general rule: stay to the left. Stay to the left in the streets, when passing others, when on escalators, or any other situation where you have to move at a rate different to someone else. If others are being slow and not paying attention, you may simply have to deal with it and follow the pace of the crowd. Never push or force yourself so assertively that you risk obstructing or knocking into someone.

escalators

On escalators and stairs be sure to stay to the left

Crosswalk rules are generally strictly obeyed in Japan, even if the road is not very wide and there is no traffic. Jaywalking is not a harmful crime, but it’s frowned on and a bit disrespectful.

As a side note: eating while walking is generally considered unsavory, and should be avoided if at all possible. Instead, you can take advantage of one of Tokyo’s numerous squares, parks, and benches. Be sure to not sit on curbs or the ground, either (with exceptions for cherry-blossom season, and even then only on mats or blankets), as this is also considered a breach of manners.

Tourist Sites

Whether it’s famous temples or small, local shrines, each historical landmark and tourist spot in Tokyo deserves respect. Shrines and temples have their own procedures for approaching altars (clap twice, bow once, and clap once at a shrine, for example), but it’s more important to retain an overall sense of care when visiting such a place. It should go without saying that nothing should be taken from such a site, no one should write on anything, and no litter should be tossed on the ground.

small temple

A small temple in downtown Tokyo

Besides those general rules, of course feel free to take as many pictures as you like, but keep an eye out for signs or patterns of behavior amongst visitors. Certain temples, for instance, might not allow photography inside, or other sites might have queues at specific locations, disallow certain artefacts to be touched, or areas to be entered.

In general, Japanese people are extremely appreciative of any and all efforts to be courteous and mindful; trying goes a long way. Following these guidelines will not only make your time in Tokyo as smooth as possible, but will leave locals with a positive impression of people from other nations. So stay aware of space, watch out for signs, learn a few polite vocabulary words, and make the most of your time in Tokyo.

Richard Milner
USA Resident of Japan for over 5 years. Lived in Nagoya, Sendai, and Tokyo.

I am a writer, teacher, and speaker currently working and living in Tokyo. I have an MA in Digital Creative Media and a BA in Psychology, and I have worked as a narrative designer in the video game industry and also as a mental health care professional in New York. In my spare time I love to travel, read, and practice yoga.

You Might Also Like

More From
Trip Ideas