Etiquette in Japan is complex and, at times, confusing. You’ll soon discover that each holiday has its own conduct and that certain actions that are okay at home aren’t in Japan and vice versa. An easy way to adapt is to keep an eye on those around you and follow their example.
Bowing is an everyday part of life in Japan. It can be difficult to know when to bow and just how deep your bow should be. To be safe, keep an eye on those around you. If someone offers you a bow, you should bow in turn. Bowing is also about hierarchy, so if your boss or someone superior to you bows to you, be sure to bow a little deeper than they have. Don’t overthink it too much, bowing will become second nature in no time.
Eye-contact in Japan can be interpreted differently to what you are used to. In western culture, eye contact is seen as a sign of honesty and good manners when listening to a speaker. In Japan however, it can be seen as a challenge to authority. Be polite, look at the person you are talking to but if you feel uncomfortable, respectfully lower your eyes. Also, don’t be surprised if your students feel uncomfortable about looking you in the eye.
Tone of voice
You will find that Japanese people seem to prefer softer voices, especially if they’re in a debate or talking to someone of authority. In class, teachers are less likely to raise their voices when children are misbehaving.
Meishi (Business cards)
Exchanging information can be difficult in Japan. People of the opposite sex don’t give each other any info unless they are business acquaintances and then it’s just their business contact info presented on a Meishi – business card. When you receive anything in Japan you should hold it with two hands. With a meishi you should examine it and place it in front of you if you’re sitting at a desk or table. When you put it away, do not put it in your back pocket. It’s best to put it in a meishi holder or your breast pocket.
There are some easy rules when it comes to eating and drinking:
- Don’t eat/drink before the kanpai (toast).
- Don’t eat or drink before the “itadakimasu” – Put your hands together as if you are praying and say itadakimasu.
- Don’t put soy sauce on your rice in public.
- When drinking with coworkers and friends, don’t fill your own glass, and be sure to fill the glasses of others when they’re empty. Women tend to fill glasses for men, and subordinates tend to fill glasses for superiors.
- Try to eat everything that is offered to you, but if you have religious or dietary restrictions you may politely decline.
- When putting down your chopsticks, rest them on the side of your bowl or plate. Don’t stick them into the rice as this is reminiscent of a funeral.
When paying at a register, keep your money in a wallet and don’t take it out casually. If you notice, people tend to hide it in their hands here before they give it to the cashier. You may notice a small rectangular tray that looks as though it would fit an unfolded note at the counter. If so, place your payment into the tray. Money is not often exchanged from hand to hand.
Omiyage (gift giving)
When you travel in Japan, it is customary to bring back small gifts, called omiyage, for your co-workers. Omiyage is a must if the office pays for a trip. At other times, it is up to you to decide if you will give omiyage. The favoured omiyage is a small, individually wrapped food. When giving omiyage, have enough for everyone to eat it. If you work at a big office then have enough for people in your section.
When receiving wrapped omiyage, refrain from opening it in front of those who gave it to you as it is considered rude. If you can’t resist always ask first. “Akete mo ii desu ka?”
With all that being said, don’t stress. Foreigners in Japan are not usually expected to know the ins and outs of these things. You’ll most likely find your colleagues are happy to teach you about their culture. After all, it is an easy conversation starter. If you do manage to have these things mastered before your arrival, be prepared for a lot of praise – “Jyozu desu ne.”