Japanese manners and customs that every traveler to Japan should know


Customs and manners are so important to Japanese culture that many travel websites have sections dedicated to the topic.

Japan is currently closed to international travelers, but the country is exploring ways to safely reopen before the start of the Tokyo Summer Olympics, which is scheduled for late July. Tourists aren’t expected to understand all of Japan’s complex social rules, but they can avoid the most commonly committed faux pas.  

Here’s a guide on what to do — and what to avoid — based on advice from Japan’s government-affiliated tourism organizations.

Don’t touch the geisha

What many travelers call “geisha,” are referred to as “maiko” or “geiko” in Kyoto, which is considered one of the best places in Japan to see the decorated female entertainers.

If one is spotted, the travel website for the Kyoto City Tourism Association (KCTA) advises travelers against stopping or asking maiko to pose for photographs.  

“Do not bother them or grab them by their kimono sleeves,” states the website.

A maiko, or appentice geisha, walks in the snow in the district of Gion in Kyoto, Japan.

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Expect pushing, but no talking on trains

Japanese rarely talk or eat on trains, especially when they are crowded.

Junko Kimura | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Videos of white-gloved train attendants cramming people into Japanese trains have enthralled travelers for years. They also make it easy to understand one of the top rules of Japanese public transport: no talking on mobile phones. In fact, travelers are advised to not even let them ring.

“If you carry a phone, keep it on silent mode,” states Go Tokyo’s website.  

“Etiquette in public places is a serious business in Japan,” states the travel website for the government-affiliated Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO). “A public-wide respect for these rules is probably the main reason why a megalopolis like Tokyo can function so smoothly.”

Eat sushi with your hands

Travelers who are not proficient with chopsticks can ask for flatware, advises JNTO’s travel website, although they “may not be available, especially at more traditional spots.”

Rather than struggling with chopsticks, the tourism organization recommends travelers follow another local custom.

It’s customary to eat sushi with your hands in Japan, especially nigiri sushi, which translates to “two fingers.”

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“If you have come to Japan for sushi, remember, you can eat it with your hands,” states the website.

Shrines and temples

The rules of the ryokan

Staying at a traditional inn, or ryokan, is a popular way to experience Japanese hospitality, but doing so comes with more social rules than a hotel stay.

Ryokans are typically neither cheap nor exceptionally plush, which can surprise travelers who associate higher prices with sprawling suites and luxurious bedding. Ryokans are typically one-room accommodations that are spartanly furnished and lined with straw tatami mats.

Ryokan prices are often quoted per person, not per night.

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Onsen etiquette

Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s “How to Enjoy Tokyo: Manners & Custom Handbook” advises travelers to remove all clothing to use onsens, which are bathing areas connected to Japan’s natural hot springs.

As a volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of onsens, many of which are part of a hotel or ryokan and separated by gender.

John S Lander | LightRocket | Getty Images

Sightseeing and shopping

Cutting lines is verboten in most countries, but in Japan, holding a space for friends or family members is also considered improper, according to Tokyo’s manners handbook.

It also advises travelers to refrain from walking up or down escalators; those in a hurry should use the stairs.  

When shopping, bargaining for better pricing isn’t common. And clothing sizes differ from those in Western nations. An extra-large men’s shirt in Japan is akin to a U.S. men’s size medium.

Miyamoto, who is 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighs 185 pounds, wears a Japanese size XL because “large is too small.” He said Americans who need larger sizes aren’t out of luck though.

“Uniqlo, which is the most famous casual brand in Japan, sells over XXL size … in online shops,” he said.



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