Japan might look like a different world to the Western traveler. With its extreme politeness, perfect composure and obsessive cleanliness it’s difficult not to look at Japan like it’s something sci-fi. In a good way, of course.
Japan’s obsession seems to be respect: respect for the environment, for other people, and for personal space. Japanese people will often say that in Japan, money can’t buy one’s heart, but good manners can. Because it’s such a different world with different customs, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with a few “don’ts” before your next trip to The Land of The Rising Sun.
Ever. Not even if you are a millionaire. Not even if it’s the best service you’ve ever had (it’s difficult not to enjoy a very good service in Japan, by the way). It’s just not customary to tip and if you do, it might even be taken as an insult. Service charge is included in the bill at the restaurant and not even hairdressers or taxi drivers won’t accept a tip.
You are welcomed not to take our word for it and try leaving the change at the convenience store, and you might find yourself with the shop assistant running after you to return your forgotten change. Japanese people simply don’t expect nor accept being tipped.
You might be shocked by how clean Tokyo (and Japan, as a matter of fact) is, especially considering trash cans are rarely to be seen on the streets. Japanese people would take their rubbish at home with them rather than dispose of it in public.
Not littering is an important part of Japanese culture, but is hasn’t always been the case — the country experienced rapid industrialization and waste started to become such a major problem that Tokyo was running out of landfill space. In the 1990s a series of strict waste management laws were introduced and at the moment, Japan is pretty much obsessed with recycling (the country recycles about 77% of its plastic).
Don’t talk loudly on your phone while on public transport
There are signs everywhere and they are to be taken seriously. They also make public announcements in both Japanese and English every few minutes.
You should use your phone as discreetly as possible, always on silent mode (or, as Japanese nicely call it, Manner Mode) so that you don’t disturb other passengers. If your phone happens to ring and you must take the call then the most polite thing you can do is to keep the conversation as short as possible or get off at the next stop.
Of course, no one is going to kick you out of the train if you choose to break this rule, but you will surely be considered rude and frowned upon.
Don’t forget to take off your toilet slippers
Just like Japan itself seems a bit sci-fi, sitting on a Japanese toilet feels a bit like being in a spaceship — there are numerous buttons, each one with a different function and it can be confusing the first few times.
To add to the confusion, you must also remember the special toilet slippers. These are slippers to be worn only in the toilet. They are placed in front of the bathroom door and whenever you want to use them, you’ll have to change from your indoor slippers to the toilet ones. And, most importantly, once you are done you must change back into your indoor slippers or you’ll offend everyone showing up wearing the toilet slippers.
Most traditional restaurants, community centers and Japanese schools will provide these shoes for people to change into when going to the bathroom.
Don’t wear shoes indoors
Street shoes are considered unclean by the Japanese so they must be taken off when entering a Japanese home. There is a special area that makes the transition between the outdoor and the indoor called genkan. Shoes worn outdoors are left in the genkan and they are replaced with indoor slippers.
This rule also extends to traditional Japanese ryokan hotels, temples, shrines, schools and hospitals. In traditional restaurants where guests sit on tatami mats, not even slippers are allowed because they could damage the mats.