The Getaway
Important Things Not to Do in Japan

The islands of Japan are an area rich in beauty and cultural heritage. Japan has temperate forests to the north, tropical islands to the south, and bustling cities with colorful temples throughout. With such a range of travel experiences, most visitors pick one area to focus on per visit. Despite the diversity within Japan, there are a few things not to do that are true across all the islands.


01 Avoid speaking Japanese

Mt. Fuji and Tokyo skyline yongyuan / Getty Images

While the Japanese language is difficult to master, in truth basic language knowledge will get you far. Make sure you know at a minimum:

  • yes: hai say Hi
  • no: iie say E-ay
  • please: onegai shimasu say Oh-nag-eye She-mass
  • thank you: arigatō say ah-rig-at-oh
  • hello: konnichiwa say Kon-itch-e-wah
  • goodbye: sayōnara say sigh-o-nar-ah

No one will be annoyed if your pronunciation isn't perfect; it shows you are willing to try - this always makes people feel more friendly towards a tourist. In Japan you will find few locals will start a conversation with you even though they would like to talk - it's considered rude. But if you start with a simple hello in Japanese, many will happily practice their English with you.


02 Get angry in public

japansese culture save face Satoshi-K / Getty Images

From the outside, Japanese people may look very controlled and calm. Of course, they feel the same emotions as everyone else, but it's considered rude to be very angry in public. So if someone steps on your foot, the best thing to do in Japan says excuse me or laugh it off.

Should you see anyone trip or fall over while in Japan, don't be surprised if you see others laughing at them. Showing strong negative emotions is a loss of face where you lose the respect of others around you. By laughing at someone who falls over, Japanese people are encouraging them to laugh it off and therefore save face.


03 Misuse chopsticks

chopsticks use polite manners japan Marie Harrison / Getty Images

High up the list for many tourists concerns is the misuse of chopsticks. The two most important rules are;

1. Never bite or lick your chopsticks. There isn't a western equivalent for this as we place cutlery in our mouths when we eat. But in Japan people try to avoid touching chopsticks with their mouths to keep the sticks clean and hygienic.

2. Don't stick your chopsticks into your rice upright, as this looks like incense burning at a funeral. Rest your chopsticks beside your bowl instead.

You are unlikely to be publicly ridiculed for using chopsticks wrong, but you may get a few surprised looks from locals if you break these rules of etiquette.

The best way to improve is to practice. Few places in Japan will have knives or forks for you, so get used to chopsticks before you travel.


04 Spread germs around

HEalthy clean germs Japan franckreporter / Getty Images

In any film of a busy public place in Japan, there will be someone with a face mask across their mouth and nose. These people are covering their face to avoid catching germs but stopping themselves spreading germs around because they are ill. Cleanliness is important to the Japanese.

When you are in Japan make sure you follow the locals and keep your germs away from others. Don't spit or blow your nose in public, and if you get ill think about buying a face mask - they are available at the 7-11 shops that appear on nearly every street in Japan.


05 Don't leave tips in Japan

Japanese etiquite tips travel gaffera / Getty Images

Different countries have their own rules on leaving tips. In Japan, it's considered an insult. While the Japanese understand that many countries tip as a matter of habit, don't be surprised if they refuse to take it.

Although tipping is seen as a reward for good service in the US, Canada, the UK, and other countries in Japan people are more likely to think you paid too much and will try to return the money to you. If you liked the service, then say so - that's all that's needed.


06 Eat at global food chains

Food Japan eating travel culture

In Japan, there are so many delicious foods to try it would be a shame to eat in a McDonalds, Starbucks or someplace you already have at home. One of the most exciting parts of traveling around Japan is tasting local specialties. Each large town often has it's own food delicacy which you will also see made into little toys to buy at train stations. Seek out these unique taste experiences and leave coffee and hamburgers for home.

Marie Harrison / Getty Images


07 Avoid Hiroshima

travel Japan Hiroshima stockstudioX / Getty Images

Hiroshima was the site of the first use of an atomic weapon against a population. On the 6th August 1945, the bomb was dropped on the center of Hiroshima, cause massive destruction and loss of life. Although this may seem like an odd place to visit for a tourist, it is worth a trip. The museum has information and artifacts, as well as eye witness accounts. The Japanese feel its extremely important to remember the effect war can have on a population and want people to visit.

To balance the haunting atmosphere of the museum, the park outside is peaceful and beautiful. There are thousands of origami cranes dotted around which people make to remember those affected by the bombs. Don't avoid Hiroshima; it is well worth the trip.


08 Press all the buttons on a toilet

Japanese toilets buttons cleaning supawat bursuk / Getty Images

Japanese toilets are an experience unlike any other. Cleanliness and politeness are important to the Japapense, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the public restrooms.

Toilets are often fitted with a bewildering range of buttons that have no English text to explain what they do. If you're lucky, there will be small pictures so you can decipher what each button does. Some squirt clean water, others blast with air similar to a hand-drier, and others create flushing noises to cover up any embarrassing bodily sounds. Just be careful which buttons you push, and don't push them all at once!


09 Forget your manners

Japanese manners polite RoBeDeRo / Getty Images

Politeness and manners are important to all cultures. But each society has different opinions on what is considered polite and what is thought of as rude. When traveling in Japan stick with what local people think is good manners, so you don't accidentally offend people. Here's are a few tips to make sure people think you are a polite tourist:

  • Bow when meeting someone don't shake hands
  • Only eat when sat at a table, not walking around in the street
  • Turn your phone on to silent and don't play loud music on public transport
  • Stand on the left on escalators


10 Don't leave shoes on indoors

shoes off indoors Japan tatami mats VTT Studio / Getty Images

Japanese homes traditionally use bamboo mats called tatami indoors in place of carpets, see in this picture. These are easily damaged and are hard to clean so Japanese people habitually take off outdoor shoes as soon as they enter a home. Besides the shoe rack, there will be pairs of indoor slippers ready for use indoors. These rules often apply to hotel rooms, shrines and temples, and some restaurants too.

If in doubt, see what other people are doing and copy them. And remember to bring plenty of clean socks with you to Japan.


11 Don’t arrive late

Stressed anxious businessman in a hurry and running, he is late for his business appointment and Wear a shirt while running.

Punctuality is a cornerstone of Japanese culture, deeply ingrained in both professional and social settings. Whether it's a business meeting, a dinner reservation, or catching a train, being on time is considered a sign of respect. In Japan, being even a few minutes late can be seen as a sign of disrespect or disorganization. It's always better to be a few minutes early than a minute late. This adherence to punctuality reflects the society's value for efficiency and respect for others' time.


12 Don’t make phone calls on the train

People moving on the train

In Japan, public spaces like trains and quiet cafes are zones of tranquility. Making phone calls in these places is frowned upon as it disrupts the peace. The Japanese value quietude, especially in crowded public transport, where the sound of a phone call can be intrusive. If you must take a call, step outside or speak in a hushed tone. This respect for public quietness is a part of the cultural fabric that prizes harmony and consideration for others.


13 Don’t wear swimwear in an onsen

Woman enjoy the onsen in bathtub at resort

Onsens, or Japanese hot springs, are a quintessential part of the country's culture, but they come with their own set of etiquettes. One key rule is to bathe naked, without swimwear. This tradition stems from the belief in purity and cleanliness, both physically and spiritually. Before entering the onsen waters, a thorough wash at the provided shower stations is a must. It's a unique experience that blends relaxation with cultural immersion.


14 Don’t expect to find restaurants on the ground level

TOKYO, JAPAN - November 9, 2019: A building in Tokyo's Kanda area with a Familymart convenience store on its first floor and a Kohikan Coffeeshop on the second floor. Ned Snowman /

In the bustling cities of Japan, space is at a premium, leading to a unique dining setup. Many restaurants are tucked away on various building levels, not just at street level. This can be a delightful adventure, as you might find a hidden gem of a sushi bar in a basement or a cozy ramen spot on the fifth floor. It adds a sense of discovery to your dining experience, encouraging you to explore beyond the ground level and delve into the vertical expanse of Japanese urban dining.


15 Don’t jaywalk

walk sign in Japan

In Japan, order and rules are held in high regard, and this extends to pedestrian behavior. Jaywalking is not only illegal but also considered disrespectful. The Japanese take great pride in their orderly and safe streets. Crossing roads at designated spots and waiting for the signal is the norm, reflecting the society's collective commitment to safety and discipline. It's a small but significant part of the respectful and orderly conduct that is expected and appreciated in Japan.


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