Don’t worry. The scope of the statement is actually rather wide so whatever you happen to be thinking of, it probably applies.
It’s no secret that Japan is a land of procedure and courtesy. Many of us think of simply being polite, not punching people in the face and perhaps wearing pants when you leave your apartment but many unprepared travelers will be surprised and rather overwhelmed by the sheer number of things that you probably shouldn’t do whilst traveling in Japan. There are some things that simply go against logic but others that make quite a bit of sense when you think about it. So, if you happen to be a traveler and getting quite a few bewildered stares, you might be doing one of the following.
Talking on Your Mobile Phone
This is almost always discouraged, especially in enclosed spaces such as a subway or an elevator. Actually, it is good manners to not speak on your phone in any situation when others can hear you so making or receiving actual phone calls is a rarity. You can imagine the surprise of my friend the first time the received a phone call from me, the silly foreigner. As such, you’ll find that the vast majority of your communication in Japan will take place via phone e-mail. No, texting/SMS is so passe.
The good news is, e-mailing on your phone is usually fast, convenient and cheap. In fact, a number of people I met would have nearly no talk time in their mobile plans but unlimited e-mail and data. Even adding e-mail to my ghetto keitai only cost around $3.
Listening to Music/Playing Any Portable Game
Due to the long commutes that many people need to endure to get to work or school each day, whenever someone isn’t on their phone e-mailing, they’re highly likely to be tapping away at their Nintendo DS or Sony PSP. While doing so is generally acceptable, make sure you have the sound turned off or you’re wearing your headphones when doing so. If you do happen to choose to use headphones, make sure the sound isn’t loud enough to be audible to people around you. Yes, there are actual posters in the subway documenting exactly how annoying it is to hear other people’s music through their sound splashover from loud headphones in detailed pictures.
Eating While Walking is a No-no
This was one that I struggled with the most when I was living in Japan since, as a student, walking between classes is often lunchtime. What makes it worse is the convenience of food…literally. I mean, there are convenience stores with really decent food every 10 feet but walking out while chowing down on your sandwich is frowned upon.
Why? In Japan, it is not only an issue of cleanliness but also about respect for the food. Taking a second to sit down and enjoy your food without distractions. Drinking is acceptable but any sort of food should be eaten while stationary. You can, however, stand around your local FamilyMart (the most common convenience store in Tokyo) until you’re done eating. In fact, the one right outside my apartment had a set of lawn furniture inside for just such a purpose.
The only exception that I know of to this particular rule is ice cream cones and other similar desserts, which you are allowed to eat while walking but in general, that should probably be avoided as well.
While it is not particularly rude to ask for a fork since Japanese folks understand that some people can’t make their way around chopsticks, misusing your chopsticks is a bad idea. The obvious one is pointing at anyone with your chopsticks. I mean, pointing in general is rude so that one is expected. However, you might not know that leaving your chopsticks in your food or worse, leaving them upright in your rice, is rude. This is because it resembles incense offered at funerals.
The one that I really didn’t know until I had done it a few dozen times was rubbing your wooden chopsticks together to get rid of the splinters. I don’t know about you but when I get disposable wooden chopsticks, I rub them together to ensure they’re splinter free. However, doing so in Japan is implying that the restaurant is giving you inferior quality, splinter-infested chopsticks. Whether they actually are is irrelevant…
Calling Someone By Their First Name
While calling someone by their first name the first time you meet them here in probably not a great idea unless it is okayed by the other party beforehand, some folks know each other for years and years in Japan without ever calling each other by their first name. Instead, you always talk to someone using their last name, with the appropriate suffix (-san, -sama, -chan, -kun, etc) following it. That is so complicated that it may justify a post in itself another day.
Using someone’s first name implies a close personal relationship and is usually reserved for family members or significant others…and even then, you’d have to be in a long term relationship for that to be okay.
Honestly, there are probably a lot more things that are considered to be rude in Japan but length is a factor in any blog post. Maybe I’ll continue this at a later time. Actually, if anyone has a particular “rule” for traveling to Japan they’d like to share that I haven’t touched on, leave a comment and let me know.
Generally, I found that anything that makes other people, particularly strangers, aware of your existence in any way is probably considered to be uncouth. However, most people in Japan will understand that you are a silly foreigner and not up to date with Japanese etiquette but if you prefer not offend everyone you meet, brush up on your manners prior to actually going.