For anyone planning on visiting Japan, our team in Tokyo has helped pull together a handy list of don’ts to stay on the right side of Japanese customs.
So to avoid the social media firestorm that Patrick Schwarzenegger – son of action hero and former California governor Arnold – caused when he posted an Instagram video (since removed) of him tickling an unsuspecting fellow visitor’s ear with a twig, take a look at our handy hints below.
1. No jaywalking
Many Japanese drivers are sticklers for the rules, and will honk disapprovingly – even from a considerable distance – if they see someone crossing the road at any point other than a designated crosswalk.
2. Smokers can be fined for lighting up outside
While there are no laws against smoking in bars and restaurants or any privately owned business, perversely it’s the great outdoors that can present problems.
Smokers shouldn’t even think about lighting up on the street, as many Japanese cities – including Tokyo and Osaka – have ordinances prohibiting lighting up outdoors, except in designated “tobacco corners.”
Defying this ban is punishable by fines up to 50,000 yen (about $400).
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3. Don’t litter
While many other countries would turn a blind eye to a plastic carrier bag or cigarette butt adorning their streets, a zero-tolerance stance on street trash is taken in Japan.
Expect disapproving stares and/or aghast looks if that candy wrapper is disposed of in a less-than-proper fashion. There isn’t really any excuse, anyway, as public trashcans are liberally spread throughout Japan’s major cities.
4. Throw litter in the correct trashcan
And anyone disposing of refuse in a designated receptacle should make sure to do this properly, too. At the very least trash is separated into ‘burnable’ and ‘non-burnable’ bins, as Japan deals with much of its waste by incinerating it. Even fast-food outlets insist garbage is broken into plastics, papers and so on.
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5. Don’t point fingers at people
Again, this is fairly universal, but it’s considered rude to point directly at someone, be it with a finger, chopstick or foot. If it’s necessary to indicate someone, this should be done with a hand gesture, while keeping that outstretched finger under control.
6. It’s very rude to cut in line
From trains to escalators in Japan, masses of people can be seen lining up in an orderly fashion.
Barging in is a strict no-no especially on trains where embarking passengers stand to the side to let disembarking passengers alight before piling in.
Major city subways and commuter trains can get seriously busy, particularly during morning rush hour, but manners still hold. Conversely, however, it isn’t customary to hold doors open for anyone who may be following.
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7. Silence is golden on trains
Conversations are quiet – most people don’t talk at all.
Doing makeup, sleeping, text-messaging and (quietly) playing cellphone games are all acceptable onboard activities, but silence is golden on Japan’s extensive rail network.
Oh, and don’t ever eat or drink on the train.
8. Take your shoes off at the door at someone’s home
Clean, matching socks without holes should be worn – which kind of goes without saying if you’re over the age of 12.
Japanese people usually say “O-jama shimasu!” (“sorry for disturbing you”) when coming into someone’s home, and most often will bring a small present, called o-miyage, for their hosts.
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9. No need to tip when eating out or taking taxis
Service providers here won’t accept it. Service is almost universally included, and stories abound of diligent restaurant employees chasing foreign patrons down the street to return their “forgotten” change.
Similarly, taxi drivers – the majority of whom wear impeccable uniforms, hats and white gloves – give back exact change and refuse any gratuity.
One other thing about taxis to note – they are equipped with automatic doors controlled by the driver, and shouldn’t be manually opened or closed.
10. No swimsuits in onsens – go naked instead
Many Japanese consider it downright weird to see someone wear swim trunks or a bikini in a hot spring.
Bathers should remember to scrub up and rinse off before getting in the water, either in a public bath or at someone’s home. The Japanese are used to sharing hot water so the actual cleaning part happens before jumping in the tub.
But while less clothing is the general rule when bathing, tattoos should be covered when at onsen, or public gyms, for that matter. They’re often associated with the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia.