Every culture has its own unique system of etiquette. What might seem like common sense in one culture may seem strange or taboo in another. It helps to study up on these things in advance, so here is a list of 12 common social taboos in Japanese culture that will help you avoid embarrassment when in Japan.
1. Shoes & Slippers
When you enter someone’s home in Japan, you are expected to take off your shoes. This is connected to the Japanese culture of cleanliness. The outside is seen as dirty, and the inside should be kept clean, so wearing your outdoor shoes indoors is a big taboo. For this reason, all Japanese homes have a genkan style porch as a space between the outer and inner worlds, and this is where you should take off your shoes. The polite way to leave your shoes is neatly aligned with the toes facing towards the entrance. Usually, some indoor slippers will be put out for you to wear while inside the house, and you should put these on.
You will probably need to take your shoes off at many other buildings such as temples, schools, and also some restaurants. Also when you go to the gym in Japan, you will need to have different indoor sports shoes that you wouldn’t wear outdoors.
If you visit someone’s house and there is a traditional Japanese room with tatami mat flooring, you should also take your slippers off. This is because tatami rooms are traditionally places where people eat or sleep. In the traditional style, people sleep on a futon which is placed directly on the tatami. In the same way, in tatami rooms, people eat at a low table, which is very close to the floor. For this reason, it is important to keep the tatami super clean. Do not forget to take off your slippers when entering a tatami room or your host will be very upset!
3. Restroom Slippers
If you use a restroom in a home, restaurant, or other public building there will often be special restroom slippers provided. You should put on these restroom slippers when you use the restroom. For overseas visitors who are not used to this social custom, it is really easy to forget that you are wearing these slippers. Of course, these restroom slippers are considered very dirty, so wearing them in other parts of the building is a huge faux pas! Do not forget to change out of these slippers when you exit the restroom!
4. Eating While Walking
Eating while walking is considered ill-mannered in Japan. Some people say this is because you should appreciate your food properly and stop to eat it. Others say that if you eat while walking there is a bigger chance of you dropping your food and making a mess, or accidentally touching someone else’s clothes with your food. This latter reason may well be true in crowded areas, but regardless of the reason, Japanese people really don’t like it if you walk while eating. So if you buy a quick snack at a convenience store, or some street food at a roadside shop, just stand for a moment at the side of the road and eat your food there before moving on.
5. Eating at a Table
No elbows on the table! As a general rule it is good manners to rest your free hand on the table beside your food. When you eat from a smaller dish, such as a rice bowl, noodle bowl, or a small side dish, you should pick it up with your free hand and raise it toward your mouth to make it easier to eat. However, you should not pick up larger dishes. You should not rest your chopsticks on top of a bowl. There is usually a chopstick rest provided for that purpose. You should also finish every last grain of rice in your bowl. Leaving just one or two grains of rice in a bowl is considered very rude.
6. Blowing Your Nose
This rule is not universally obeyed, but basically blowing your nose in public is considered very bad manners. Japanese people generally prefer that you sniff, or snort instead. If you really need to give your nose a proper clean-out, go to the toilet and do it in private to avoid causing general offense.
Intrigued? Check out Part Two of this article for 6 more Japanese social taboos!