Woman Bowing

Etiquette in Japan

Japanese culture has a set of rules, or etiquette, for a multitude of situations.  This includes everything from entering a house to taking a bath.  Knowing and and observing the rules of etiquette while in Japan will help you avoid being viewed as a "rude foreigner".  In can also help you avoid some potentially awkward situations.

When entering a house, the guest must replace his shoes with slippers.  The slippers are given to the guest by his host at the genkan (doorway).  These slippers are taken off in rooms that are floored with tatami.  It is rude for anyone to walk on tatami floors wearing anything other than socks or bare feet.  There are even slippers that are exclusively worn in the washroom.  The person leaves his house slippers outside the washroom door and wears the special footwear that is exclusively for bathroom use.

When greeting someone, it is customary to bow.  These bows vary in effort, but if one is standing on a tatami floor, it is expected for him to get down on his knees while performing the bow.  The longer and deeper the bow is, the more respect it conveys to the other person.  People who hold higher social statuses expect others to greet them with long bows.  Not doing so can result in social snafus.  By the same logic, a smaller nod of the head is used for more casual or informal meetings.  Fortunately, many Japanese people cut foreign visitors slack and are okay with only receiving a head nod greeting from them.    Bows are also commonly used as gestures to show gratitude or apology or to request favors.  Shaking hands is an extremely uncommon gesture in Japan.  However, people will make exceptions for foreign visitors.

obama bowing way too low
Many Americans felt US President Obama bowed too low when he met Emperor Akihito.

Besides cleaning the body, the Japanese believe taking a bath helps one relax after a long day at work.  A bathroom in Japan typically has two rooms.  An entrance room is used for undressing and using a hand sink.  The inner room has a deep bath and shower.  Often, there is a completely separate room for the toilet.  Japanese wash and rinse their bodies with washbowls before getting into the tub.  The bathtub is only used to soak.  The water is usually quite hot.  After soaking, one gets out of the tub and cleans up with soap.     Once the soap has been rinsed off, one can get back into the tub for the final soak.  After the bath, the water is left for the next person to use.  Interestingly enough, today's Japanese bathtubs are programmable and can automatically fill with water warmed to exact temperatures.

There are many things the Japanese avoid doing, not because they are rude, but because they are thought to be bad luck.  If someone cuts his toenails at night, he won't be able to reunite with his parents after dark.  People hide their thumbs, as funeral cars pass them.  A person will turn into a cow if he lies down after a meal.  It is bad to sleep facing north as that is how dead bodies are laid.  Four is an unlucky number as the pronunciation is similar to that of death (shi).  Room and floor numbers usually skip four, and gifts are not to be given in groups of four.  Chopsticks should not be stuck in food because they resemble incense stuck into altar rice at funerals.  Giving food from one pair of chopsticks to another is also only done with bones at funerals.  Whistling at night will attract snake bites.

Knowing a little etiquette before your trip to Japan can go a long way.