Japanese etiquette

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Interactions between Japanese people, as well as between Japanese and foreigners, are geared not only around each other's relative status in respect to each other, but also by an almost-inherent respect for, and politeness towards, other people. These govern almost every aspect of Japanese life, from how you greet somebody, which title you use when addressing them and even where you would expect to be seated at a dinner table.

This has resulted in a uniquely Japanese standard of behaviour, or Japanese etiquette (礼儀作法 reigishahou), that whilst is second nature to the locals, can prove to be a minefield of potential faux pas for the unwary. This will attempt to set out and explain some of these etiquette "rules", to assist any potential future visitors to the country.

Contents

Bowing

Simply put, the Japanese bow for everything - when greeting somebody; when saying farewell; when thanking somebody; when apologising; when making a request or asking a favour; or when acknowledging a comment or instruction. What differs is the depth of the bow - it can range from a nod of the head, to a full 90-degree bend at the waist.

The deeper the bow, the more respect you are showing the person you are bowing to. Thus, somebody of a higher social, or work status, would be deserving of a deep bow, whilst a nod is informal and casual, often used between friends. Although foreigners are expected to bow in these situations too, a nod of the head is acceptable, as they are not expected to know all the social conventions.

In contrast to the West, Japanese rarely shake hands with each other, although here again, allowance is made for foreigners.

At Home

A Japanese man's house is literally his castle, but do not get your hopes up when invited to "come back to my mansion," as the word "mansion" can mean anything from a mansion to a unit in a large block of flats. That said, unless you are visiting friends in the country, the chances are pretty slim that you will ever set foot in a Japanese home.

If you are there on business, then any business dealings will take place at the office and from there will move to a restaurant. A successful meeting will probably result in the evening being concluded at a club or a karaoke bar.

If you are lucky enough to be invited home, there are two important things to remember:

  • When entering someone else's home, even if they are a friend and you have been there many times before, there is a standard phrase one says when stepping over the threshold. This is "ojama shimasu" (お邪魔します pronounced "o-ja-ma-she-maas", with the "ja" as in "jam"), which translates as, "excuse me for disturbing," or "sorry to bother you." It is almost a way of thanking them in advance for their hospitality and for the trouble you are causing them by being a guest in their home.
  • Shoes are never worn indoors, so always make sure you are wearing a good pair of socks. If it is a Western-style home, with carpeted or tiled floors, the host will provide you with a pair of slippers to wear. If it is a more traditional home, with tatami mats ( mats made of woven straw, measuring 180cm by 90cm) then you walk barefoot, or in your socks, to save the mats from wear and tear. Even most Western-style homes will have at least one tatami room, at which point you remove your slippers before entering. To further complicate matters, there are also "bathroom slippers", which are only worn in the bathroom. Your slippers will be left outside the door and do not forget to change back before returning.

Every Japanese home, even if it is a one-roomed apartment, has a small entry hall (玄関 genkan), separated from the rest of the house by a step, where one leaves their shoes, before entering the home.

Table Manners

Although there are restaurants and homes with Western-style dining room tables and chairs, many still use the traditional low table, with cushions to sit on. They are usually on tatami floors, so patrons will be in socks or barefoot.

The first thing to take note of is how to sit at these tables. The formal way of sitting for both genders is the seiza (正座 sitting correctly) kneeling position. However, people who are not used to sitting seiza may become uncomfortable after a while. In these situations, or more casual gatherings, men may sit cross-legged, whilst women kneel with both legs to one side. Women should not sit cross-legged and conversely, men should not adopt the latter position.

Never assume where you are going to sit, as rank or social status determines that too. The most important guest sits at the "seat of honour" (上座 kamiza), which is located furthest away from the entrance. If there is a tokonoma (床の間 an alcove containing a hanging scroll (掛軸 kakejiku) and a flower arrangement (活花 ikebana), or piece of pottery), then the guest will be seated in front of that. The host, or least important person present, will be seated closest to the entrance. Wait until your host indicates your seat, before sitting down.

Saying "Grace"

Every Japanese meal, from a schoolchild about to eat their bento (弁当 "boxed lunch") to a restaurant, starts with each person saying out loud "itadakimasu" (戴きます pronounced "i-ta-daki-maas"), which means, "I receive this gratefully." Likewise, after the meal, everybody says, "gochisōsama deshita" (ご馳走様でした pronounced "go-chi-sew-sama-desh-ta"), which literally means "You were a person that gave me a feast" Failure to say either, implies you did not enjoy the food and is a terrible insult for the host.

Chopsticks

Whilst Western-style food is eaten with a knife and fork and a spoon is used for some Japanese foods (such as Japanese curry), more often than not you are going to have to use chopsticks ( hashi) to eat your food. As the proper use of chopsticks is the most fundamental of Japanese table manners, there is a sizable list of dos and don'ts.

  • If you are presented with disposable bamboo chopsticks, separate them by gripping the ends and pulling them apart slowly, to ensure a clean break. People who end up with one long and one short chopstick are seen as being clumsy.
  • Chopsticks are always held by the last third of their length, never close to the tip.
  • When you are not using your chopsticks, or have finished eating, they should be placed in front of you, with the tips facing to the left.
  • Never stick your chopsticks into your food, especially not rice, as this is only done at funerals, when a bowl of rice, with chopsticks stuck into it, is placed on the altar.
  • Never use your chopsticks to spear food.
  • Never point with your chopsticks, or wave them around in the air, or play with them.
  • Do not move plates or bowls around with your chopsticks.
  • If a piece of food is too large to break with your chopsticks, it is acceptable to pick up the entire piece with your chopsticks, and take a bite, before returning it to your bowl.
  • If you have already eaten with your chopsticks, use the opposite end to take food from a shared plate, if serving chopsticks are not available.

It is considered good manners to empty your dishes to the last grain of rice, so be careful when dishing up – it is better to take too little and then have seconds, than leave food behind. When you are finished eating, it is polite to move all your dishes back to the same position they were at the start of the meal. This includes replacing the lids on dishes and putting your chopsticks on the chopstick holder or back into their paper slip.

Drinking

When drinking, it is customary to serve one another, rather than pouring your own drink. Keep an eye on your friends' drinks and refill their glasses if they are getting empty. Likewise, if someone else offers to refill your glass, you should quickly empty your glass and hold it towards that person.

Do not start drinking until everybody's glasses have been charged and the glasses are raised for a toast, which is usually "kampai". Foreigners will get away with "Cheers!", but avoid the frightfully English "Chin-chin" when drinking a toast, as this is a rather vulgar phrase in Japanese.

Eating

Even the simple act of eating has its own pitfalls and the author has witnessed non-Japanese staring at the array of bowls, dishes and side-dishes arrayed before them with a look akin to horror. However, a few simple tips will see you on your way to eating like a local. One thing to remember is that the various dishes are eaten separately, as opposed to say Chinese food, like Chop Suey where the rice, meat and vegetables are combined and eaten.

  • Rice. When eating rice, hold the rice bowl in one hand and your chopsticks in the other. Lift the bowl towards your mouth while eating. Rice should be eaten as is, so do not pour soya sauce over white, cooked rice.
  • With sushi (寿司), pour some soya sauce into the small dish provided for the purpose. It is, however, considered bad manners to waste soya sauce, so try not to pour more than you will use. Remember, less is more.
  • It is not necessary to add wasabi (山葵 Japanese horseradish) to the soya sauce, as the sushi pieces may already contain it, or it may be eaten plain. However, if you do choose to add wasabi, use it sparingly, otherwise you risk offending sushi chef. If you do not like wasabi, you can request that none is added into your sushi.
  • You may use either your fingers or chopsticks to eat sushi. However, each piece should be eaten in one bite, as attempts to break it up could destroy the chef's work of art and will no doubt annoy a man who is skilled in the use of sharp knives.
  • With nigiri-sushi (握りずし hand-rolled sushi), the piece should be dipped into the soya sauce upside-down so that only the fish enters the sauce.
  • With gunkan-sushi (軍艦巻 battleship roll sushi), rather pour a small amount of soya sauce over the sushi piece rather than dipping it into the sauce.
  • When eating sashimi (刺身 raw sliced fish), first pour some soya sauce into the small dish provided, then put some wasabi on the sashimi piece, being careful not use too much. Thinly sliced ginger may also be added. Then dip the sashimi pieces into the soya sauce.
  • Miso soup can be drunk from the bowl, as if it was a cup. Solid pieces can be eaten using your chopsticks.

If people around you are eating noodles, you might be surprised and horrified to hear them "slurping" the noodles into their mouths. Do not be embarrassed and feel free to join in. Slurping your noodles is considered a sign that you are enjoying your meal. On the other hand, burping after a meal is considered incredibly rude, and not a sign that you enjoyed your meal.

Eating Out

Upon entering a restaurant, customers are greeted with "irasshaimase" (いらっしゃいませ "Welcome!") and a waiter or waitress (or maid, if it is that kind of restaurant) will usually lead you to your table immediately. If they do not, you can assume that it is okay to sit at any table. Many Japanese restaurants still have a smoking and non-smoking section, so make sure you make your preference known beforehand - "hikitsuensha" for non-smoking and "kitsuen" for smoking. Either way, you will most likely be required to remove your shoes before entering the restaurant, or the eating area.

Once you are seated, you will be served a complimentary glass of water or tea, which is later refilled. You will also receive an oshibori (御絞り a moistened hand towel) for cleaning your hands. If your place setting does not include chopsticks, you will usually find some in a box on the table. Most often, they are bamboo disposable chopsticks that need to be separated before you use them.

With regards to paying, you will be presented with the bill at the end, or occasionally at the beginning of your meal, although the latter will exclude any drinks you may order. Bills are usually paid at the cashier, rather than paying the waiter. Tipping is rare in Japan and staff do not expect it. In fact, you may find staff running after you, to return the money "you left behind". However, always remember to thank the staff with a "gochisōsama deshita" when leaving. In addition, if somebody else paid for the meal, you should thank them with a "gochisōsama deshita" too.

If you do go out for dinner, keep in mind that splitting the bill is not a normal practice in Japan. It is normal for the inviting party to pay. However, if your host is paying for dinner, at least make an attempt to pay. This will be politely refused, but even your token offer will be received favourably. On the other hand, if you are paying, never accept someone else's offer to pay - they were merely being polite.

Gifts

The giving and receiving of gifts is another area that frequently gives rise to misunderstandings. When offered a gift, do not accept it immediately, but put up some form of token resistance, such as "Oh, I couldn't possibly accept this." When they persist, then accept it. As with many Japanese customs, it all revolves around "saving face" - if the gift is accepted immediately, it implies the recipient does not care what it is, thus diminishing its value and causing the person offering the gift to lose face.

If you are there on business, then your hosts will always appreciate a gift, especially a souvenir that represents your hometown. Remember that to the Japanese, the West is as exotic to them, as the East is to Westerners. In similar fashion, do not be surprised if your hosts offer you a Japanese souvenir. If the gift is wrapped, do not open it until after you have left. If the gift is not wrapped, then make sure you show appreciation for it - even if you do not like it. It helps to ask questions about the gift, to show interest.

Gifts are always offered with both hands and should be accepted with both hands, with both parties bowing to each other at the moment of offering and accepting. One thing to avoid is gifts that consist of 4 pieces, or items. This is because the Japanese word for four (shi ) and death (shi ) sound the same and is thus considered bad luck. You will find in Japan that items such as crockery or glasses are sold in sets of five, rather than the more common four, as found in the West.

Gift Giving Occasions

There are several events during the year where Japanese people exchange gifts.

  • Christmas and Birthdays. Giving gifts on these days was never a Japanese tradition, but due to Western influences many people, especially the younger generation, now exchange gifts on these days too.
  • Oseibo and Ochūgen. Presents are exchanged between family, friends and co-workers in December, at the end of year ceremony (Oseibo 御歳暮). Older people generally receive gifts of food, sake, or household items, whilst younger children receive a gift of money (お年玉 otoshidama). The same happens in June, during the Obon Festival (お盆 Festival of Lanterns), when gifts are again exchanged, this time referred to as Ochūgen (御中元).
  • Valentine's day (バレンタインデー barentaindei). In Japan, the 14th February is the day when girls of all ages present the men in their lives with chocolates. This is not restricted to romantic interests, but brothers, fathers, husbands, etc will also receive gifts. If the chocolates you receive are home-made, then it is a good sign that she is romantically interested in you. However, it is only the girls that give out chocolates on Valentine's day - boys have to wait until White Day (ホワイトデー howaitodei) on the 14th March to return the favour.
  • When returning from a holiday, you are expected to bring back souvenirs (omiyage お土産) for family, friends and co-workers. This often comes in the form of beautifully packaged foods specific to the region you have visited.

Additional Reading

  • De Mente, Boye Lafayette; Etiquette Guide to Japan: Know the Rules...that Make the Difference; Tuttle Publishing; 2001; ISBN-13: 978-0804834179

Also see

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