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How To Be A Polite Traveler In Japan

Considering the very structured atmosphere of Japan, having good manners is an extremely valuable tool for travelers. Japanese people are generally very conscientious in public and foreigners should try to be aware of these social rules. Of course, there will always be some native who do not follow these general customs. However, that does not excuse any improper behavior of travelers. Being a polite traveler will make your experience in Japan much more satisfying.

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Something else to keep in mind when visiting a new country; after interacting with travelers, people will often use those meetings as a basis for judging other foreigners. So not only can it affect your time in the country, but travelers thereafter. It can be difficult to fully comprehend Japanese politeness, therefore it is best to know a few general rules before traveling there.

A Few Tips

  • Always walk/stand left

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It is important to make sure you are walking on the left side of the street. Also if you are standing on an escalator, do so only on the left. While there are some areas where these roles are reversed, like in the city of Osaka or on stairways, just pay attention to the signs on the floor that indicate the direction you should be walking.

When on public transportation, it is important to stand in line when waiting to board the train or bus. If you have a backpack of some sort, it’s best to completely remove it and carry it at your feet. Or instead, you can wear it so it’s facing frontwards. Also, make sure to pay attention to where your hands are placed as it becomes crowded. Sexual harassment is a huge issue in Japan, so try to avoid misunderstandings by being aware. Also, make sure to be conscious of others and their actions towards yourself and other commuters.

  • Do not point

Try to avoid pointing with your finger when trying to get your companions to look at something. If it is necessary, use your entire hand to gesture.

  • No calls

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When on trains and buses, it is extremely rude to talk on the phone. There are generally signs posted to remind commuters not to take calls and to put phones on silent.

  • Stick with the Sniffles

Something which I found rather odd, is that in Japan, you should never blow your nose in public. It is considered extremely rude. Rather, it is better to simply sniffle if your nose is running. This was of particular interest to me as that is considered ruder in many western countries.

  • No Tipping

Tipping is not customary in Japan. Too often do foreigners, particularly Americans, try to tip their wait staff at restaurants. While you may think you are being polite, it is actually creating more of a hassle for the server as they will try to return the money, even if it means following you outside.

  • Chopsticks

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Using chopsticks is similar to using a fork in that it is extremely rude to point with them. Also, do not take from the communal sharing plate with chopsticks either, (though often you can use the side that did not touch your mouth from the communal plate). However, two even more important rules are to not stick your chopsticks directly out of your rice and do not transfer food between people using chopsticks. These actions are equivocated with food offerings to the dead and other funeral rites, not dinner routines.

  • Learn Some Japanese

Of course, no one is expected to be fluent in the native language when visiting a foreign country. However, it is very valuable to know how to say a few key phrases. Even those as simple as “thank you” and “excuse me” are helpful. Knowing such phrases displays a willingness to understand the culture.

Just be Thoughtful

While these rules are generally very basic, they are important to follow while in Japan. Everybody prefers those who follow the accepted social norms within their culture as it allows for a cohesive public space. Although there are some Japanese people who do not follow these rules, often they will more harshly judge foreigners who do not follow the norms, as they are easily identifiable. So, while a Japanese person may be doing something impolite, you as a traveler can safely go about your day without inciting annoyance with others if you act polite yourself. Doing research before visiting a foreign country is always helpful in making your travels as enjoyable as possible, for both you and everyone around you.

What are some cultural norms that you had to practice and make sure of while abroad in another country? Let us know in the comments below! Polite Traveler In Japan Rakbo cat

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Sam Schommer

Sam is an International Affairs student at Northern Arizona University. Currently, she is studying abroad in Tokyo, Japan at Waseda University for the duration of her third undergrad year. As an international affairs major, she feels it her duty to be up to date about culture (particularly memes), politics, and social issues both in her home and abroad. An Arizona native, Sam has lived in America her whole life and her year in Japan is the first time she has been out of the country more than a few days. To see what she’s been up to in Japan as well as some other interesting places, check out her Instagram and Twitter!


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