Japan is a highly structured and traditional society that places great importance on politeness and process. Many interactions in Japan are governed by socially agreed upon “best practices,” and following these standardized formats are the best way to get by in Japan. A failure to follow, or even understand this basic aspect of Japanese society exists, is one reason many Japanese people find dealing with foreigners daunting or difficult.
In short, unlike most Japanese people in the same circumstances, you never know what a foreigner is going to do, and this adds stress to any interaction for them. It takes a lifetime to master the nearly limitless amount of “best practices” governing social and professional interactions. Most Japanese people know this, and will give you the benefit of the doubt, but learning the “right way” to do things will make things run much smoother for you and them, and simply attempting to do so will garner a lot of goodwill in most cases.
Here are a few basics of etiquette in Japan to get you started!
Tipping is not a part of the culture in Japan, and there is absolutely no expectation on the part of waiters, taxi drivers, hotel porters etc. that customers will give tips. In fact, attempting to give a tip will most likely lead to embarrassment on the part of the recipient, as well as refusal to accept. In general, Japanese people, no matter their profession, take great pride in what they do, and do not expect additional reward from customers.
It is not usual to use first names other than with good friends, and Japanese will ordinarily address colleagues and sometimes friends using their family name. Unless you are talking to a family member or very close friend, you will need to add ‘san’ when you address someone e.g. Suzuki-san. Adding san is a form of showing respect, and it is considered rude to call somebody by their family name without doing so.
If you are dealing with a Japanese person who speaks English, it is possible that he/she will introduce him/herself using their given name rather than the family name, in which case you can call him/her by their first name without adding san (eg. Yuko, Akira). Please note that it is incorrect to refer to yourself as san.
While business etiquette is much more rigid in Japan than other countries, following a few simple rules will help you set the proper tone and demonstrate your respect for a different culture. A foreigner attending a Japanese business meeting should be dressed in correct formal attire (usually a business suit and tie for a man) and should have business cards ready to exchange. (A double sided Japanese and English card particularly shows your understanding of the culture.)
When first meeting a business associate you should stand, incline your head in a slight bow and hold your name card with both hands, the written information facing the recipient. You should receive an associate’s name card in the same manner, being careful to look over the card and place it on the table in front of you during the meeting. You may put the business cards that you received away at the meeting’s conclusion, though it is considered rude to place them in back pockets where they may be sat upon.
Generally there is less visible dining etiquette in Japanese culture than commonly found in western countries. For example, it is perfectly acceptable in Japan to make slurping noises when eating. There are, however, some subtle rules of etiquette to be aware of. It is common to share several dishes rather than order one portion exclusively for yourself. When taking food from shared dishes with chopsticks, it is polite to turn your chopsticks around so that the part that has been in your mouth does not come into contact with the food in the dish.
In addition to shared dishes, the menu itself is also often shared, with only one copy provided per table. It is common for Japanese hosts to immediately turn the menu around so that all at the table can see, before considering anything themselves. Another “rule” to be aware of that you should not stand chopsticks in food, especially rice, as this reflects a common Japanese funeral practice. You should therefore lay your chopsticks across the rim of a dish or bowl when you wish to put them down, or you can make use of a chopstick rest if provided.
When drinking with friends, colleagues or business associates, you should not begin to drink before there has been a toast of ‘kanpai’ or ‘bottoms up’. If there are bottles of beer or flasks of sake on the table, it is considered bad form to fill your own glass. Most Japanese will be actively monitoring the glasses of people around them, and will fill them if they notice that they are close to empty. Although this can be a difficult thing to attune yourself to at first, successfully doing so will greatly impress those around you.