Do’s and Don’ts When Moving to Japan

Team Nishimachi

A picture of mount fiji in Japan

Moving to Japan comes with new social norms, etiquette, and customs. Discovering exactly what these new rules are can be challenging and can take a lot of research. 

In addition to researching the cultural differences, it can be helpful to reach out to other expat families who have been in your shoes. Read this expat family's story of moving to Tokyo.

Don’t get caught in a cultural faux-pas; follow this list of 10 Japanese social do’s and don’ts that are essential when moving to Japan.

1. Understand Chopstick Etiquette

Chopsticks or ohashi - in many cases - replace forks in Japan and if you have the ability to use these well, the locals will be impressed.

In addition to learning how to properly use chopsticks, there are also some rules that come along with them.

Never stick your chopsticks directly in your bowl as this is what is done at a funeral. When passing food to a friend or family member at the table, never use your chopsticks. But when placing food on your plate, using your chopsticks is considered polite.

If you are taking from a communal plate, it is customary to turn your chopsticks around and take the food from the end that does not go into your mouth. Once the food is on your place, turn your chopsticks around again and eat from the narrow end.

Even though this is common in western countries, rubbing your chopsticks together to rid them of any wood gone astray is considered rude.

2. Don’t Wear Shoes Indoors

Wearing outdoor shoes inside is considered taboo in houses, shrines, ryokens, and even some schools.

Make a point to remove your outdoor shoes and either wear your socks or put on provided slippers, or indoor shoes.

To make this rule even more intricate, wearing the provided indoor shoes, or slippers, into the bathroom is also considered rude. Most houses or buildings will provide bathroom slippers, just make sure to switch back once you’re finished!

At Nishimachi International School, though children are not required to change out of their outdoor shoes, they are asked to wear gym shoes when entering the gymnasium.

3. Queues are Important

In large cities like Tokyo, the population density may come as a shock to you and your family, but even with such a massive population, residents have their ways of making sure everyday life is orderly. Queues are one important part of this organization.

When using public transportation, make sure to follow the queueing system; there are lines painted on the ground for guidance. If for some reason, there are no lines on the ground, follow the pattern being established in front of you.

4. Always Shower Before Bathing

Bathing in Japan is tremendously different than bathing in western countries. In most Japanese homes, there is a pre-filled tub of warm water intended for basking and relaxation, not for getting clean.

Before entering a tub, especially if this is an onsen or public bath, make sure to shower and clean yourself. 

In addition to the shower before bathing rule, at an onsen keep the following in mind:

  • Bathing suits are not allowed
  • Hair should be tied back
  • Tattoos are frowned upon
  • Don’t let your towel touch the water
  • Don’t swim

5. Proper Introduction Etiquette

When meeting someone for the first time, it is customary to bow in lieu of shaking hands or hugging. 

6. Don’t Leave a Tip

Even though this will feel rude, tipping in Japan is actually considered an insult. Instead of tipping, just make sure to enjoy your meal, thank the waiter profusely, and if eating soup, slurp loudly. 

7. Don’t Point

Whether it’s something you’re referring to, pointing at yourself, or using chopsticks to show friends what you’re talking about, pointing is always considered rude. This isn’t too different from western countries, but the details of pointing in Japan are a little more intricate than what you may be accustomed to.

When referring to something in the distance, instead of pointing, gently motion with your hand. When referring to yourself, use your index finger and tap your nose or use your entire palm and touch your chest.

8. Soy Sauce Etiquette

There really isn’t anything better than warm rice and salty soy sauce, but when it comes to eating these two items, there are some things to keep in mind.

Avoid pouring your soy sauce directly on your rice, use your side dish instead. Use your chopsticks to dip the foods in the sauce.

If you go out for a sushi dinner, make sure to dip the fish side into the soy sauce, not the rice. This is not only the "correct" and polite way to each sushi, but it also prevents the sushi from completely falling apart so you cannot eat it and are left with rice floating in your soy sauce dish.

9. Don’t Serve Yourself a Drink

Although this may not come naturally the first few times at a restaurant, avoid serving yourself a drink, including water. Pick up the beverage and refill the glasses around the table, but do not fill your own. A friend or family member will pick up the container once you’re finished with it and fill your glass. 

In addition to this rule, always use two hands when serving a beverage.

10. Social Etiquette When Entering a Home

When walking into a Japanese friend’s home, it’s polite to say, “Ojyama-shimasu”, “Konnnichiwa”, or “ konnbannwa” to announce your presence and greet the family. They will then reply with, “Okaeri” to welcome you and acknowledge your arrival.

In addition to the rules and social norms listed above, keep in mind, the Japanese are extremely polite, helpful, and kind individuals. They are ready to lend a helping hand, lead you in the right direction if you’re lost, and always make you feel welcome. After interacting with anyone in Japan, make sure to respond with, “Arigatou gozaimasu,” which is one of the most polite ways to say, “Thank you.”

Now that you have a list of social do’s and don’ts when moving to Japan, you can check one item off your to-do list before you and your family move.

Get the inside scoop from Japanese expats on what to bring with our new packing checklist.

It notes items you may have easy access to currently, but might not be able to get once you arrive in Japan. Download it for free today by clicking the link below.

This article was brought together with help from Oyster.com.

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