Japanese Culture: 33 Things Everyone Should Know About Japan
Have you ever watched an anime and been left confused by some things about Japanese culture and customs left unexplained? Or maybe you’re preparing to head to Japan and don’t want to be perceived as one of the rude gaikokujin (“foreigners”) the locals complain about.
Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. Understanding Japanese culture can be a beast of a task, especially if you’re from the West. What is considered “rude” or “polite” is vastly different. And to truly learn the Japanese language, you must understand Japanese culture.
Japanese relies on “feeling the air” or “reading the room” to actually understand what’s being said, and Japanese is not a direct language like English. They even have a word for those who can’t pick up on subtleties — KY or 空気読めない (kuuki yomenai). Literally “can’t read the air.”
But that won’t be you. Because this is your crash course! This is the mega Japanese culture article you’ve been looking for.
The 9 Basics of Japanese Culture
1. Bowing in Japanese Culture
Bowing is one of the key differences in Japanese etiquette. You don’t shake hands in Japan. Instead, you bow.
When bowing, don’t bow from the neck (like the British bow to the Queen), but bow by hinging at your hips. The deeper you bow, the more respect you’re showing.
2. Always Take Off Your Shoes at the Door, and Say “Ojama Shimasu”
In Japan, it’s rude to walk through someone’s home with your shoes on, so don’t commit this faux pas. When you enter someone’s home, in the entryway (call the 玄関, “genkan”) there will be a mat or a shelf to set your shoes on. Take off your shoes and put on a pair of their house slippers.
There’s also a specific Japanese greeting for when you enter and leave a home. When you arrive, you say お邪魔します (Ojama shimasu), which means “I’m sorry for intruding” or “I’m sorry for bothering you.” Even if you’re expected, this is the polite greeting to say. When you leave, you’ll say it in the past tense: お邪魔しました (Ojama shimashita).
3. Don’t Eat or Drink When Walking
In the West, it’s common to walk around carrying your breakfast and coffee on your way to work. But this is considered rude in Japan. If you’re grabbing a bite on the go — even from a vending machine — you’ll stand or sit nearby to consume it.
4. Always Give and Take Gifts and Business Cards with Two Hands
If you’re offering a gift or business card to someone else (which is a common thing to do), you’ll offer it with both hands and bow slightly. You’ll do the same thing when you receive a gift or card as well. It signifies that you’re honoring the relationship and showing it proper respect.
5. In Japanese Culture, Answering the Phone Has its Own Phrase
When you answer the phone, you’ll use the phrase もしもし (moshi moshi). This phrase stems from the humble word 申す (mousu), which means “to speak” or “to say” (like the standard word, 言う). It basically means, “I’m going to talk now.”
There is some specific etiquette for this phrase though. You’ll say moshi moshi when answering or receiving a phone call, but only if the call is from a friend or family member. For more formal calls, you can simply answer はい (hai, “yes”), following by your company name or your last name.
6. There are Tons of Onomatopoeia in Japanese
Japanese onomatopoeia is part of everyday conversations in Japanese culture. Onomatopoeia are words that describe sounds, but in Japanese, they can also describe feelings and states of being. You’ll hear them all the time, from ドキドキ (doki doki, “heart racing”) to ガツガツ (gatsu gatsu, “devouring food”) to ペラペラ (pera pera, “speak fluently”).
7. Less Eye Contact and Physical Touch
In the West, someone who looks away when talking is often perceived as a bit rude or even as lying. But in Japan, prolonged eye contact is intense and uncomfortable. So many people will look around when talking.
There’s also very little physical touch. Like how you won’t shake hands, you also wouldn’t give a pat on the back or a hug. Sometimes in Western culture, we tend to be overly “touchy.” But it will make Japanese people feel uncomfortable. Even between couples, any kind of physical touch is considered inappropriate.
8. Japanese Body Language
Body language is an important part of communicating, and it’s pretty different in Japan. For instance, if someone gives you a compliment, the appropriate body language would be to put your hand behind your head like your scratching your hair and look down shyly. Or, you could deny it by waving your hand back and worth in front of your face while saying いやいやいや (iya iya iya, “no, no, no” or “it’s not good”). Tofugu has a fantastic article with pictures about Japanese body language.
9. Japanese is a Contextual Language
Don’t take offense if someone doesn’t answer you directly. In Japanese culture, it’s rude to say “no” outright. So they often avoid answering the question. Often times, you’ll get a ちょっと… (Chotto…), which more or less means “It’s a bit [inconvenient]…” You also might hear a “maybe”, “I’ll try”, or “I’ll see.” All these most likely mean no. So, it’s important to read body language and the “air.” As a Japanese culture newbie, it’s best to take any “maybe” as a “no.”
9 Japanese Customs You Should Be Aware Of
1. In Japan, They Will Talk While You Talk
You’ll find many people interject or express agreement a lot while you’re talking. This isn’t to be rude — it’s the opposite. You’ll get a lot of うんうんうん (un, un un, “yeah, yeah yeah”) and そう (sou, “I see”) while you’re talking to show they’re paying attention.
2. Riding the Bullet Train in Japan
Any time you hop on the bullet train, subway, or other public transportation, expect to get a gentle shove. The stations are overcrowded, so people will push and shove a bit to get where they need to go. Even the workers may gently push people into the train cars to fit more people.
3. Splitting the Bill — It’s All Equal
Called 割り勘 (warikan), it’s typical to split the bill equally among everyone at the table, no matter where you go or how much you ordered.
4. In Japanese, There is No Equivalent to “God Bless You” When You Sneeze
If you or someone else sneezes, there’s no phrase to acknowledge it. It’s actually a bit rude to do so. If you feel like you have to say something, you can say すみません (sumimasen, “excuse me”).
5. Holidays are Celebrated Differently in Japanese Culture
While Christmas is typically the biggest day of the year in the West, it’s a romantic date night in Japan! On Valentine’s Day, the girls give chocolates to boys they like. And on White Day, March 14th, the boys reciprocate.
The biggest holiday of the year, though, is New Year’s. There are many traditions around food, cleaning the house, and bringing in luck for the New Year.
6. No Tipping!
You don’t tip in Japan for any service. If you leave money, they’ll be confused and think you forgot it!
7. There are No Trash Cans
You won’t find many trash cans while walking around. Despite that, Japan stays relatively litter-free. People end up carrying their trash around with them until they get home to properly dispose or recycle it.
8. Always Bring Back Omiyage
お土産 (omiyage) is the Japanese word for “souvenirs”. In Japan, you’ll always bring back tiny gifts for your friends, family, and co-workers when you go on a trip. Even if you only traveled a few hours away, it’s polite to bring back a small omiyage, like a good luck charm from a temple or chocolate.
9. When You Receive a Gift, You’re Supposed to Give One Back
If you receive a gift in Japan, even if it’s a birthday gift or for a wedding or baby shower, you’re supposed to give a gift back that’s equal to about 50% of the value of what you received. It’s also not unusual to receive a larger gift than you might in the West because it’s expected they’ll get half back. These gifts are call お返し (okaeshi).
6 Fascinating Insights Into Japanese Food Culture
1. Pour Drinks for Sempai
It’s very common for the “lowest” member (usually the newest or youngest) of the group to have to serve the drinks to those around them. You’ll be expected to watch for when they need a refill and pour it for them.
2. “A Beer for Now”
It’s common when showing up at dinner or a bar to immediately order a beer with the set phrase とりあえずビール (Toriaizu bi-ru). This means “I’ll take a beer for now.”
3. Sushi has its Own Culture
Sushi has a lot of history and tradition in Japanese culture. There’s makisushi (rolled sushi), nigiri (fish over rice without nori, or seaweed), sashimi (raw fish), temaki (hand rolls)… The menu can be a bit tricky to understanding if you don’t recognize the words. This is a great article for a brief refresher on sushi.
We often eat sushi “wrong” in the West. For instance, it’s more common to eat sushi with your fingers than chopsticks. And you shouldn’t put ginger on your roll, or wasabi in your soy sauce. Dip your sushi fish side down into your soy sauce (called shoyu) as to not oversaturate the rice.
4. Always Say “Itadakimasu” and “Gochisousama Deshita”
いただきます (Itadakimasu) is the Japanese equivalent of “bon appetit.” It gives thanks for the meal, and you shouldn’t start eating until it’s been said. You’ll clap your hand together in a prayer position and say, “Itadakimasu!”
After you finish eating, you’ll use the phrase ごちそうさまでした (gochisousama deshita). This means “Thank you for this meal.” You’ll say it to the person who made the food, treated you to the meal, or just to express thanks for having food to eat.
5. Slurping and Noises are Polite(!)
Slurping your noodles, munching away happily, and making frequent expressions of うまい(umai, “great”) and 美味しい (oishii, “delicious”) are polite and expected! So don’t be shy — you can slurp away, Naruto-style.
6. Remember Chopstick Etiquette
When eating with chopsticks, don’t ever stick them straight up in your rice — that’s bad luck! You also don’t want to cross them across your plate or rub them together. If you aren’t using them, set them on your chopstick holder, called hashi oki. Don’t know how to use chopsticks? Check out this video to learn how.
Dishes are often shared among the table, but don’t use the thinner end of your chopsticks to eat from them! Instead, flip your chopsticks around to the square end to grab food from the communal plate. This way, you aren’t “double-dipping” your chopsticks. And always grab food from the top of the plate, don’t dig or play around!
5 Aspects of Traditional Japanese Culture to Be Aware Of
Geisha are one of the most beautiful aspects of Japanese culture. But many people have negative impressions about what being a “geisha” entails. Geisha are not prostitutes, but performers and entertainers. They often perform as hosts and guides into the world of traditional Japanese art and music. A geisha will dance, sing, and play the shamisen (the string instrument most people associate with traditional Japanese music). She may also write kanji in traditional calligraphy. They can still be found performing today, mostly in Kyoto.
2. Samurai, Ninja, Shogun and Emperor
In feudal Japan, samurai were the warriors that rose to power and started the shogunate. Lead by the shogun, they took power away from the emperor until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. The samurai code of honor is called the bushido, “the way of the warrior,” and many samurai were wealthy lords, known as daimyo. A samurai’s honor came from his sword, and even as late as World War II, soldiers would make banzai attacks with samurai swords.
Ninja, also called shinobi, were the Japanese assassins, spies, or disgraced samurai. They were often pitted against samurai lords in feudal Japan and developed their art of stealthy fighting known as ninjutsu. Ninja continued to fight in wars or serve as spies until the Edo Period.
The shogun led Japan for many years, until the fall of Tokugawa. During the Meiji Restoration, power was given back to the Emperor, and emphasis shifted from bushido to State-sponsored Shinto which revered the emperor as a descendant of the Sun God, Amaterasu. This lasted until Japan lost World War II, and lead to modern Japan with power resting in the Prime Minister.
With each new emperor comes a new “era.” Japan celebrates each change in era, as they recently did when Emperor Akihito abdicated. This ended the Heisei era, and his son, Emperor Naruhito, started the Reiwa era.
3. Kimono and Traditional Japanese Clothing
Kimono is an intricate piece of clothing, made up of several layers and an obi, or sash. And yukata, are the light-weight kimono-like garments worn to matsuri or “festivals” during the summer. Hakama is traditional men’s garb, that features a pleated skirt and obi. If you’ve ever seen Ruroni Kenshin, he wears a style of hakama. Zouri are the wooden sandals you often see worn with traditional Japanese clothing.
There’s also jinbei, a lightweight summer outfit that you can wear to bed, as housewear, or instead of yukata at festivals. They look similar to a yukata in style but are made up of a short-sleeve shirt and shorts. They’re usually worn by men, boys, and babies, but women can wear them, too.
Onsen are hot springs in Japan. There’s many onsen due to the active volcanic activity, and they’re often outside or at ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn or bed and breakfast). You have to wash up before entering the onsen. Swimwear, clothing, or towels in the onsen are considered “dirty.” And many onsen don’t allow anyone with tattoos. (For many years, only the Japanese mafia, called the Yakuza, had tattoos.) This is changing, though, and tattoo-friendly onsen exist.
5. Religion in Japan: Shinto, Buddhism, Christianity,
Shinto is the primary, native religion in Japan, although many people follow Buddhism as well. Shintoism is a belief that godliness, or 神 (kami), exists all around us in life-giving things. For example, water has kami, because water is necessary for life. Most of the traditional shrines you see in Japan and in anime are Shinto shrines.
Buddhism is also practiced in Japan, and most people considering themselves Buddhist. Japan had a brief period of time where Christian missionaries from Portugal came to spread the faith, but today, only about 3% of Japanese people consider themselves to be Christian.
Even though religion exists in Japan, the Japanese tend to follow more of a moral code and etiquette than religious practices. But they do have many Shinto and Buddhist-based traditions surrounding death, family, and ancestors. For instance, many people keep a small shrine inside their home to honor deceased family members.
Death still has quite a stigma in Japan. 4 and 9 are unlucky numbers because they sound like the words for “death” and “agony.” Many buildings (especially hospitals) will not have a 4th or 9th floor because of this. And morticians are often looked down upon as “dirty” and “unclean” for working with the deceased, even though they follow a beautiful ritual to honor the dead upon passing. The critically acclaimed Japanese movie “Departures” is about this topic.
4 Facets of Modern Japanese Culture that Everyone Should Know About
1. Capsule Hotels
Also called pod hotels, this style of hotel became popular in Japan as cheap overnight rooms for salarymen (office workers) who work long hours. These capsule rooms usually consist of just a bed, air conditioning, outlets, and a TV. The room is the size of a bed, and only tall enough to sit up in, so you have to crawl inside. They have communal bathrooms and showers, as well as a locker area to store your things.
2. Japanese Bathroom Etiquette
You may expect the bathroom to be the same in Japan, but be warned — it’s a wild ride! In cities, you’ll find a Western-style toilet, but with all kinds of extra features. They often have a bidet, heated seats, and even a wash-and-dry feature. The toilet may even talk to you or make noise! Some toilets have what’s called an Otohime, or “sound princess,” to mask any unpleasant noises.
In rural areas, though, they have a traditional Japanese toilet that’s more or less a hole in the ground that you have to squat over it.
When at someone’s home, you’ll find a pair of bathroom slippers to use only in the bathroom and then remove upon exit. Like taking your shoes off when you enter the home, the same is true here. The bathroom is a separate “dirty” space and needs its own shoes.
Plus, traditional Japanese bathtubs are heavenly. They’re much larger and deeper than Western-style tubs, making them more comfortable to soak in. You’ll find a showerhead and stool where you’ll wash and rinse off first, and then hop in the tub. The reason is that most Japanese people fill the tub once, and then everyone uses the same water after them until everyone has finished bathing for the day. So you want to keep the water clean!
3. Harajuku and Japanese Street Fashion
Japanese street fashion is a huge topic all on its own. Harajuku is the main fashion hub in Tokyo, where you’ll see all kinds of haute couture. From lolita gothic style to the gyaru-style of overly tan and heavy makeup, you’ll see a lot of amazing outfits like you’re at New York Fashion Week. If you’re into fashion, Harajuku is the place to go. Some styles are a bit softer or more traditional, like mori kei or modern kimono style, but many people come to show off their looks.
4. Japanese Anime, Manga, and Video Games
Japanese animation, comics, and video games are widely popular upon all age groups in Japan. There are four main categories of topics that tend to show up over and over again: mecha, yokai,kawaii, and apocalyptic. These categories are deeply ingrained in Japanese culture.
Mecha, or robots, signify Japan’s constant technological innovation. Yokai, or ghosts and demons, are often based on Japanese folklore and fascination with the supernatural, stemming from Shino beliefs. Kawaii or “cute” culture is very prevalent in all aspects of Japanese life. From brand mascots to J-Pop stars, everything must be cute and perceived as or invoking a sense of innocence. This, in part, stems from the last category: apocalyptic.
Japan suffered a lot of pain and saw unthinkable horrors following the atomic bombs during WWII; they’re the only country to have lived through a nuclear weapon. Many Japanese people still have memories or connections to this by watching the suffering of family members or witnessing how it shaped their country moving forward. Because of that, an obsession with apocalyptic depictions in art came about as a way to work through that pain and even as an example of hope and perseverance. It’s also why an emphasis is placed on maintaining innocence because that was lost for many following the end of the war.
So while anime, manga, and video games are often light-hearted, the popular categories and features in them are deep-rooted in Japanese culture and history.
You’re a Japanese Culture Insider Now!
Japan has such a rich culture and so many intricacies. Each section of this article could be a whole college class of info! But I hope you found some interesting tidbits and helpful knowledge to help you speak Japanese like a local and have a deeper understanding of the customs.