In Japan it seems that there’s more chances for making etiquette faux pars than you can shake a finger at – actually, you had better not shake your finger at all; it causes offense.
To help expatriates avoid making a serious etiquette mistake we’ve put together a list of ten major mistakes that you really should avoid at all costs.
1) Remove your shoes went entering someone’s home
When entering the home of a Japanese person, you should always remove your shoes. Many hosts will offer you a pair of slippers. In some homes you may see slippers by the bathroom door. These slippers are usually used exclusively inside the washroom; swap the house slippers for the toilet slippers before entering. If you enter a room with a tatami mat you should take your slippers off and walk on the mat bare-footed.
2) Help yourself with your chopsticks
When dining with a group you should never take food from the shared plate using the chopsticks that you have already been eating with. Move food from the shared plate to your own bowl using serving chopsticks. If these are not available use the opposite end of your own chopsticks.
3) Blow your nose in public
You should never blow your nose in public or when in the company of friends. If you need to blow your nose retreat to the bathroom.
4) Stick your chopsticks in rice
Do not leave chopsticks sticking out of any food, especially rice. This is done at funerals and will be perceived as unlucky. You should also never pass food between two sets of chopsticks as this is done with the bones of the cremated at funerals.
5) Sit yourself down
When meeting with business acquaintances you should always wait until you are directed where to sit. Seating arrangements are determined by the status of the attendees. Once told where to sit, you should stand behind your seat and wait until the most senior attendee at the meeting sits down. At the end of the meeting you should remain standing until he stands.
6) Worry about personal questions
Don’t be offended if you are asked personal questions. It is not uncommon for Japanese people to ask direct questions relating to your age, earnings and financial status. If you really don’t want to answer such questions be gracious and avoid embarrassing the person who asked the question.
7) Disrespect a business card
When you are given a business card from a Japanese person you should never put it straight into your pocket. If you are meeting them in passing, carefully place it in your purse or wallet. If you are in a meeting, study the card before placing it on the table in front of you. If you receive multiple cards do not stack them, instead arrange them all so that you can see them during the meeting.
8) Give gifts in fours
The number four is considered to be very unlucky in Japan because it has the same pronunciation as the name for the word death (shi).
9) Point your feet at people
If you are invited to sit down in the company of a Japanese person, make sure that you do not point your feet at anyone. This is extremely offense. Keep the soles of your feet flat on the floor.
10) Point your finger at someone
When talking to someone try and avoid pointing your finger at them. It can make them feel uncomfortable as it is considered to be a slightly threatening gesture. Try and keep your hands still and if you really do need to point, just use your thumb.
If you’re considering living in Japan then be sure to consult our Expat Info Desk guide to Tokyo. It contains everything you need to live in this amazing city and will be an invaluable compendium in this sprawling city.