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Unwritten Rules and Cultural Formalities for Foreigners

Navigate Japan | Exploring the Hidden, Unspoken Rules in Japan


Living in a foreign country can be an exciting and enriching experience, but it also comes with its own set of challenges. Japan, with its rich history, unique customs, and deep-rooted traditions, is no exception. In this blog post, we will explore the unwritten rules and cultural formalities that foreigners may encounter while living in Japan.

By understanding and respecting these customs, you can foster better relationships, integrate into the community, and fully appreciate the beauty of Japanese culture.

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Tip #1 - Greetings and Bowing

In Japan, greetings and bowing form a crucial part of social interactions. When meeting someone for the first time, it is customary to perform a bow as a sign of respect. The depth of the bow varies depending on the person's status and the formality of the situation. Generally, a slight nod of the head is sufficient in casual settings, while deeper bows are appropriate for more formal occasions or when greeting someone of higher status.

When bowing, it is essential to maintain eye contact and keep your back straight. Place your hands by your sides, palms facing inward, or hold them together in front of your body. The duration of the bow is typically brief, lasting a few seconds. However, if you are bowing in a more formal context, such as during a business meeting or when showing deep respect, a longer and deeper bow may be appropriate.

Furthermore, using honorific titles, such as "-san," is customary when addressing someone older, of higher status, or in a professional setting. "-San" is a gender-neutral title used for both men and women. It signifies respect and is equivalent to "Mr." or "Ms." in English. When in doubt, it is better to err on the side of formality and use the appropriate honorifics.

Remember, mastering the art of bowing and using honorific titles demonstrates your understanding and appreciation of Japanese culture and fosters positive relationships with others.

Tip #2 - Removing your Shoes

In Japan, removing shoes is a common practice when entering certain spaces, such as homes, traditional restaurants, and sometimes schools. This custom stems from the cultural emphasis on cleanliness and maintaining a separation between outdoor and indoor areas.

Upon entering a place where shoe removal is expected, look for a designated area called the genkan, typically located near the entrance. It is usually a slightly lower area or a separate room with a different flooring material, such as tile or hardwood. Here are some key points to keep in mind:

1. Preparation: Before entering the genkan, ensure that your shoes are clean and free from any dirt or debris. It is considered courteous to remove any excess mud or dust outside.

2. Shoe Placement: Take off your shoes and neatly arrange them facing outward, with the toes pointing towards the entrance. This makes it easier to put them back on later. If there are shoe racks or cubbies available, use them to store your footwear.

3. Slippers: In some places, such as homes or traditional establishments, you may find a pair of slippers provided for indoor use. These slippers are typically left in the genkan or just inside the doorway. It is polite to slip into the provided slippers and wear them while inside.

4. Transition to Tatami Rooms: When entering tatami rooms, which are traditional Japanese rooms with woven straw mats, you must remove the slippers. Walking on tatami with slippers is generally not allowed to keep the mats clean. Instead, step onto the tatami with bare or sock-clad feet.

5. Restrooms: In some cases, separate slippers may be provided specifically for use in the restroom. These slippers are often a different color or have distinct markings. Remember to switch to the designated restroom slippers when using the facilities and then switch back to the regular slippers when leaving the restroom.

By following these practices, you demonstrate respect for Japanese customs and maintain the cleanliness and comfort of indoor spaces. Embracing this cultural tradition can help you integrate into the community and appreciate the meticulous attention given to cleanliness and hygiene in Japanese society.

Tip #3 - Ochugen and Oseibo

Ochugen and Oseibo are traditional gift-giving customs in Japan that hold special significance in strengthening relationships and expressing gratitude. Understanding these practices can help foreigners navigate social interactions and cultural expectations during these gift-giving occasions.

1. Ochugen: Ochugen is a gift-giving tradition observed during the summer season, typically around mid-July. It is customary to present gifts to express appreciation to friends, relatives, and business associates. Ochugen gifts are often given to express gratitude for past favors, kindness, or ongoing relationships.

2. Oseibo: Oseibo is a similar gift-giving custom that takes place in December, usually before the New Year. Oseibo gifts are given to show gratitude and to strengthen personal and professional connections. They are also a way to express goodwill and best wishes for the upcoming year.

When participating in Ochugen and Oseibo, consider the following:

1. Gift Selection: Common gift choices include food items, such as high-quality sweets, fruits, or alcoholic beverages. These gifts are often beautifully packaged and represent thoughtfulness and attention to detail. It is also acceptable to choose gifts that align with the recipient's interests or preferences.

2. Wrapping and Presentation: Take care to wrap the gifts neatly and tastefully. In Japan, gift wrapping is considered an art form, and attention is given to the presentation. Many stores offer professional gift-wrapping services or provide beautifully designed wrapping materials for customers to use.

3. Delivery and Timing: It is customary to deliver Ochugen and Oseibo gifts personally or have them delivered by mail or a delivery service. Ensure that the gifts arrive before the designated dates to show punctuality and respect for the tradition.

4. Reciprocity: If you receive Ochugen or Oseibo gifts, it is customary to reciprocate the gesture. Consider offering a gift of similar value or quality to express your gratitude and maintain harmonious relationships.

By participating in Ochugen and Oseibo, you contribute to the social fabric of Japanese culture, deepen connections with others, and show appreciation for the relationships you have built. These gift-giving customs offer an opportunity to express gratitude and foster goodwill, further enriching your experience while living in Japan.

Tip #4 - Public Etiquette

Public etiquette plays a vital role in Japanese society, reflecting the values of respect, consideration for others, and maintaining harmony in shared spaces. Here are some important points to observe when it comes to public etiquette in Japan:

1. Queueing: Forming orderly queues is expected in various situations, such as at bus stops, train stations, and popular attractions. Maintain your position in line and avoid cutting in front of others. Be patient and wait for your turn.

2. Speaking Volume: It is customary to speak softly and avoid causing unnecessary disturbances in public spaces, such as trains, buses, and restaurants. Keep your conversations at a moderate volume to respect the peace and privacy of others.

3. Mobile Phone Usage: Using your mobile phone for voice calls in certain public areas, like trains and buses, is generally discouraged. Switch your device to silent mode and refrain from engaging in loud or lengthy conversations. Texting or using your phone quietly is more acceptable.

4. Eating in Public: While it is acceptable to eat in designated areas, such as food stalls or designated picnic spots, it is generally considered impolite to eat while walking or on public transportation. Finish your food before entering such spaces or find a suitable place to sit and eat.

5. Trash Disposal: Japan is known for its strict waste management system. Carry a small bag for collecting your trash, and be sure to separate it according to the specific recycling guidelines of the area you are in. Many public spaces provide separate bins for different types of waste, such as burnable, non-burnable, and recyclable items. Familiarize yourself with the recycling rules in your locality and dispose of your trash accordingly.

6. Public Displays of Affection: Public displays of affection, such as kissing or hugging, are generally kept to a minimum in Japan. It is more common to see couples maintaining a level of modesty and privacy in public spaces. Exercise discretion and consider the cultural norms when expressing affection in public.

By adhering to these public etiquette guidelines, you show respect for others, contribute to a peaceful environment, and demonstrate your appreciation for Japanese customs. Embracing these practices fosters a positive atmosphere and helps you integrate more smoothly into the local community.

Tip #5 - Onsen & Bathhouses

Onsen and public baths hold a significant place in Japanese culture, offering relaxation, rejuvenation, and a unique social experience. If you plan to visit an onsen or public bath in Japan, it's essential to be aware of the following customs and guidelines:

1. Separation by Gender: Onsen and many public baths have separate bathing areas for men and women. It is customary to respect and adhere to the gender segregation rules. Look for signs indicating "男" (men) or "女" (women) to ensure you enter the appropriate section.

2. Washing Before Entering: Before entering the bathing area, you are required to thoroughly wash and rinse your body at the provided washing area. Use the provided showerheads, faucets, or buckets to clean yourself. This practice ensures that the shared bathwater remains clean and hygienic for all guests.

3. Nudity: In most onsen and public baths, nudity is required. It may feel uncomfortable initially, especially for those unfamiliar with such customs, but it is an essential part of the experience. Remember that everyone around you will also be unclothed, so maintaining a respectful and non-judgmental attitude is crucial.

4. Tattoos: It's important to note that traditional onsen and some public baths may have restrictions on entry for individuals with visible tattoos. In Japanese culture, tattoos are often associated with the Yakuza (Japanese organized crime). If you have tattoos, it is advisable to check the specific rules and regulations of the establishment you plan to visit beforehand to avoid any inconvenience.

5. Etiquette in the Bathing Area: Once in the bathing area, maintain a calm and quiet demeanor. Engage in relaxed and leisurely bathing, respecting the peaceful atmosphere. Avoid splashing water or making excessive noise. It's customary to tie up long hair to keep it away from the water.

6. Towels: Many people bring a small towel or washcloth to use in the bathing area. While it is acceptable to use the towel to cover yourself while walking between the washing area and the bath, it should not be placed in the bathwater. Keep the towel neatly folded outside the bath or on your head while bathing.

By respecting these customs and following the guidelines, you can fully enjoy the unique experience of onsen and public baths in Japan. Embrace the relaxation, cultural traditions, and social aspects they offer, and remember to be mindful of the rules and practices observed by the locals.

Tip #6 - Business Etiquette

Business etiquette is of utmost importance in Japan, as it reflects the values of respect, hierarchy, and professionalism. Understanding and adhering to these customs can greatly contribute to successful business interactions. Here are some key points to consider:

1. Punctuality: Arriving on time or even a few minutes early is highly valued in Japanese business culture. Being punctual demonstrates respect for others' time and shows your commitment to the business relationship.

2. Business Attire: Dressing professionally is expected in most business settings. Men typically wear suits in dark colors, while women opt for conservative attire such as suits or dresses. It is important to present a polished appearance and pay attention to grooming.

3. Exchanging Business Cards: The exchange of business cards, known as meishi, is a formal and essential part of business introductions. Present your card with both hands and receive the other person's card with respect. Take a moment to study the card before carefully placing it in a cardholder or on the table in front of you.

4. Bowing: Bowing is a common form of greeting and showing respect in business interactions. When meeting someone for the first time, a slight bow is appropriate. When greeting superiors or in more formal situations, a deeper bow may be required. Follow the lead of the person of higher status or age.

5. Communication Style: Japanese communication tends to be indirect and polite. Maintain a calm and respectful tone, and avoid confrontational or aggressive language. Listening attentively and showing interest in what others have to say is highly regarded.

6. Hierarchy and Decision-Making: Japanese business culture places emphasis on hierarchy and consensus-building. Respect the authority and decisions of superiors, and strive for harmony within the group. When expressing your opinions, do so tactfully and avoid direct confrontations.

7. Gift-Giving: Presenting gifts, known as omiyage, is customary in business settings. It is common to bring a small, thoughtful gift from your home country or region when visiting a client, partner, or colleague. Ensure the gift is modest and considerate, and present it with both hands. Reference Tip #3: Ochugen and Oseibo for some pointers on giving the best gifts!

8. Business Entertaining: Business meals and outings are common in Japan and provide an opportunity to build relationships. Observe proper table manners, defer to the host's lead, and be mindful of drinking alcohol responsibly.

By demonstrating knowledge of Japanese business etiquette, you show respect for cultural norms and increase the chances of building successful professional relationships. Adapt to these customs while also being yourself and showcasing your unique strengths, contributing to a positive and productive business environment.


Living in Japan offers a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in a culture deeply rooted in tradition and respect. By familiarizing yourself with the unwritten rules and cultural formalities, you can navigate Japanese society more effectively, build meaningful connections, and gain a deeper appreciation for the rich heritage that Japan has to offer. Remember, embracing these customs with an open mind and respectful attitude will contribute to a positive and fulfilling experience during your time in Japan.


This blog is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for professional legal advice. The content provided in this blog is based on general knowledge and research, but laws and regulations can vary and change over time. Each individual or entity's situation is unique, and it's crucial to consult with qualified legal professionals or seek advice from relevant government agencies to obtain accurate and up-to-date information specific to your circumstances.

While we strive to provide reliable and accurate information, we cannot guarantee the completeness, accuracy, or timeliness of the content in this blog. Therefore, any actions taken based on the information provided in this blog are at your own risk.

By using this blog, you acknowledge that we are not responsible for any losses, damages, or legal consequences that may arise from your reliance on the information provided. Always seek professional advice when making important legal or business decisions.

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