How to avoid etiquette mistakes in japan

How to avoid etiquette mistakes in japan

by Teva Serna

Doing Business in Japan? Costly Mistakes to Avoid

Planning a business meeting in Japan or dealing with Japanese partners? The Japanese business etiquette has been the subject of many books and studies, but in many ways, there are many similarities between the Japanese and British business cultures. The main difference lies in the degree of formality, which is higher in Japan. We have put some tips together to help you improve your chances of success in the Japanese market. Here are the top 5 mistakes you should avoid at all costs:

1. Adopting a Hard Sales Approach

High pressure and aggressive sales tactics are ineffective in Japan. By staying objective and adopting a conservative and sober approach, you will be taken more seriously than if you are brash. Just like in the UK, confrontation should be avoided. Instead, try to express disagreements in an indirect and subtle manner. The Japanese rely mainly on non-verbal cues and will pick up on your reservations even if you express them indirectly.

2. Congratulating an Individual

Japan, like most other Asian countries, is known for placing the group above the individual. As a result, you should always avoid praising a single individual. Both the individual and the rest of the group will feel uncomfortable, and it could cause tensions within the group.

3. Forgetting the Hierarchy

Unlike in most Western countries, in Japan executive seniority is dependent on age. The hierarchical system is strong and older executives should be treated with slightly more deference than younger ones. You should always introduce yourself to the oldest person in the room first.

4. Not Reading a Business Card

Business cards are a key part of someone’s identity and the ritual around them is very important in Japan. When accepting a business card, take it with both hands, briefly read it and carefully place it in your cardholder, not in your pocket. You should always have business cards ready. Have your cards printed in both English and Japanese, and present the Japanese side when giving your card. Never slide or throw a business card across the table, and avoid writing on it.

5. Expecting a Decision to be Made During Meetings

Perhaps the most important point to remember, meetings in Japan are held to collect information, not to make decisions. Your Japanese partners will meet you to listen to what to have to say, not to finalise the outcomes. Trying to reach a final decision during a meeting could harm your relationship with your Japanese partners. Decisions will however usually be made swiftly after the meeting due to the growing competition across Asia. Additionally, verbal agreements are traditionally favoured over written contracts. As a result, your Japanese counterparts should not be pressured into signing documents.

How to be Ready: Cross-Cultural Training

Having Japanese language skills will help you develop business partnerships in Japan. But being culturally aware will optimise your chances of closing a deal and establishing strong business relationship. Cross-cultural training will help you develop key cultural awareness skills for doing business in Japan. At Cactus Language Training, we offer several options that you can combine together to be fully trained and ready:

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To receive more information about how Cactus Language Training can increase your profits, or to get a quote, simply call us or contact us with any questions you may have. Cactus also offers a free no obligation language consultation for corporations and individuals.

Cactus language offers the following types of language courses:

Evening language courses: 19 different languages in 15 UK locations
Language holidays: worldwide immersion courses in the country of the language
Private tuition: tailor-made and corporate language training solutions throughout the world
TEFL: teacher training courses for both English and other languages all over the world
Online courses: for teacher training, English and French

It’s on. After all the build-up, all the waiting, the Rugby World Cup has kicked off in Japan. And that event is just the entrée to the sporting smorgasbord ahead – next year the Olympics comes to Tokyo, which means more focus on Japan, more visitors, more hype.

Plenty of those visiting sports fans will be enjoying their first outing in this magnificent and yet baffling country, which means a crash course in Japanese etiquette might not be a bad idea. The Japanese are a polite, welcoming and accommodating people – however, a little cultural understanding will go a long way.

See Also

Here’s how to avoid offending the locals when you’re in Japan.

Always carry business cards

How to avoid etiquette mistakes in japan

Photo: iStock

It doesn’t matter if you’re in the country for work or pleasure: the exchange of business cards – called “meishi” – is an important transaction in Japan, a way of demonstrating your interest in another person and respecting their position and career. Always carry yours, and receive other people’s with two hands, reading it carefully before storing it in a case.

Don’t eat on the run

No one eats on the go in Japan. You don’t grab a takeaway burger and scarf it on the train. You don’t pick up a Starbucks coffee and drink it while you stroll. If you want to fit in, consume your food and drink in the place you bought it. If you’re eating street food, stand still or find somewhere to sit.

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Don’t blow your nose in public

It’s considered pretty bad form to blow your nose in public in Japan. Go to a bathroom – they’re all spotlessly clean. If you’re going to be coughing all day, wear a surgical mask to avoid being seen to be spreading germs.

Dress well

Japanese people, especially in the larger cities, dress extremely well. They dress formally for work, and stylishly for play. If you want to fit in and show respect, put some thought into your outfits and avoid too much specialist travel gear (unless you’re out hiking, in which case “leisure chic” is strongly encouraged).

Don’t tip

One of the true glories of travel in Japan is that you never have to worry about tipping the right amount. You just don’t tip. At all. Don’t even leave your change on the table – someone will run after you to give it back.

Take off your shoes; use the slippers

How to avoid etiquette mistakes in japan

The Japanese have special slippers for the bathroom. Photo: iStock

Any time you’re entering someone’s home, remove your shoes. Keep an eye out, too, for restaurants in which people take off their shoes (you’ll see them neatly lined up in racks by the door), and certain temples. In some homes and guesthouses you’ll find that slippers are provided to use indoors, and separate slippers will be offered to visit the bathroom. Use them.

Bow (or just shake hands)

If feels a little awkward at first, but if you want to greet people in the way they’re accustomed, then you need to bow. Don’t worry too much about the exact etiquette – locals will cut you plenty of slack. Just tilt forward at the waist, with arms by your sides, and you’re all set. If that still feels too weird, simply shaking hands will do the job.

Cover your tattoos

If it’s good enough for the All Blacks, it’s good enough for you. Members of the New Zealand rugby squad have been covering up their distinctive tattoos while in camp for the World Cup, given tattoos are still associated with the yakuza organised-crime group, and tend to make locals, particularly in smaller towns, feel uncomfortable. If you’re all tatted up, try to wear trousers and long sleeves.

Don’t rub your chopsticks together

Any time you’re presented with wooden chopsticks at a restaurant, it’s considered rude to snap them apart and then rub them together – the suggestion being that the chopsticks are of poor quality. Just lay them on their rest. Don’t wave them around or point with them either. Chopsticks are just for eating.

Always queue

This is no place to be pushing in, no place to take an elbows-out, every-man-for-themselves approach. The Japanese are fastidious queuers who will wait patiently in line to board a train, or to buy a coffee, or to do pretty much anything, really. Take your place and shuffle forward.

Obey any signage

Take a look around – there are always signs in Japan. Signs telling you what to do; signs telling you what not to do. If you’re in any doubt about where you’re going or how you should be behaving, have a quick scan for a sign and heed its advice.

Save your rubbish

You’ll notice that there are almost no public rubbish bins in Japan. Vending machines will usually have a small receptacle for recyclable cans, but that’s it. The idea is that you’ll carry your rubbish with you and dispose of it all properly at your home or hotel.

Pour other people’s drinks

Should you find yourself out drinking with new Japanese friends, bear in mind it’s bad form to pour your own drink from a communal vessel. Always pour others’ and wait for someone to top you up. Also, don’t eat straight from communal dishes. Place food on your own plate before eating it.

Wear your yukata; wear it properly

Plenty of guesthouses and traditional ryokans in Japan will supply a “yukata”, a light, casual robe that’s designed to be worn during your stay. Wear it to pad the halls as you grab a beer from the vending machine; wear it to the breakfast room when it’s time to hit the buffet. Unless you’re staying in a very upmarket hotel chain, this will be fine. Just ensure you wear the yukata properly, wrapping the left side over the right, and tying it tightly with the sash.

Learn the onsen rules

How to avoid etiquette mistakes in japan

Photo: iStock

I could write an entire post on the complex set of rules and etiquette expected at an onsen, or Japanese hot spring. For now, all you need to know is that these rules exist, and you should research them before visiting.

Don’t chase geishas

How to avoid etiquette mistakes in japan

Photo: iStock

The geishas in Kyoto – who are actually called “geikos” and “maikos” – have been mobbed recently by tourists trying to get a photo as they make their way to work. Don’t add to this problem, as it’s extremely bad form, and risks this ancient tradition’s long-term viability.

Observe before you act – and relax

If in doubt in Japan – and you will be in doubt – one of the first things to do is just look around and see what everyone else is doing. Copy them. It’s also worth remembering that Japanese people don’t expect you to know everything, and they’re usually very accommodating with foreigners. Make an effort, and you’ll be welcomed.

What are your tips for fitting in in Japan? Is it important to know local etiquette here? Have you made any big mistakes?

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Don’t fall into the same old traps

There is a large range of well-known mistakes foreign companies have been making over and over again in Japan for many years. Surprisingly foreign companies continue to repeat these well-known mistakes over and over again!
Don’t make such well-known mistakes! (We can help you avoid them….)

Much of it is common sense. However, you also need to study a lot of facts about Japan, and customs. You will find that some assumptions you made are wrong!

You’ll also find that not everybody (Japanese and foreigners) tells you everything they know 😉

Most “well-known mistakes” lie within the organization of your own company!

  • Sometimes problems in a Japanese subsidiary are best solved by changing responsibilities in the main office at home! We would be delighted to discuss such issues with you and work on a solution using our large range of experience.

A big “No-No”: lack of market research and lack of preparations

  • The biggest “no-no” is not to do proper preparation, or to start without a strategy. You can assume that normally your Japanese partners will do their preparations and they will have a big advantage, if you are unprepared. If you do not prepare well you certainly weaken your position. Lack of preparation cannot be compensated by macho behaviour or self-confidence or even arrogance.
  • You will be surprised how many time consuming and expensive failures of Western companies are largely due to lack of preparation, lack of market information, and lack of planning. A very well-known Western company lost US$ 10 Billion or more in Japan and severaly damaged the brand because of lack of market knowledge. Market research in Japan often looks expensive, however expensive, good market research is almost certainly far cheaper than failure and withdrawal from Japan

Japan business: how to succeed? Detailed answers:

  1. Why can business in Japan be difficult?
  2. Changes and new opportunities
  3. Avoid well known mistakes
  4. What can we do about the difficulties of Japan business?
  5. Relationships
  6. Japanese business etiquette
  7. Japanese business meetings

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How to avoid etiquette mistakes in japan

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Are you a Japan-based entrepreneur, or planning to set up shop in The Land of the Rising Sun? Then pull up a chair and lend an ear. The Japanese market is a tough market to break into. But with sufficient preparation, you can succeed where others have failed. How might you fail? Well, you could do that by:

Table of Contents


You’re spending both time and money opening up a new business in a new market. If you want to reach your goals, you need to think things through, and create an efficient game plan. Track ROI metrics. Set a timeline. Make sure you’re on track as you progress.

And don’t assume the tactics of one nation will translate to another. There are plenty of companies that thought their strategies that worked in one market would work in Japan, only to see their efforts fall flat. Adjust to the environment, and learn what does and does not work in Japan.


Business is essentially relationships- between individuals, between groups, between companies. This goes double in Japan where you are defined by your placement in the social strata. The exchange of business cards informs that placement right from the get-go. It is imperative to build strong relationships, so waste no time getting familiar with your team of experts.

You can’t succeed without a strong level of familiarity with the locals. Affiliate marketers can be invaluable in this area.


Translation is tricky. Nuance, intention and inference can be lost or accidentally inserted if you aren’t careful. In Japanese, this becomes frighteningly pertinent. An innocuous phrase in English can come across as excessively aggressive in Japanese. Or, a seemingly clever slogan can completely fall flat.

When creating your brand message for Japan, be clear and insistent about what it is you’re trying to convey about your company or brand. A lazy or thoughtless translation can be incredibly damaging.


Japanese society is a largely conservative and tradition-preserving one. But those unchanging ways don’t relate to consumer trends. With the growth and expansion in e-commerce, Japanese purchasing trends shift quickly. You need to adjust at their speed, or get left behind.

Japan changes as much as it stays the same, and you hinder yourself if you aren’t ready for the changes.


25% of Japan’s population is over the age of 65. Life expectancy increases, while marriage and birthrates decline. That percentage is expected to jump, quickly. As such, many products and services are directly aimed at this demographic, with great success.

No matter what you offer to Japan, make sure to keep the older citizens in mind by developing content or iterations that appeal to them. You’ll be doing yourself a favor.


Young people love mobile devices. It’s always a good idea to invest in online advertising, and maintain a presence on the popular social media platforms. But, if you’re looking at marketing in Japan, you can’t ignore the aged (see above).

The older Japanese citizens are avid readers of newspapers. So much so that, despite being the tenth largest population in the world, three of the top five newspapers in global circulation come from Japan. The Yomiuri Shimbun has nearly 20 times the daily circulation of the New York Times. Food for thought.

When it comes to English, the Japanese people struggle! You wouldn’t believe the panic and dismay when they want to purchase a product, but give up at the sight of the English language.

Gloture is a new class of promotion agency located in the heart of Tokyo. We specialize in helping overseas startups to launch products in the Japanese market.

As the top choice in our field, we will handle each step from start to finish.

Get in touch today and let Gloture help your brand standout with huge success in Japan!

How to avoid etiquette mistakes in japan

When traveling to a new country for the first time, “culture shock” is expected. You may be especially intimidated if you have heard that there are a lot of “do’s and don’ts” for Japan. Consider these tips for traveling to Japan, and you will be sure to fit right in this warm and inviting country.

Table of Contents

Meeting and greeting tips


When in Japan, it is polite to bow to the other person when you meet them, when you are saying thank you, or when saying goodbye. If someone bows to you, lean forward and incline your head in return. There are many complexities to the bowing ritual – such as how far, how long, and how many times to bow – but as a tourist, you won’t be expected to know these details. Simply making the effort will endear you to others.

Gifts and business cards

In formal settings, such as on a business trip, it is customary to exchange business cards or name cards when you meet someone. In addition to cards, you may want to bring some small souvenir gifts from your home country. Giving a gift is a sign of appreciation, especially if you are staying in someone’s home. Choose something small and unique to your homeland, such as a candy or key chain. Always use two hands rather than one when giving or receiving gifts or cards.

Clothing tips

Remove your footwear

When entering private homes, temples, traditional style accommodations, and even many restaurants and tourist sites, you will be expected to remove your shoes. You will usually see shelving to place your shoes on. You may by given slippers to use while indoors.

If the restaurant or accommodations include areas of tatami, or woven straw matting covering the floor, you will need to remove the slippers before walking on the tatami. You may leave the slippers at the room’s entrance.

How to avoid etiquette mistakes in japanTatami floored room can be found in ryokans, Japanese traditional hotels

Also, separate slippers may be provided for use in the restroom. Leave your original slippers outside the bathroom door, and change back into them when you exit the bathroom.

Tip: while traveling in Japan, wear shoes that you can remove and put on quickly and easily. Don’t forget to wear clean socks!

Eating and drinking tips

Table manners

Good manners involve words of appreciation before, during, and after the meal. Before you chow down, remember to say i-ta-da-ki-mas, the equivalent for “bon appetit” meaning, “I will receive.” During the meal, say oi-shii to indicate that you are enjoying yourself.

Afterwards, say go-chi-so-sa-ma de-shi-ta to express appreciation for the meal. Don’t be surprised to hear others slurping their soup or noodles – that is acceptable. It’s fun, too, so give it a try while in a land that welcomes noisy eating!

Using chopsticks

If you’ve already gotten the hang of eating with chopsticks, that’s good. Remember, though, that your mother told you not to play with your food – similarly, in Japan there are certain actions that are considered ‘playing’ with your chopsticks. Avoid using them to scratch an itch, signal to a waiter in a restaurant, point at someone, spear a piece of food, or drum on the table.

Also, don’t cross the chopsticks, leave them standing up in your bowl, and don’t use your chopsticks to ‘hand’ a piece of food to someone else’s waiting chopsticks. The latter are related to funeral rituals and are therefore not appropriate for mealtimes. If taking food from a communal serving dish, use the ‘wrong’ end of the chopsticks, opposite the end you put in your mouth.

How to avoid etiquette mistakes in japanDon’t cross your chopsticks when resting them on the table.

Tipping in Japan

Tipping is not customary in Japan. If you leave a cash tip on the table, the waiter may not understand it and chase you down to return it. Money is also seldom passed from hand to hand. When paying for an item, you will place the cash in the tray provided. Your change will likewise be placed in this tray.

Temples and Shrines

Tours are offered at many Buddhist and Shinto shrines, and you may see these as mere tourist attractions – but remember, these are religious sites still used for worship. Be respectful when visiting a temple or shrine – don’t enter off-limits areas, speak softly, and dress respectfully (i.e., don’t wear your swim suit).

Religious rituals

Most shrines require ceremonial washing before entering. Use a ladle to pour water over your hands. Catch some of the water in your hand and rinse your mouthspit the water onto the ground, never back into the water basin.

How to avoid etiquette mistakes in japanMeiji shrine entrance, in Tokyo

Trains and public transportation tips

Mobile devices

Talking on your cell phone in the confined spaces of a train or bus is considered rude. If you must use your phone to text message, turn the ringer to silent mode. Also, speak quietly to your travel companions.

Queues and lines

In busy train stations, bus stations, and airports, you will be expected to form an orderly line. Don’t push ahead, and pay attention to directional lines painted on the floors.

In case of illness

Do not blow your nose while in a public place, and try to avoid sniffling or sneezing. If you are sick, purchase and wear a surgical mask to avoid spreading germs to others.

The language barrier

While you may very well meet people who speak the English language, don’t assume that everyone will. Instead, learn some helpful phrases in Japanese, such as sumimasen, meaning “excuse me” or “sorry,” and arigato, which means, “thank you.”

Even if you make a mistake or forget what is expected in a certain situation, always be kind and patient with yourself and others around you. The locals will likely be pleased with your efforts at mastering Japan etiquette, even when imperfect.

When traveling or moving to a completely new country, it is expected that you might commit a social faux pas or two. But with some experience and being reminded that “this simply isn’t done here” by the locals, you eventually learn what the acceptable behavior is.

How to avoid etiquette mistakes in japan

In Japan, as with anywhere else, there are social rules of conduct that would benefit you to follow. The only thing is, the Japanese tend to be a little shy when confronting people about their behavior. In other words, you may never know that you are offending people, as it is possible that no one will tell you. So, here are the top five etiquette mistakes to avoid when in Japan.

1. Eating or drinking on trains

Generally speaking, people don’t eat while walking on the street or in crowded commuter trains. It’s not necessarily rude, but it does look a little shabby and might annoy other people. However, on the shinkansen (bullet trains) and on planes where food is served, it’s fine to consume your own food and drinks.

2. Speaking in a loud voice on trains

Another thing that annoys people is speaking in a loud voice on trains and other public transportation. Using your phone on a train is a definite no-no. It’s common for people to get off at the next stop to take a call rather than face the collective ire of their fellow commuters. Japanese people tend to be less vocal and expressive when in public compared with some of their western counterparts, so please keep it down. Yes, I’m talking to you, you loud foreigner.

3. Public displays of affection

Although this is changing with the younger generation, the Japanese tend to be a little conservative when it comes to physical contact or displaying affection in public. Friends don’t usually kiss or hug when meeting, and shaking hands is not so common. Things tend to loosen up after drinking and singing karaoke with your friends and colleagues. However, at first, being low key is the thing when meeting new people.

4. Incorrect chopstick etiquette

Here are some chopstick etiquette dos and don’ts.

  • Do place your chopstick on the chopstick rest when you are not eating.
  • Do use your chopsticks as much as possible and avoid using your fingers.
  • Don’t fiddle or play with your chopsticks.
  • Don’t pass food from chopstick to chopstick (this gesture is reminiscent of a traditional Buddhist funeral, when the bones of the deceased are passed between ceremonial chopsticks of the family members).
  • Don’t stick your chopsticks vertically in your rice (again, this reminds people of burning incense for the deceased).

5. Not separating your trash properly

If there is one thing that raises the blood pressure of your poor suffering neighbors the most, it is (gasp!) not separating your trash correctly. In Japan, there are very specific and strict rules about this. Failure to comply might result in passive aggressive notes left on your front door, or your trash being returned to your doorstep. Plastics, burnable and non-burnable trash have to be properly sorted, inserted into the right garbage cans, and thrown out on the right day. Your apartment building will usually distribute information on how to sort and throw out your trash. It is advisable to read and remember this to avoid problems with your neighbors.

This is, of course, not an exhaustive etiquette list for Japan. There are plenty of other etiquette points, such as being punctual, never making excuses, and not pouring your own beer at a party. However, as with anywhere you travel, a little awareness, common sense and decency toward your fellow human beings are key.

If you do happen to put your foot in your mouth, then check out our next article, which will teach you how to apologize in Japanese (perhaps the single most important social skill in Japan). Good luck!

For more useful Japanese learning materials, including PDF cheat sheets and podcasts, please visit Learn Japanese Pod.

This is the final blog in our series of Secrets of Japanese Business Etiquette (How not to Faux Pas). It provides tips on how to avoid insulting a Japanese business man.

There has been much written about Japanese business etiquette, but sadly much of it seems written by people who have not been to Japan for many years. Also, most guides do not take into consideration that Japan is a clash of traditions and modernity. This is why we have come up with our Business etiquette series which covers:

How to avoid insulting a Japanese

How to avoid etiquette mistakes in japan

There are few things about Japanese culture you should be aware of even if you’re outside the business situation:

  • Taking off your shoes at the entrance of homes (they give you a different pair of slippers to wear). We experienced this custom when entering offices being part of the fabric/workshop too. Don’t worry, the Japanese host will have slippers for you to use.
  • Do not tip anyone ever! This is considered as an insult in Japan.
  • Do not eat while you are walking around.
  • Use both your hands if you are giving/receiving a gift.
  • If you are using chopsticks to eat, do not use leave them upright in your bowl, play with them or pass food to another person using them.
  • Be punctual and do not raise your voice as it will be considered uncouth.

There you go. After following those tips you should leave a very good impression on your Japanese counter-parties. Good luck!

1. Missing the last train

How to avoid etiquette mistakes in japan

2. Luggage crush

How to avoid etiquette mistakes in japan

3. Talking on the phone

How to avoid etiquette mistakes in japan

4. Getting Mad

How to avoid etiquette mistakes in japan

5. Lining up for the women only car

How to avoid etiquette mistakes in japan

How to avoid etiquette mistakes in japan


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