Japan, like many countries in Asia, has customs that should be respected. It will also make you feel more comfortable if you follow these guidelines.
1) Tattoos- Although stigmas regarding tattoos are changing, depending on your environment that change is not fast enough. Many people associate tattoos with gang affiliation. If you are going somewhere historical or to a traditional onsen, you must have your tattoo(s) covered. There is also the chance that they may ask you to leave. This can feel offensive, but know that this is not an attack on you personally; it is just a characteristic of the culture.
2) Shoe Removal- If you are going to participate in a tea ceremony or going inside traditional Japanese building you will be asked to remove your shoes. If you are wearing closed toe shoes, make sure your socks are free from holes (embarrassing). If you are wearing sandals, bring a pair of socks with you. This will help keep the indoor area clean and hygienic.
3) Chopsticks- Did you know chopstick etiquette is a thing? Doing something incorrectly with your chopsticks can bring unwanted attention your way. Never use your chopsticks to point towards something. Don’t pass food from your chopsticks to someone else’s. In Japanese culture, this is associated with funerals. Finally, don’t stick your chopsticks into food where it can stand on its own. Think bowl of rice.
4) Elderly- Give preferential treatment to the elderly. This is something that honestly should be thought about everywhere, but in Japan you should make sure that you offer the elderly a seat on the subway, open doors, and keep an eye on your surrounding when walking and driving.
5) Clothes Shopping- There’s a few things to say here. First is that places outside of Tokyo and areas that have a lot of international tourism may not take cards for payment, so make sure that you have plenty of Yen when heading out on your shopping spree. Next, many stores have sizes that start very small and do not have, what you may consider, a full size run. I’m talking 0000 for pants. What?! I didn’t even know that was a thing, but yes, it is. Next, when trying clothes on, many stores will have you take off your shoes before entering. Finally, dressing rooms may have mesh covers for you to use. This goes over your face before you try on clothing that will g over your head, and when you are taking the clothes off. Although it feels super weird, it’s to prevent makeup from staining the clothes, which is actually pretty genius.
6) Food- In the U.S. many restaurants make substitutions, have special menus, for allergies or lifestyle choices, and will take requests, but that is not the case in Japan. Basically things come as stated on the menu. This can be difficult if you have an allergy, but for everyone else it’s a great way to step out of your comfort zone. I am a picky eater but after living in Japan for two years, my pallet has expanded immensely.
7) Tipping- Basically, tipping is a no-go. Cue the angels. The Japanese people take pride in providing excellent service for its own sake, and not for extra money.
8) Restaurant Reservations- Many restaurants accept reservations and will keep the table empty for hours prior to ensure that the table is ready when the party arrives. This can be very frustrating if you walk in and see an empty table but the reason they do this is so they do not have to ask anyone to leave the table to get ready for someone else.
9) Accepting Items- In Japan it is customary to hand an item to someone else with both hands and the person receiving should to the same. It is also polite to give a slight bow.
10) Speak Quietly- (or not at all) In public areas such as a subway, it is considered polite to maintain the silence. Loud laughter, talking, or noises is considered rude and you will absolutely feel all eyes on you. Make sure your phone is on silent and if you must speak, it is in a hushed tone.