We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.

In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:

A primer on how to avoid mistakes in Japan

Most if not all Japanese are very understanding of a foreigner (gaijin or gaikokujin) who does not conform instantly to their culture; indeed, the Japanese like to boast (with debatable credibility) that their language and culture are among the most difficult to understand in the world, so they are generally quite happy to assist you if you appear to be struggling. However, Japanese will appeciate it if you follow at least the following rules, many of which boil down to social norms of strict cleanliness and avoiding intruding on others (?? meiwaku). Things to do Learn a little of the language, and try to use it.

They will be complimentary if you try, and there is no reason to be embarrassed. They realize that Japanese is very difficult for foreigners and are tolerant about your mistakes; on the contrary, they will like you more for trying. Bowing: men bow with their hands to their sides. Women bow with their hands together in front. Women’s hands look like they are settled in their lap when bowing (not in a prayer position such as the Waii in Thailand). The exact degree of the bow depends on your position in society relative to the receiver of the bow and on the occasion: the largely unwritten rules are complex, but for foreigners, a “token bow” is fine. Many Japanese will, in fact, gladly offer a handshake instead. When you are handing something to someone, especially a business card, it is considered polite to present it holding it with both hands.

Japanese Culture photo

Photo by Danny Choo

When you are drinking sake or beer in a group, it is considered polite not to fill your own glass but to allow someone else to do it. Typically, glasses are refilled well before they are empty. To be especially polite, hold up your own glass with both hands while one of your companions fills it. Gift-giving is very common in Japan. You, as a guest, may find yourself inundated with gifts and dinners. Foreign guests are, of course, outside of this sometimes burdensome system of give-and-take (kashi-kari), but it would be a nice gesture to offer a gift or souvenir (omiyage), including one unique to or representative of your country.

A gift that is “consumable” is advisable due to the smaller size of Japanese homes. Items such as soap, candies, alcohol, stationery will be well-received as the recipient will not be expected to have it on hand on subsequent visits. “Re-gifting” is a common and accepted practice, even for items such as fruit. Expressing gratitude is slightly different from obligatory gift-giving. Even if you brought a gift for your Japanese host, once you return, it is a sign of good etiquette to send a handwritten thank-you card: it will be much appreciated. Japanese guests always exchange photos that they have taken with their hosts so you should expect to receive some snapshots and should prepare to send yours (of you and your hosts together) back to them. Depending on their age and the nature of your relationship (business or personal), an online exchange may suffice.

The elderly are given special respect in Japanese society, and they are used to the privileges that come with it. Visitors waiting to board a train may be surprised to get shoved aside by a fearless obaa-san who has her eye on a seat. Note that certain seats (“silver seats”) on many trains are set aside for the disabled and the elderly. If visiting a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple, follow the appropriate cleansing procedure at the ch?zuya (???) before you enter. After filling the dippers with water, rinse your left hand, then your right hand. Thereafter, cup your left hand and fill it with water, using it to rinse your mouth. Do not touch the dipper directly with your mouth. Finally, rinse your left hand again with the water remaining in the dipper. There are not many trash cans in public; you may have to carry around your trash for a while before finding one. When you do, you’ll often see 4 to 6 of them together; Japan is very conscious of recycling.

Most disposable containers are labelled with a recycling symbol in Japanese indicating what type of material it is. Some types of recycling bins you’ll often see are: Paper (? kami) PET/Plastic (??? petto or ?? pura) Bottles and cans (????? bin, kan) Burnable trash (????? moeru gomi) Non-burnable trash (?????? moenai gomi) Things to avoid Japanese people understand that visitors may not be aware of the intricacies of Japanese etiquette and tend to be tolerant of blunders in this regard by foreigners. There are a few serious etiquette breaches, however, that will meet with universal disapproval, even with foreigners, and they should be avoided at all costs: Never walk on a tatami mat wearing shoes or even slippers. Japanese dwellings and Japanese style hotel rooms will have a genkan, a transitional area. Take your shoes off while standing in the genkan, stepping back onto the boarded area of the floor.

Never leave your chopsticks standing upright in a bowl of rice as that is how rice is offered to the dead. Never enter a bathtub without washing up first. (See Bathe for details.) Avoid physical contact in public. You will not see Japanese people kissing or hugging. Other things Shoes (and feet in general) are considered very dirty by the Japanese. Avoid pointing your soles at anybody (such as when sitting on the train) and try to restrain children from standing up on seats. Brushing your feet against somebody’s clothing, even by accident, is very rude. The Japanese consider back slaps rude, especially if they’re coming from someone they just met. As it is not common practice in Japan, hugging should also be avoided. For Japanese it is typically very awkward and uncomfortable.

Point at people with an open hand, not a finger (but pointing this way at things is fine), and tell people to come by waving your hand facing down, not up. Avoid shouting or talking loudly in public. Talking on a mobile phone on a train is considered rude, and many trains have signs advising you not to use them. (Sending text messages, however, is considered de rigueur.) Blowing your nose in public is considered rude, much like flatulence. It is fine to walk around sniffling until you can find a private place to blow your nose. World War II is a touchy and complicated topic. Be considerate. Like in India, China and Taiwan, swastikas are Buddhist symbols representing good luck and do not represent Nazism or anti-Semitism. As such, Western visitors should not feel offended seeing a swastika in Buddhist temples or in their host’s home. Gay and lesbian travelers Japan is considered to be very safe for gay and lesbian travelers, and violence against homosexuals is quite rare. There are no laws against homosexuality in Japan, but same-sex relationships are not recognized by the government, and open displays of your orientation are still likely to draw stares and whispers.

With this, you had the primer on key facts about Japan, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on Japan food and drinks:

Local food you should try in Japan and No miss drinks in Japan.

Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Japan? Please comment below.