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manner

Most people know Japan as a well-organized society of well-mannered, polite, and respectful people, in one of the safest countries in the world with minimum violence. This perception of Japan and its citizens is true, and as an island country with a mostly homogenous population of ethnically Japanese people, the general consensus of which behaviours are the most appropriate in a given situation is strong, and Japanese people are notorious for following these unwritten guidelines strictly.

Of course as a non-Japanese person, there are going to be times when you perhaps slip-up or unknowingly act outside of the norm. That being said, Japanese people are aware that their society has many rules and that they in general seem to enjoy organising most aspects of life in a particular and detailed way. As such, Japanese people don’t expect those from other countries to even be aware of, let alone properly follow, all of the rules in their extensive system of social manners.

Taking this crash course in Japanese Manners, however, will go a long way in helping you feel more comfortable during your time in Japan, and as we will see, will also serve as a glimpse into the hearts and minds of Japanese people, allowing you to understand and appreciate their unique cultural and societal differences.



Japanese Manners

Punctuality

Whether you are meeting friends, going to a gathering, or meeting someone professionally, in general, Japanese people respect time (their own and yours) and punctuality is deeply connected to the perception of one’s motivation and consideration of others.

Although friends will be forgiving, if you are going to be late, it is expected to give as much notice as possible, and to apologize upon arrival for your lateness.

Depending on the situation, the level of strictness may vary. With 1 being the most strict, we could rank the situations accordingly:
  • 1

    Meeting with a 3rd-party company or business associate.Meeting a 3rd-party company is the most sensitive as you are getting together to discuss how to work together in some way and the perceptions of each other’s intentions are crucial to being able to do business together.

  • 2

    Arrival at work every day. And other internal business activities.

  • 3

    Arrival at gatherings with friends or meeting a group of friends.

  • 4

    Meeting a single friend.

In the case of everyday work, there is an expression “if you are on time, then you are late.” It is considered normal to arrive at least a few minutes before work, or 15 minutes before a meeting, as a way to show your sense of responsibility and motivation, and so that you are ready to commence the activities at the decided start time.

Self-management & Deportment

Related to the fact that Japan is a remarkably clean country with very little litter and the level of consideration of others, there is an expectation to manage your belongings and keep them neat, especially in public places. In fact, even if you go to another person’s house, the manner in which you handle your own belongings, for example setting it down, is typically noticed and tells about how much you respect your own things. This goes double when handling other people’s belongings or gifts that people give you (including business cards). In general, you should aim at being aware of your belongings and ensuring that they don’t cause inconveniences for others.

In Japan, people are also sensitive to personal hygiene. The image you convey is not just the image of yourself, but also a gauge of your consideration of others. Having good personal hygiene is important so that everyone is comfortable and feels respected in public in general, in your workplace, and with your friends. In terms of deportment and clothing, Japanese people can be said to give particular consideration to the TPO (time, place, occasion) of every sort of meeting, such that the way you dress is a way of showing your respect to the relationship or the company.

Bowing

It is important to know that bowing is still the common form of physical greeting in Japan and that hand-shaking is rare and usually only in consideration of a person being western. As such, you will want to keep in mind how to bow in each situation you come across.

In general, the lower the bow, the more respect and formality. Bows can be rank ordered as follows:
  • A slight tilt of the head would be used when saying goodbye to friends.
  • A light bow to the base of the neck would be used by someone older or in a higher position than the one with whom they are bowing.
  • A common bow would reach to middle of the back and would be used in situations of customer service or when the person is showing respect from a lower position to the other. This bow can also be used to show respect even if the person is equal in age and hierarchy of relationship.
  • A low standing bow, reaching the bottom of your back, would be used in formal circumstances ranging from high-end customer service, official proceedings or when you are showing deep respect (temple), regrets (like a funeral), or sincere apology for something you did.
  • A sitting formal bow with hands braced on the floor in front is very traditional, and would only typically occur in modern day situations where there is formal customer service in a traditional setting, like at a ryokan.

Politeness

As is perhaps well known about Japan, people are incredibly polite everywhere you go. In both customer-staff situations as well as when you meet someone for the first time, you will notice you are almost always met with a warm smile, and/or acknowledged in some way.

As it may be telling of general standards of politeness, the 3 points of Japanese Customer Service are:
  • Acknowledgement – eye contact, smile, and often verbal greetings),
  • Accuracy – listening; providing the best answer for the question asked; taking orders; giving change; ensuring the customer’s understanding through the process.
  • Appreciation – thanking every customer for their time, inquiry, and purchase.
Indeed, fostering good impressions and relationships are given much attention and consideration in Japan, extending beyond business. Therefore, for you to also be able to foster good relationships with Japanese people, it will be key to be attentive to the ways that they treat you and to do your best to reciprocate as much as you can.

Humility

Japanese people are famously proud to be humble. You will rarely hear a Japanese person casually accept an incoming compliment. When talking about their ideas or opinions, in many situations, Japanese people express them with a seeming degree of doubt or softness, like adding tabun (maybe) to the beginning, chotto or sukoshi (a little, “just”) within their idea, and to omoimasu (I think), kamo shirenai (I guess but I can’t know for sure), and kana (perhaps) to the end of sentences, all for the sake of making their statement less harshly confident to the listener, who may disagree or know or feel differently. In addition to humility being a way to show consideration of others, it is also in-and-of-itself considered a form of maturity and insight, that you know your own limitations and capabilities.

Apologizing

In Japan, an apology is more than just being polite, but runs deep into the way that Japanese people think and see the world, as well as communicate with one another. In fact, in Japan, there are a number of ways to say sorry, depending on the situation and nuance desired:
  • Sumimasen – Excuse me, sorry about that.
  • Gomen nasai – I’m (so) sorry.
  • Moushiwake gozaimasen – I’m sorry about any inconvenience or trouble (More literally: “There are no words to express”
  • Shitsurei shimashita – That was rude of me.
  • Shitsurei shimasu – Excuse me, sorry. Literally: “I’m going to do something rude.”
Among all of these, perhaps the most easy to understand is gomennasai, which is used in cases where you did something regrettable and wish to express that regret, like being late or forgetting an appointment, and sumimasen, which is used to say excuse me or expressing a regret for minor and quick inconveniences.

That being said, however, apologizing is done not just more frequently than in the West, but in a variety of situations that would seem counter-intuitive or strange to a Westerner.

Here are some examples:
  • 1

    A friend notices you need a hand and offers to hold your bag.
    You would say sumimasen because you recognize that you caused them to worry about you and feel the need to help, which might put them at an inconvenience, even though they offered!

  • 2

    A customer asks a server for an extra plate at a restaurant.
    You would say sumimasen because you are asking for something based on your individual or group’s needs, and by doing so the staff need to do something a little extra for you.

  • 3

    You ask the staff at a department store where the toilets are.
    The staff then explains where they are.
    You might say arigatou gozaimasu (thank you) followed by sumimasen. The staff may likely also say sumimasen.
    You would also say sorry because you couldn’t find the toilets yourself where perhaps others could, and needed to ask for special assistance.
    The staff would apologize: because perhaps it is objectively difficult to understand where to find the toilets, because you had to go so far as to ask their assistance in finding them, which may have caused you stress and inconvenience, and because their explanation of the toilets’ whereabouts may not have been perfectly understandable or may have caused you stress as you needed to listen carefully and follow their instructions.

  • 4

    A staff member asks you to fill out or sign a form.
    They may say sumimasen because they asked you to do something that you may not have been expecting and may have caused you some inconvenience.

In many of these situations, a Western person would likely say “thank you”, instead of “sorry”. This highlights a major difference in the way that Japanese people perceive and feel about human interactions.

Group over Individual

Many people will be aware that compared to the west, which is “individualist”, many Asian countries like Japan are “collectivist”, meaning that Japanese people place more value on the needs of the group than the individual and that even one’s personal identity is tied to their group memberships. This mentality helps us to understand some of the other phenomena that we witness in passing moments while living in Japan.

Some examples include:
  • Rush hour crowded trains where everyone is squeezing together to fit as many people on as possible.
  • Souvenir culture where people buy gifts (and are often expected to do so) for their friends, loved ones, family, and even company.
  • Companies organizing events to go out together for drinks for certain occasions, like to welcome a new member of the team, to send off a current member leaving the company or being transferred, to see the Cherry Blossoms together, etc.
  • Being on time.
  • Taking careful consideration of dress & deportment, hygiene, manners, and etiquette.
  • Not eating while walking, not talking on the phone while on the train, not showing public displays of affection, obeying traffic signals, and not littering.
All of these highlight the ways in which there is an awareness, consideration, and prioritization of relationships and groups, extending all the way to what is best for society as a whole so that everyone can be comfortable and things can run smoothly. Indeed, a theme that transcends nearly every facet of Japanese society is the deep-rooted motivation for everything to run as smoothly and comfortably as possible for everyone.

Honne & Tatemae

For those who have not heard these two words before, honne (本音) and tatemae (建前), which translate to “real intention, real opinion, true motivation” and “façade”, respectively. In light of Japanese people’s emphasis on relationships and the needs of the group, as well as the motivation of avoiding confrontation, discomfort or inconvenience to others, it is seen as necessary to mask one’s true desires and motivations, modify one’s chosen words, adopt different habits, inhibit inclinations, and behave in ways that are antithetical to your feelings at that time, in order to make this possible.

As a result, it can be frustrating, confusing, or alienating at times for a westerner who may feel uncomfortable or offended at times when their personal freedoms are undermined, when they cannot understand their friends’, coworkers’, peers’, or everyday persons’ true thinking, and when they aren’t aware of the social script or rules to follow in a given moment or situation, and in general when they feel that they are not understood and even considered.

That being said, saying how you feel or expressing yourself emotionally, giving your opinion readily, and not controlling your facial and bodily expressions is a sign of social immaturity in Japan, and children learn very early on that good manners in Japan means being able to control your level and method of self-expression.

Awareness of others

A default setting, if you will, when going about your daily affairs in Japan is to consider yourself as part of a system which is accommodating and adjusting for you while you are taking its lead and becoming a part of it. With the motivation of not causing unnecessary disruption, discomfort, or inconvenience to others, Japanese people generally:
  • try to minimize causing loud noises or creating strong smells, for example by eating food in confined spaces.
  • manage their belongings so as to not interfere or get in the way of others
  • obey and respect the rules strictly, especially when written, posted, or official, but also unspoken cultural or societal ones.
In terms of relationships with others, including friends, the awareness of the other and the group guides behaviour such that each individual balances their behaviour in light of the general consensus or flow of everyone. In this way, Japanese people are more likely to ask for other’s opinions before stating their own, and will sometimes say things in a roundabout way in order to understand what others are thinking and feeling.

Of course there are times when someone will blurt out their opinion or announce their desire to, for example, eat yakiniku, which may cause everyone else to feel inclined to oblige, but it is interesting and perhaps relieving to know that not only are rules bent or broken from time to time, to express yourself directly can be endearing, and deliberately done as a way to express closeness and the desire to be more honne or real with one another. Although you will need to intuit for yourself if it would be appropriate or misunderstood in a given situation or relationship, Japanese people will likely going to be understanding regardless, as they don’t expect a non-Japanese person to be able to understand and navigate Japanese culture flawlessly, and may even feel relaxed or a sense of relief as they also feel it can be difficult for and taxing on Japanese people as well.

The Guide to Living in Japan Series

Whether you are thinking about moving to Japan, are already living in Japan, or are just curious about what is life like in Japan for Non-Japanese people, the Guide to Living in Japan aims to be as thorough as possible about what to expect and what to prepare for when living in Japanese society from a mostly western perspective.

Should you have any questions or comments while reading through, please contact us. We aim to continually update and improve this resource for everyone.

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Japan Study Abroad Network - Support & guidance for studying in Japan > Guide to Living in Japan: Japanese Manners