Japan has an intriguing culture, one that stems from its ancient traditions and is evolving with today’s fast-changing developments. This is perhaps what makes Japan so unique, and so mystifying. Here’s an insight into its social customs and culture that could fetch you some brownie points with the locals.
Bowing is ubiquitous in Japan; everyone bows to show respect, to greet, to apologize or to thank. How much you bend to bow depends on what you’re bowing for. As a visitor to the country, you’d probably use the 15-degree bow to greet people for the first time. The 30-degree bow shows respect for elders while the 45-degree bow denotes apology or the highest form of respect. Of course, you don’t have to bow to everyone who bows to you. As a customer at a store or restaurant, a polite nod of the head in return will be respectful enough, because if you bow back, they will bow back too, and this could go on ad infinitum!
In Japan, it’s customary to take off your shoes when entering someone’s home, a ryokan, a temple, or the occasional restaurant. This is done as a mark of respect, also to keep interiors clean. So if you enter a building and notice shoes placed neatly near the entrance, then take the cue and leave yours there as well. Some ryokans provide slippers for use in your room. Of course, you’ll need to remove those before you step on a tatami, the woven straw mat. And there are special slippers for use in toilets.
The Japanese take great pride in their work and strive hard to provide the best service, so they won’t accept tips for doing their job. If you try leaving a tip, it probably would be awkwardly returned.
The Japanese tea ceremony is a solemn and ceremonial affair that has been influenced by Zen Buddhism. This traditional ritual sees the preparation of powdered green tea or matcha, which is then served to guests in a serene setting. The tea practitioner is required to be familiar with not just the production and types of tea, but with Ikebana, calligraphy, ceramics, and many other disciplines, all of which take years to study. Likewise, guests at a formal tea ceremony must have knowledge of the Way of Tea, or sado, and the associated gestures and phrases that go with it. So read up before you get there!
The Japanese tableware uses chopsticks, so it’s best you unearth the mysteries of chopstick etiquette. Here’s what’s taboo – to spear food with them, stand them upright in your rice, cross them on your bowl, pass food from one chopstick to another, or use unmatched chopsticks. If using chopsticks is new to you, just look around and imitate!
Maneki Neko Cat
This intrinsically Japanese statue of a cat beckons with a raised paw and is said to bring good luck to the owner. You’ll find them in Japanese homes or offices, in traditional colours that hold special meaning. Don’t forget to take one home.
As cheesy as it sounds, there is a Japanese way of taking pictures! You’ll find locals holding up the peace sign the moment a camera is pointed at them. That’s just a quirky, fun thing, and you might find yourself doing the same! In Japan, the guest is placed in the centre of the photograph. There’s also strict privacy attached to pictures you click in Japan. If you use a picture of someone on your blog, make sure you blur their face if you don’t have the necessary permission from that person. Selfie sticks are banned in certain locations, so put them away.