Japanese Chopstick Etiquette Tips & Important Manners in Japan You Should Know

If you think Japanese chopstick etiquette is the least of your worries when you’re planning a trip to Japan–think again. Knowing Japanese table manners, tipping norms, taboos, and basic rules for bowing shows that you respect your host country. Respect is one of the most important values in Japanese culture. So read on to learn how to have good manners in Japan, and you’ll avoid making any embarrassing mistakes.

CONTENTS – In this article, you will learn Japanese chopstick etiquette and other important manners you should know when you visit Japan, including: 

Mind Your Manners: Etiquette Tips for Japan

If you’re looking forward to traveling to Japan, it can be very helpful to learn some etiquette tips on your way there. 

Japanese people are extremely polite and welcoming, but you can still accidentally offend them when you say or do the wrong things, especially taboo ones (which you will learn about, below).

Of course, having this concern is natural for a traveler like you, since you may not know much about the country. Japanese people also don’t expect you to know everything about their country and how they live their lives, but it’s common courtesy for you to make an effort.

As long as you are respectful and discreet, you’ll fit right in with the crowd. However, it’s still a good idea to learn a thing or two about how to act according to etiquette when you’re in Japan. 

Here are some important pointers you should keep in mind when you’re traveling in Japan. 

What is the Bowing Etiquette in Japan

Bowing is a well-known custom in Japan as well as other parts of the world. You’ll definitely see many people bowing to each other in Japan as part of Japanese greeting etiquette. 

As a traveler in a foreign country, you should know the basics of bowing etiquette. Of course, if you’re used to shaking people’s hands, you may need some time to get used to bowing as a formal greeting.

So whether you shake hands or bow to people, you’ll be on the receiving end of a lot of bows in this country most of the time.

Basic Bowing Rules in Japan

Follow these guidelines for bowing in Japan:

  • Bowing is a way of greeting or good-bye, or a gesture of thanks, apology, or respect. The deeper and longer the bow, the more respect and emotion you will convey. 
  • Bowing with your palms together in front of  your chest is not customary in Japan, as is the norm in Thailand.  A basic bow involves bending at the waist with your back straight, eyes down, and hands at your sides (men) or clasped in front (women). 
  • When you greet another person in Japan, do so after you bow. This is the proper manner, known as “gosen-gorei.” 
  • If someone bows to you while standing, you should stand, too.
  • At public establishments like hotels, restaurants, and shops, the staff bows deeply to their customers. However, you aren’t expected to bow back; a smile and a nod shows your appreciation. 
  • The Japanese people are accustomed to shaking hands with foreigners in their country. Alternatively, you can offer a nod of your head instead of bowing. 

But don’t sweat this too much, though. The locals don’t expect foreigners to know all of the bowing rules in Japan, and might even see it as amusing but in a non-offensive way.

Tips in Japan & Tipping Appropriately

If you live in the United States, it’s expected that you will leave a tip for the wait staff in appreciation for their service.  But in Japan, leaving a tip for the wait staff is considered rude. 

This is because the Japanese people believe that you’re already paying for a good service overall, so there is no need to pay extra. Tipping is like saying that the establishment is not good enough. Even if your intentions are good or you appreciate exceptional service, don’t tip in Japan. If you leave a tip, the waiters will simply refuse to accept it. 

Public transportation is very good in Japan, but sometimes, a taxi is just what you need to get where you want to go. But when it comes to tipping taxi drivers in Japan, the same rules as restaurant tipping apply.  So when you’re riding a taxi, don’t tip the driver. 

Instead, just point out the place where you want to go on the map so that the driver will know. After you get to your destination, politely thank your driver and leave.

Likewise, when you’re visiting hotels and spas, do not tip. Hotel staff in Japan don’t expect a tip, especially in high-end Ryokans. If you decide to give a tip, they may or may not refuse it. 

Again, in general, it’s considered somewhat rude in Japan to tip. So, don’t be offended when they refuse your tip. Just be respectful and thank the masseuse for the great spa service. 

If you want to leave a tip and are unsure of how to do so, you can check the receptionist or the concierge.

Japanese Table Manners – Handling Chopsticks

Handling chopsticks is one of the most important rules in Japan

First, you’ll want to do some practicing to learn how to hold your chopsticks and maneuver them effectively. You don’t want to stab your food or lick your chopsticks. That’s bad Japanese chopstick etiquette!

There are two acceptable places to rest your chopsticks after or before you’re done eating. Either lay them down flat across the bowl or place them on the chopstick rest. If the chopsticks are disposable, you may not have been given a chopstick rest, but you can fashion one from the wrapper.

When you put your chopsticks down, place them beside each other rather than crossed. Never leave your chopstick sticking out of your food or impaled in your rice. Both of these things are taboo, and considered rude in Japanese dining etiquette because they mimic funeral rituals. 

Likewise, never pass food to someone chopstick to chopstick. If you want to pass food to someone using proper Japanese food etiquette, you can instead:

  • Use your chopstick to pick up the food
  • Get a plate and place the food on it
  • Pass the plate with the food on it

Also, avoid using chopsticks to eat directly from common dishes, and don’t ‘dig’ through the shared dish to pick out what you want. Instead, take your selection from the top of the dish.

Remember that these Japanese chopstick etiquette guidelines apply to using chopsticks in Japan. The rules for handling chopsticks will be different in other cultures, such as China and Korea.

Don’t Walk and Eat – Here’s Why

In general, the Japanese generally consider eating while walking impolite. Instead, you’ll want to eat or drink while standing near the vending machine, stall or store where you purchased the food. Better yet, carry your takeout with you until you find a place to eat.

The exceptions are when it’s a festival or on festive occasions and there are a lot of food stalls around. You’ll see them carrying takeouts instead and find a place to eat. 

In fact, it’s not just a social etiquette rule–it’s the law in some Japanese cities. For instance, the city of Kamakura recently introduced a policy that asks tourists not to walk and eat because you won’t truly appreciate Japanese food you’re eating, and it helps deter litter. You won’t get fined, but you will see signs asking you to comply.

So if you’re fond of doing that somewhere else, don’t do it in Japan.

Other Taboos in Japanese Culture

Some of the other taboos in Japanese culture include:

  • Blowing your nose in public (instead, find a private place, like a bathroom stall)
  • Walking on the wrong side of the sidewalk (stay left)
  • Riding on the wrong side of the escalator (stand left, walk right)
  • Publicly speaking the name of sexual organs (choose the word ‘asoko,’ which means ‘here,’ instead – no need to point)
  • Touch another person you don’t know well (bow, instead)
  • Avoid crossing your legs (sit on your knees in stead)
  • Don’t point at something (gesture with your whole hand in the direction)

Final Thoughts on Japanese Chopstick Etiquette and Good Manners in Japan

Japan is an amazing destination travelers love for its beauty, culture, and many other things. Not only is that, but the people themselves are polite and quite welcoming of tourists. 

So if you want to score highly on the politeness travel survey, there’s no better way of doing that than to learn some Japanese manners and etiquette tips. You don’t want to be that unaware tourist.

Even though the Japanese people don’t expect you to know everything, it’s a nice gesture to learn some of the rules. 

Photo credits:  Benjamin Wong (Unsplash)

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Jackie Gately

Jackie Gately is a seasoned travel writer, photographer, and marketing consultant who is passionate about travel. She loves casual-luxury experiences, coastal getaways, cultural attractions, and local, wholesome food and wine pairings. A perfect day ends with her toes in the sand or by chasing the sunset with her camera--ideally both.