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Japanese Etiquette

The code of etiquette in Japan governs the expectations of social behaviour and is considered extremely important. A large number of books continues to be published every year with instructions on such things as respectful language; the appropriate way to write letters; table manners; and gift-giving etiquette, among a variety of other social situations.


Bathing is an important part of both daily life and socializing. Baths are for relaxation rather than cleansing the body, which is done by showering before entering the bathtub, or furo. This is normally done at a small faucet or shower located in the same room as the tub, while seated on a small stool. Japanese bathtubs are square, and deep enough that the water will cover the shoulders, but require the bather to sit with the knees drawn up to the chest. They often include a heater that keeps the water hot, so the same water can be shared by all members of the family. A lid is placed on the tub to maintain the water temperature when not in use, and to prevent evaporation. Any hair or debris is scooped from the water after the bath.

In homes with small tubs, each family member bathes, one by one, in order of seniority, traditionally starting with the oldest member of the household. If there are guests in the home, they are given priority. In homes with larger tubs, it is common for family members to bathe together. Typically one or both parents will bathe with babies and toddlers, and even as they grow older children may continue to bathe with one of their parents.

Bathtubs are standard in modern Japanese homes, but there are still many older houses and small apartments in cities that do not have them, so public bathhouses called sentō still exist throughout Japan. In the modern day, baths in all but the most rural bathhouses are segregated by sex. Customers bathe nude, using a small washcloth to cover the genitals. Hotels and other venues often have on-site sentō for customer use.

Onsen (温泉), hot springs, are baths that usually use naturally hot water from geothermally-heated springs, sometimes outdoors. Larger onsen may have a variety of pools containing different types of water or water heated to different temperatures, typically have separate pools for men and women, and visitors normally bathe nude. As with home baths, all sentō and onsen bathers must rinse thoroughly before entering the communal baths. Many sentō and onsen ban customers with tattoos, which are traditionally taboo, citing concerns over yakuza activity.


Bowing (お辞儀, o-jigi) is probably the feature of Japanese etiquette that is best-known outside Japan. It is considered extremely important in Japan, so much so that, although children normally begin learning how to bow from a very young age, companies commonly provide training to their employees in how to execute bows correctly.

Basic bows are performed standing with the back straight and the hands at the sides (boys and men) or clasped in the lap (girls and women), and with the eyes down. Bows originate at the waist. Generally, the longer and deeper the bow, the stronger the emotion and/or degree of respect expressed. There are three main types, classified as informal, formal, and very formal. Informal bows are made at about a fifteen degree angle, and very formal bows at about forty-five degrees.

The etiquette surrounding bowing, including when, to whom, how, and for how long to bow, and the appropriate response to a bow, is complex. For example, if the other person maintains his or her bow for longer than expected (generally about two or three seconds), it is polite to bow again, upon which one may receive another bow in return, often leading to an exchange of progressively lighter bows. Generally speaking, an inferior bows longer, more deeply and more frequently than a superior. A superior addressing an inferior may not bow at all. Close relatives and close friends, particularly younger people, do not generally bow to one another except in cases of extreme thanks or apology.

Bows of apology tend to be deeper and last longer than other types of bow. They occur with frequency during the apology, generally at about 45 degrees and lasting for at least the count of three, sometimes longer. The depth, frequency and duration of the bow increases with the sincerity of the apology and the severity of the offense. Bows of thanks follow the same pattern. In extreme cases a kneeling bow is performed; the deepest form of a kneeling bow is so deep that the forehead touches the floor. This is called saikeirei (最敬礼), literally "most respectful bow," and is extremely uncommon.

When dealing with non-Japanese people, many Japanese will shake hands. In such cases bows may be combined with handshakes or performed before or after shaking hands.

Business cards

Business cards are not only used in business contexts in Japan; in fact, they are very important in Japanese culture generally, in part because they allow people to determine their relative statuses, knowledge of which is important if one is to use the correct level of polite speech and to bow appropriately.

Business cards, like all items, are always given and received with both hands and with the writing facing the recipient. They should never be placed in wallet or pocket in view of the giver.

Eating and drinking

It is not common for Japanese people to eat or drink while walking around, in public places not intended for eating, or on trains. Meals in Japan traditionally begin with the phrase itadakimasu (いただきます, "I humbly receive"). The phrase is similar to "bon appétit," but is often spoken even when dining alone. Upon finishing a meal, the polite phrase gochisōsama deshita (ごちそうさまでした) is used. Some Japanese place their hands palms together while saying these words.

It is considered polite to clear one's plate and in particular not to leave even a single grain of rice in one's dish; children are especially encouraged to do so. It is impolite to pick out certain ingredients and leave the rest. One should chew with the mouth closed. It is acceptable to lift soup and rice bowls to the mouth so that one does not spill food. Miso soup is drunk directly from the bowl, rather than with a spoon, but other types of soup are often served with a spoon. It is also appropriate to slurp certain foods, especially ramen or soba noodles, however, Western-style pasta should not be slurped.

Steamed rice is generally eaten plain, and not usually with soy sauce or other sauces (this does not apply to dishes featuring rice with ingredients mixed in). Soy sauce is not generally placed directly onto prepared food, but a little is poured into a small dish and the food dipped into it. When eating nigiri-zushi, one should dip the sushi topping-side down into the soy sauce to prevent the rice from soaking up too much sauce, losing its stickiness and falling into the dish. It is acceptable to use fingers instead of chopsticks to eat nigiri-zushi.

When using toothpicks, it is good etiquette to cover one's mouth. Blowing one's nose in public is considered rude, especially at a restaurant; cloth handkerchiefs should never be used for this purpose. Conversely, sniffling is considered acceptable, as an alternative to nose-blowing. When sneezing, it is polite to cover one's nose with a hand.


The most important chopstick-related rule is never to pass items from chopsticks to chopsticks; bones are handled by the family of the deceased after cremation in this manner. Standing chopsticks vertically in a dish of food is to be avoided for similar reasons. Chopsticks should never be used to point and they should never be used to stab food like a fork. Food should not be taken from communal plates using the eating end of chopsticks; if no serving chopsticks are provided, one's own chopsticks can be turned upside down for this purpose.

Giving and receiving

Items are always given and received with both hands. By using both hands, one demonstrates that one is handling the article with care and suggests that the article is worth handling with care. Careless handling of an item suggests is rude at best and at worst may be a pointed statement that the item or the giver is unworthy of respect.

Gifts are not traditionally opened in the presence of the giver, however many people will encourage the recipient to do so. In personal situations, but not in professional ones, it is considered polite when giving a gift to refer to it as "tsumaranai mono" (a trifling thing, a thing of little importance) to show modesty.

Seasonal gifts

There are two gift seasons in Japan, called oseibo (お歳暮, in winter) and ochūgen (お中元, in summer). Small gifts, often useful household items like towels, are given to those with whom one has a relationship, especially to people who have helped the gift giver during the previous year.

Other gifts

Gifts were not traditionally given on birthdays or at Christmas, but this is changing in modern Japan. Christmas gifts, however, are most commonly exchanged among romantic partners.

It is the custom for women to give men chocolate on Valentine's Day.[1] Chocolate is not given only to romantic partners, but to any man the woman is connected to. The latter is referred to as giri-choko, or obligation chocolate. Men who receive chocolate on Valentine's Day are expected to give something back on White Day, on March 14.

Gifts of money are given at weddings and funerals. They are presented in special decorative envelopes. Money gifts are also given to the host at tea ceremonies.


It is customary to give souvenirs (omiyage), most often items of food, to one's coworkers, friends and family if one goes on a trip, no matter how short. There are souvenir stands at most major train stations selling items for this purpose.


Greetings are considered to be of extreme importance in Japanese culture. Students in elementary and secondary schools are often admonished to deliver greetings with energy and vigour. A lazy greeting is regarded with the type of disdain that would accompany a limp handshake in parts of the West.

The most common greetings are ohayō gozaimasu (おはようございます), "good morning", used until about 11am; konnichiwa (こんにちは), which is roughly equivalent to "good day" or "good afternoon" and is used until late afternoon; konbanwa (今晩は), "good evening"; and oyasumi nasai (お休みなさい), or "good night."

Letters and postcards

Writing letters by hand remains an important part of Japanese culture, despite the advent of email and text-messaging, and it is possible to specify on what particular date one wants an item delivered to the recipient by writing it on the envelope. In Japan, letter-writing is judged not upon the ability to be original but rather on the ability to follow the prescribed format and to write in beautiful handwriting.

A formal personal letter typically follows the following format:

  • Opening phrase (equivalent to "Dear-")
  • Seasonal greeting ("the time of cold weather is returning")
  • Enquiry after the recipient's health ("how are you lately?")
  • Mention of the writer's condition ("I've been quite busy lately, but I'm doing well")
  • Body of the letter
  • Greetings to others ("please give my regards to your wife")
  • Seasonal closing ("since the weather is really unsettled these days, please take care of yourself")
  • Closing phrase (equivalent to "sincerely")

Different set opening and closing phrases are used by men and women.

Seasonal greetings are often quite poetic, and include observations about the changing colors of the leaves or the emergence of spring flowers. The first paragraph of a typical letter might read:

The hot weather of summer has finally passed. The days are getting cooler and the leaves are turning vivid colors. How have you been? Thankfully, I have been getting along well.

Personal letters are traditionally written or with a writing brush and black ink, but if this is not possible blue or black pen is acceptable, though less formal. The preferred paper is washi (Japanese paper). Although letters may be written vertically or horizontally, a vertical orientation is the more traditional, and therefore more formal, direction. Extremely formal letters are written as maki-tegami, vertically on long, narrow paper which is rolled up for sending.

Envelopes, even for letters sent to close friends, are normally addressed in formal language. Unless some other title is available (sensei, for example), the standard title used with the addressee's name is the very formal -sama (様). Letters addressed to a company take the title onchū 御中 after the company name. It is also considered important to mention in the address if the company is incorporated or limited. When a letter is addressed to a company employee at their place of work, the address should contain the full name of the place of work, as well as the title of the employee's position, and the full name of the employee.

Postcards are sent at two main times of year: for traditional greetings during the summer, and on New Year's Day.

New Year's postcards (nenga or nengajo) typically have an image on the front which corresponds to the new year in the sexagenary cycle, along with a set New Year's message (such as あけましておめでとうございます, equivalent to Happy New Year). They are sent to friends, relatives, and people who have helped the sender during the previous year. New Year's cards are not sent to or by people who have been bereaved during the previous year. If one receives a card from someone to whom one has not sent a card, etiquette dictates that one must send a card in return, to arrive no later than the seventh of January.


It is common for Japanese businesses to set out a small tray near the cash register; money is not handed directly to the cashier or customer, but is placed on the tray. If making payments or gifts of money in a non-commercial context, new uncreased bills are placed in an envelope before giving them to the receiver.

Respectful language

There is a complicated grammatical rule-set for speaking respectfully to superiors, customers and others, and this plays a large part in good etiquette. In general, when speaking to someone outside one's own in-group (that is, someone who is not a coworker, a friend, a family member, a classmate, and so on), one uses politer language. For superiors, one uses humble language to refer to oneself and one's own in-group, and respectful language to refer to the listener and his or her in-group.

Visiting someone's house

It is considered impolite to visit someone's house without a taking a gift. The item (typically something edible like fruit or a cake) is usually presented in a bag from the shop where it was purchased. It is polite to refuse the offer of food or drink at least once or twice; the host is expected to insist until the guest acquiesces. If staying overnight, the guest will be offered the first bath.

Shoes are not worn inside private homes in Japan; they are removed in the entrance hall before entering the main part of the home. The shoes are turned around so that the toe faces the door after taking them off. Socks are not removed; bare feet are not appropriate unless visiting close friends. Slippers are often worn on carpet and solid floors, but never on tatami. A separate pair of slippers is worn in the bathroom, and a third pair on balconies.

If a guest wearing outerwear such as a haori, coat or hat is visiting someone other than a close friend or relative, they remove it before the host opens the door. When the guest is leaving, he or she does not put on the coat or hat until the door has closed. If attending a tea ceremony, the guest will wear tabi covers or change his or her tabi before entering the tea room; this is to avoid soiling the tatami.

The place of honour in a given room (or car, or train, and so on) is called the kamiza. It is the seat or position that is the most comfortable, and is usually furthest from the door because this location is the warmest, and was safest from attack in the feudal period. In a traditional Japanese room it is often the position in front of or closest to the tokonoma (scroll alcove). In a car, the kamiza is directly behind the driver. When entering a room on a formal occasion, it is of great importance to assume the correct seating position, and to leave the kamiza free for the most important person present, whether a special guest or the person of highest rank. However, if one sits somewhere indicative of lower status and is then encouraged by the host to move to the kamiza, it is acceptable to do so.


It is traditional for wedding guests to provide a monetary gift in a stylized, envelope. The number of bank notes should be odd, since even numbers can be divided into two and are thus unlucky for the couple. In addition, the amount of ¥40,000 is inappropriate, as 4 (shi) sounds like the word meaning "death."

Wedding guests may receive wedding gifts, in a kind of reverse-wedding registry situation. Near the wedding date, guests may receive a catalog of gifts available for them to choose from.


People attending a funeral take a gift of money called "kōden" in special funeral envelopes or plain white envelopes.

The cremation is usually reserved for family, relatives and colleagues. At funerals people bow to the family before they step to the front of the altar to offer incense. People at funerals typically wear mofuku (mourning wear), montsuki haori hakama, or black Western clothes. For women the only jewelery considered acceptable is pearls. Red is never worn at funerals, even as an accent, as this is a color of celebration and would be considered an insult to the dead and the bereaved. It is advisable not to wear pink or orange for the same reasons.

Special birthdays

The twentieth birthday marks the transition to adulthood.

The sixtieth birthday is special because it is the occasion of kanreki, when five cycles of the Chinese zodiac have completed since the person's birth

The seventy-seventh birthday is the occasion of kiju, "happy age," because the Chinese character 喜 written in cursive style looks like the characters for seventy-seven.

The eighty-eighth birthday is the occasion of beiju, "rice age," because the Chinese character for rice, 米, looks like the characters for eighty-eight (八十八).

The ninety-ninth birthday is the occasion of hakuju, "white age," because the Chinese character for white, 白, looks like the Chinese character for one hundred, 百, with the top stroke (which means "one") removed.

See also


  1. [1]

External links