In this article, you will explore a fascinating aspect of Japanese culture – traditional customs. As you immerse yourself in the rich heritage of Japan, it becomes important to understand and respect the customs ingrained in their daily lives. From bowing etiquette to removing shoes before entering homes, this brief glimpse into Japanese customs will help you navigate cultural interactions with grace and appreciation. So, let’s embark on a journey of discovery and uncover the beauty of traditional Japanese customs together!
In Japan, bowing is a traditional form of greeting that is deeply rooted in the culture. When meeting someone for the first time, or to show respect, the proper way to greet them is to bow. Bowing is done by bending at the waist with a straight back and hands at your sides. The depth of the bow depends on the level of respect or formality of the situation. In more casual settings, a slight nod of the head is often sufficient, while in formal situations, a deeper bow is expected.
Japanese society places a great emphasis on respect and hierarchy, and one way this is expressed is through the use of honorifics. Honorifics are suffixes or titles that are added to a person’s name to show their status or relationship to the speaker. For example, the honorific “san” is a general form of address that can be used for anyone, while “sensei” is used for teachers, doctors, or other professionals. It is important to use the appropriate honorific when addressing someone, as it shows respect and acknowledges their position in society.
Handshakes and physical contact
While in many Western cultures, a firm handshake is a common form of greeting, in Japan, physical contact is generally kept to a minimum. It is not common to shake hands when meeting someone for the first time. Instead, a polite bow is the preferred greeting. However, it is becoming more common for Japanese people to shake hands with foreigners, especially in business settings. It is important to be aware of the level of physical contact that is appropriate in different situations and follow the lead of the person you are interacting with.
Etiquette in Public Places
Taking off shoes indoors
One important aspect of Japanese etiquette is the practice of taking off your shoes before entering someone’s home. This is done as a sign of respect and cleanliness. When entering a home or traditional Japanese establishment, you should remove your shoes and place them neatly by the entrance. It is common for houses and some restaurants to have an area with slippers for guests to wear indoors. It is important to observe this custom and not wear shoes inside unless instructed otherwise.
Proper use of chopsticks
Chopsticks are an integral part of Japanese cuisine, and it is important to know how to use them properly. When using chopsticks, it is considered rude to use them to pass food directly from one person’s chopsticks to another. Instead, use the communal serving chopsticks to transfer food to your own plate. Additionally, it is impolite to play with your chopsticks, point them at others, or leave them sticking upright in a bowl of rice. These actions are seen as disrespectful and should be avoided.
Not blowing your nose in public
Blowing your nose in public is generally considered impolite in Japan. Instead, it is more socially acceptable to sniffle or discreetly wipe your nose with a tissue. Japanese people are known for their reserved and considerate behavior, and blowing your nose loudly in public is considered disruptive and inconsiderate. If you need to blow your nose, it is best to excuse yourself to a private area such as a restroom or use a handkerchief to muffle the sound.
History and importance
The tea ceremony, also known as “chado” or “sado”, is a traditional Japanese ritual that dates back centuries. It is a highly respected and revered art form that focuses on the preparation, serving, and drinking of matcha, a powdered green tea. The tea ceremony is deeply rooted in Zen Buddhism and is seen as a way to achieve harmony, tranquility, and inner peace. It is an important cultural practice that embodies the principles of respect, mindfulness, and simplicity.
Proper etiquette during a tea ceremony
Participating in a tea ceremony requires following certain etiquette and customs. Upon entering the tea room, guests should bow to show respect to the host. Shoes are also removed before entering the tea room. During the ceremony, guests should observe silence and refrain from any distracting behavior or conversation. The tea is served in carefully crafted tea bowls, and guests should hold the bowl with both hands as a sign of respect. It is customary to drink the tea in three sips, savoring the flavor and appreciating the artistry of the tea preparation.
Onsen (Hot Springs)
Nudity and bathing
In Japan, onsen, or hot springs, are a popular destination for relaxation and rejuvenation. It is important to note that most onsens are gender-segregated and require nudity. While this may be outside of some people’s comfort zones, it is important to understand and respect this cultural practice. Nudity in onsen is seen as a way to cleanse both the body and the mind, and it is done in a non-sexual and respectful manner. If you are unsure or uncomfortable with the idea of bathing naked, it is possible to find private or mixed-gender onsens that allow swimwear.
Proper onsen etiquette
When entering an onsen, it is important to follow certain rules and etiquette. Before entering the bathing area, you should thoroughly wash your body at the provided showers or washing stations. It is customary to bring a small towel with you, which can be used to cover your private areas if desired. However, the towel should not be used in the water, as it is considered unclean. Keep the towel on the edge of the bath or wrap it around your head. It is also important to refrain from swimming or splashing in the onsen, as it is meant for relaxation and tranquility.
Choosing appropriate gifts
Gift-giving is an important part of Japanese culture and is seen as a way to show gratitude, respect, and maintain relationships. When selecting a gift, it is important to consider the recipient’s age, position, and interests. Traditional gifts such as tea sets, pottery, or local crafts are often well-received. Avoid giving items in sets of four, as the number four is associated with death in Japanese culture. Similarly, avoid white wrapping paper, as it is associated with funerals.
Presentation and wrapping
The presentation of a gift is just as important as the gift itself. Gifts in Japan are typically wrapped in decorative paper and usually, the wrapping is considered as important as the gift itself. It is customary to present the gift with both hands and with a slight bow. Once the gift is received, it is polite to wait for the recipient to open it in your presence. It is considered impolite for the recipient to open the gift immediately.
Gift-giving in Japan is not confined to special occasions such as birthdays or holidays. It is common to give gifts to express gratitude, when visiting someone’s home, or to celebrate milestones such as a promotion or graduation. When invited to someone’s home, it is customary to bring a small gift as a token of appreciation. Additionally, it is polite to reciprocate the gesture of gift-giving, as it is seen as a way to maintain harmony and balance in relationships.
Exchanging business cards
In Japanese business culture, the exchange of business cards, or “meishi,” is a common and important ritual. When presenting your business card, it is important to hold it with both hands and offer it face up, with the text facing the recipient. Upon receiving a business card, take a moment to carefully examine it before placing it on the table in front of you. It is considered impolite to immediately put the business card away or write on it in the presence of the giver.
Meeting and greeting
In a business setting, it is important to greet your counterparts with a level of formality and respect. When meeting someone for the first time, a polite bow is the preferred greeting. Address the person by their last name, followed by the appropriate honorific. During lengthy meetings, it is customary to exchange pleasantries and inquire about the other person’s well-being before getting down to business.
Proper dining etiquette
Business meals are a common occurrence in Japan, and it is important to be aware of proper dining etiquette. Wait to be seated and follow the lead of the host or the most senior person at the table. It is polite to wait for others to begin eating before starting yourself. When using chopsticks, do not leave them sticking upright in a bowl of rice, as this is associated with funerals. Additionally, it is considered disrespectful to pass food directly between chopsticks. Show appreciation for the meal by saying “itadakimasu” before eating and “gochisousama deshita” after finishing.
Festivals and Holidays
Important festivals in Japan
Japan is known for its vibrant festivals, or “matsuri”, which are celebrated throughout the year. Some of the most important festivals include the Cherry Blossom Festival, or “Hanami,” held in spring, and the Obon Festival, a traditional Buddhist event that honors ancestors. These festivals are deeply rooted in Japanese culture and offer a unique opportunity to experience traditional customs and practices.
Traditional customs and practices
During festivals, you may encounter various traditional customs and practices. For example, at the Cherry Blossom Festival, it is common to have picnics under the blossoming cherry trees, known as “hanami parties.” People dress in traditional clothing, such as kimonos or yukatas, and enjoy food, drink, and live performances. The Obon Festival is a time for families to gather and honor their ancestors by lighting candles, offering food, and participating in traditional dances called “Bon Odori.”
Visiting Shrines and Temples
When visiting shrines and temples in Japan, it is important to dress respectfully. Modest clothing that covers the shoulders and knees is recommended, especially for women. It is common to see visitors wearing traditional clothing such as kimonos or yukatas, but it is also acceptable to wear smart casual attire. Remove your hat when entering a sacred area and be mindful of your behavior, keeping noise to a minimum and refraining from smoking or eating in restricted areas.
Praying and making offerings
When visiting a shrine or temple, it is customary to pay respects by making an offering and saying a prayer. Approach the main hall, bow once, and toss a coin into the offering box. Next, bow twice, clap your hands twice, and then bow once again. This is known as “nirei nihakushu ichirei” and is done to get the attention of the deity. While praying, it is important to maintain a respectful and solemn demeanor. Avoid taking photographs or making excessive noise, as it may disrupt the peaceful atmosphere.
Eating and Drinking Customs
Sake, a traditional Japanese rice wine, holds a significant place in Japanese culture. When drinking sake, it is customary to pour for others rather than yourself as a symbol of camaraderie and friendship. Hold the sake cup slightly tilted with both hands to receive a pour from someone else. It is polite to reciprocate the gesture by pouring for others as well. It is also considered respectful to wait until everyone at the table has been served before beginning to drink.
In Japan, slurping noodles, such as ramen or udon, is not only acceptable but also encouraged. Slurping is seen as a way to enhance the flavor of the noodles and to show appreciation for the chef. It is not considered rude or impolite to slurp loudly while eating noodles in Japan. In fact, many Japanese people believe that slurping signifies your enjoyment of the meal. So, don’t be afraid to slurp away when enjoying a delicious bowl of Japanese noodles!
Unlike in many Western countries, tipping is not customary in Japan. In fact, leaving a tip can be seen as rude or embarrassing. The service charge is usually included in the bill, so there is no need to leave additional money. Instead, focus on expressing your gratitude for the service by saying “arigatou gozaimasu” (thank you very much) or by providing positive feedback to the staff. Appreciation for good service is often expressed through polite words and gestures rather than monetary compensation.
Traditional Japanese Clothing
Kimono and yukata
Kimono and yukata are traditional forms of Japanese clothing that are often worn for special occasions or festivals. The kimono is a formal garment that is worn by both men and women. It consists of a long, straight-cut robe with wide sleeves and is usually made from silk or other high-quality fabrics. The yukata is a more casual version of the kimono and is often worn in the summer or at hot spring resorts. It is typically made from cotton and features colorful patterns.
Wearing a kimono properly
Wearing a kimono properly can be quite complex, and it is often best to seek the assistance of a professional to ensure the correct fit and arrangement of the various layers. The kimono should be worn with the left side overlapping the right side, as wearing it the opposite way is reserved for dressing the deceased. The obi, or sash, should be tied with a decorative bow at the back. When wearing a kimono, it is important to walk with small, shuffling steps to prevent tripping on the long hem.
By familiarizing yourself with these traditional Japanese customs, you can show respect and appreciation for the culture while visiting or interacting with Japanese people. Embracing these customs will not only help you avoid unintentional disrespect, but it will also enhance your overall experience in Japan and foster meaningful connections with the local community. So, go ahead and immerse yourself in the rich traditions and etiquettes of Japan!