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  • Shelley Dark

4. Top 10 do's and don'ts for Japan

I love it in a foreign country if someone asks me directions as if I’m a native and not the gauche tourist I am. It means I can melt into the background to observe and photograph.

It’s definitely not going to happen in Japan. We don’t look Japanese or speak Japanese, and from what I read, there’s a good chance we’ll unintentionally be acting totally un-Japanese!

Good manners in Japan go beyond simple politeness and are based on a strict social hierarchy which gaijin (foreigners) break into simply by being there. In our egalitarian society the poor man can speak to the prime minister as an equal. In Japan, where everyone knows their place, this contravenes all rules of behaviour.

Where we are inclined to self-aggrandise, the Japanese try to self-efface.

I've been reading about the faux pas tourists make, and the gaffes to avoid.

It’s not acceptable anywhere in the world to act like a VIP or speak too loudly, especially on a mobile phone, but it’s even more important in Japan.

Apart from that, here’s my top ten:

photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons from Bundesarchiv photographer unknown

1. BOWING: When in doubt, bow. Whenever someone bows to you, take note of the angle of attack, and bow back. The deeper the angle, the more respect and degree of obeisance shown. Keep your back straight. You can also bow while sitting or kneeling. But never, ever, get into a Mr Bean bowing competition where neither side wants to give up first. You'll lose. I did read that to respond with a only a nod is ok, but I’d rather err on the side of caution. Having said that I read a funny piece about a man bowing left and right all the way along a long hotel corridor as staff bowed to him. Sounded comedic.

2. KIMONO OR YUGATA: if you put one on, the left side goes over the right. Only a dead body wears it the other way.

3. CATCHING A COLD: under no circumstances may you blow your nose in public. That's considered disgusting. Be discreet, hide behind a hoarding or take a towel to throw over your head. If you want to be really Japanese, wear a mask to protect others from your germs.

POST-SCRIPT I have to update you on this one, as I've heard since posting this, from a Japanese girl who's been living in Australia for 13 years, that this is no longer the case in Japan. A pity. I thought it was much more civilised.

4. RECEIVING OR GIVING: there seems to be a thing about both hands whether you are giving or receiving. Extend both hands to exchange gifts or business cards. Give a business card face up with the writing legible to the receiver. If you’re given a card, read it, and put it away carefully and respectfully - not in your pocket, and don’t fold it.

photo courtesy Wikimedia commons by Japanexperterna

5. SHOES OFF: Check you don't take holey sox and have a pedicure before you go. When in doubt (about taking your shoes off), take them off and place them neatly. No shoes in private homes or even in some dressing cubicles in fashion shops. You may be given slippers to wear inside. But don't fall into the trap of thinking they're the same as bathroom slippers which are to keep your feet off the bacteria-ridden bathroom floor. Don't wear your bathroom slippers around the house and contaminate everything.

6. TOILETS: although most public toilets have pictorial signs, learn the difference between the men and women kanjis before you go. In the kanji above, that's women on the left, men on the right. It's easy to remember because the men kanji is more block-headed. -:) It’s probably safest not to play with the electronics. Or be prepared for a drenching as the bidet feature can be powerful enough to spray water several metres in the air. Don’t shriek if the seat is hot or the loo self-flushes before you are ready and don’t be alarmed if there’s a strange sound: there might be a noise-making function for privacy. Take your own loo paper with you as it’s rare for public toilets in Japan to provide any. If the whole thing really fascinates you, there are articles on the internet explaining all the dials.

7. KEEP YOUR CHOPSTICKS QUIET: don't wave them, use them to scratch, stab food with them, point with them, or stand them upright in your rice (reminiscent of funeral) or use them to pass food to someone else's chop sticks (also funereal). Use the wet towel only for your hands, not your face, and roll it up again when you are finished. Don’t mix your soy with your wasabi. Eat the pickled ginger on its own as a palate cleanser. When the waiter brings a course, do not say 'arigato gozaimasu'. Apparently that's overkill and just downright embarrassing. Say 'domo'. Don’t eat or drink on the street.

8. WASH YOUR HANDS outside a shrine by pouring water over them with the ladle at the water source before you go in. Pour some water into your hands and rinse your mouth as well. The book says you the spit the water on the ground. I think I’ll have to swallow. Hope it's clean water.

photo of Kiyonaga bathhouse women by Torii Kiyonaga, 1752-1815 via Wikimedia Commons

9. LATHER UP AND WASH OFF OUTSIDE THE BATH TUB: Don’t be surprised to see taps and shower nozzles outside the bath tub. The floor outside the bath is the place for soaping yourself and washing off the lather. The bath is only for soaking a clean body. This goes for public baths (onsen) as well, where you must lather and shower before entering the water nude. If you want to be really respected, keep lathering maniacally until everyone else is in the water. And keep your tattoos covered or you won’t be allowed in.

photo by t-mizo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

10. NEVER POUR YOUR OWN DRINK: you pour theirs, they pour yours, don't pour your own. And never empty your glass unless you want more. In a Japanese bar, it's easy to get into a drinking party with the locals who may continually buy you more sake until you can't find the door. And don’t say CHIN CHIN when making a toast – this means “penis” in Japanese. Say ‘kanpai'.

Don’t forget I’ve never been to Japan. I know that some of you are Japanese aficionados so if I’m wrong with any of these, or you can think of others, please let me know in the comments so I don’t make an orang-utan of myself!

Will keep you posted on the things I still manage to do wrongly....

Until next post travelling buddies, keep your chopsticks to yourself....

shelley dark, writer 

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