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Izakaya, Japan

A Guide to Japanese Etiquette for Travellers

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7 June 2016 by Tim Tan

Japan’s sociotope is governed by a complex web of cultural codes. Suffixes are added depending on hierarchal standing, there’s a right and very wrong way of eating sushi, and even bathing has its own set of rules. However, as a foreigner you’ll find your indiscretions readily forgiven; after all, it takes a lifetime to master each different scenario. But it’s certainly worth bearing a few guidelines in mind and this list, while by no means exhaustive, will show you when to put on the slippers and where to put your chopsticks when you’ve finished.

Eating

With steaming ramen counters, sticky barbecues and indulgent seafood, eating out in Japan is a real treat. And, since the Japanese often entertain in restaurants rather than their own home, you’ll find that eating comes with its own particular guidelines. As if fragile tempura combined with the ever-slippery chopsticks wasn’t enough.

  • Wait for everyone’s order before marking the start of the meal with the phrase ‘itadakimasu’, translating as ‘I humbly receive’.
  • Never leave your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice or pass food from chopstick to chopstick as they both form part of a funeral ritual. Instead, make use of the provided hashi-oki chopstick rests, not leaving them on the table.
  • While it’s considered the status quo to slurp noodles and even glug beer, this discretion doesn’t extend to chewing with your mouth open and the usual Western standards of propriety.
  • If you are dining communally or ‘family style’ make use of the supplied utensils to serve yourself and not your own chopsticks; it’s considered unsanitary.
  • As it once was in the West, it’s often considered rude to eat while walking in public. Convenience stores will often have a snack counter inside.
  • Sushi is meant to be eaten in one bite to appreciate the balance of sashimi fish, sticky rice and wasabi sauce glue.
  • It’s usual to go up and pay rather than waiting for the bill and, remember, that tipping is never expected.


Drinking

A trip to a Japanese izakaya pub is a real highlight with traditional delicacies served in lantern-lit timber interiors. And, as always, as you tuck into your yakitori meat skewers, crisp beers and premium sake, there’s a few things worth bearing in mind. But, whatever you do, don’t miss out on the Japanese whisky, said to rival even our Scottish giants and often served as a highball.

  • As with eating, wait until everyone has been served and a kampai cheers has been sounded.
  • Perhaps most importantly, never pour your own drink. Instead, check on others first and refill their glasses; they’ll be sure to reciprocate.
  • While in Japanese society those more junior in the social and corporate hierarchy will be expected to pour, as a guest, you’ll find yourself impeccably accommodated.
  • If you’ve had sufficient, keep your glass full so as to discourage refills.


Bathing

The country’s onsen baths are one of Japan’s favourite luxuries. Return after a day spent exploring Tokyo’s bustle or walking in the Japanese Alps to a long, muscle-soothing soak. However, while some traditional ryokan inns might feature private offerings, there are a few lines of etiquette that will help you get the most out of this communal experience.

  • Be sure to make use of the sit down showers before taking the plunge. The water is shared after all.
  • Make sure that you’ve rinsed off any soap before entering the main tub.
  • You will be naked and so will everyone else.
  • Rarely you’ll find bathhouses that forbid visible tattoos, due to their historic association with the yakuza. In this case, it’s possible to purchase flesh coloured tattoo cover-ups in advance.


General

Lastly, here are a few final tips to consider.

  • It’s often a breach of etiquette to hand money directly to a cashier; make use of the small tray.
  • Most Japanese do not use first names casually. Instead use last names with the suffix ‘san’ to show respect.
  • Being invited into a Japanese home is considered an honour; remember to take your shoes off and use the slippers provided. You might also like to bring a small gift.
  • Somewhat counter-intuitively, it’s bad form to blow your nose into a handkerchief. The Japanese prefer train sniffles.
  • Bows – hands at the sides for men and clasped together in front for women – are made from the waist with eyes kept down. The more formal the situation, the longer or deeper the bow.

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