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10 Taboos You Should Make Sure Not to Do When Visiting Japan
With the Tokyo 2020 Olympics just around the corner, you might already be planning your first trip to Japan. To help things go as smoothly as possible as you experience this country for the first time, we've compiled this list of taboos and behaviors that are frowned upon in Japan, which unfortunately are often committed by clueless foreigners.
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10 Taboos You Should Make Sure Not to Do When Visiting Japan
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While it's quite common to leave a tip for good service in other countries, it's simply not done in Japan. It's not part of the culture and can often cause a number of awkward moments. Employees in the service industry tend to be given a decent hourly wage and if you do decide to leave a tip, someone will probably come running up the street after you to return your money.
Not Taking Your Shoes Off When Required
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Shoes are almost never worn inside Japanese homes, but this is also occasionally the case in other facilities such as certain eateries, hotels, ryokans, temples and onsens. This is to keep a distinct separation between the dirty outside world and the clean interior of the house - where traditionally a lot of daily life revolved around the floor, for example sitting and sleeping. In most places where you are required to remove your shoes before entering, sandals will be provided for you to wear instead, you'll also see a separate pair in front of bathrooms, which are for use in the toilet area only.
Taking Advantage of the Polite Japanese 'No'
In Japan, a straightforward 'no' tends to be perceived as quite severe and possibly even rude. For this reason, softer expressions are often used instead without directly saying 'no'. It might seem confusing but such statements are easy enough to tell. Some foreigners visiting Japan however tend to take it as permission to do something simply because 'no' was not directly stated. It's best to avoid doing this out of respect for their customs, but also because such behavior can lead to rather uncomfortable and unpleasant interactions between locals and visitors.
Standing on the Wrong Side of the Escalator
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As you might expect from Japanese politeness, everyone in Japan will always stand orderly on one side of the escalator, allowing the other side to be used for people in a hurry. In Tokyo and most cities around Japan people stand on the left, however in Osaka it's the opposite. It's usually quite easy to tell which side to stand on, just follow what everyone else is doing and make sure to keep the side next to you free of any luggage or travel companions.
Improper Use of Chopsticks
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There are two things you really shouldn't do when eating with chopsticks in Japan. The first is to stick your chopsticks straight up in your food, and the second is to pass food from one set of chopsticks to another. This is because these actions are used in funeral rituals for those who have passed away. Bowls of rice with chopsticks sticking straight up is one of the ways food is offered to the dead and bones of people that have just been cremated are passed from one set of chopsticks to another by family members before being placed in an urn during Japanese funeral ceremonies.
Being Loud While Using the Public Transport System
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If you happen to be using the Japanese public transport system, you might come across a couple of posters reminding people to be well-mannered when using the trains or buses. This includes not being loud and boisterous and not speaking on your phone. As a lot of people need to use these services on a daily basis, and for some it's quite a long commute, therefore it's important to abide by these rules so that everyone can have as pleasant a journey as possible.
Throwing Your Rubbish in the Wrong Bin
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In a bid to lessen negative environmental impacts, rubbish in Japan is always separated before being thrown out. While out in public, you'll often see rubbish bins separated into three categories: burnable (paper), non-burnable (plastic) and bottles and cans. Try and do your best to follow this system during your stay in Japan, after all, a clean and healthy earth benefits everyone.
Taking Up a Priority Seat on Public Transport if You Don't Need It
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All forms of public transportation you encounter in Japan will have priority seating areas assigned for the elderly, pregnant women, disabled passengers and passengers with infants. These are usually found on the ends of carriages for trains, or towards the front for buses, and are indicated using stickers. If the train is mostly empty, or if there are no passengers fitting that description on the train, then it's fine to sit in these areas, but if such a passenger does get on, you should get up and let them have the seat.
Getting Into Bathtubs or Hot Springs Without Showering First
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In Japan, it's customary to shower thoroughly before getting into the bath, as bath water is often shared by family members for the purpose of relaxing rather than cleaning dirt off the body. For this reason you will often find a showering space besides most bathtubs here. These same rules apply to public baths or hot springs where the water is shared by far more people.
Handling the Taxi Door
This isn't a strict no-no, however you'll find when you come to Japan that taxi doors open and close automatically. The door being opened for you is a great way to know whether you are welcome into the taxi you might happen to be standing in front of (as it might be there on some other business), it's also a good way to make sure the doors are shut and opened without any problems. You can take it on yourself to open and close the doors but you might receive a quiet, disapproving grunt from the driver.
Most visitors to Japan tend to be forgiven for what would otherwise be considered bad manners were a local to do the same. However it's always nice to respect and do your best to follow the rules and customs of the place you're visiting. As they say, when in Rome...!