Living & Working effectively in Japan

Japan – Social Etiquette

Meeting People

Greetings in Japan are formal and ritualized. It is important to show the proper amount of respect and deference to someone based upon their status relative to your own. The Japanese become uncomfortable if they do not know the relationship between themselves and another person.

While foreigners are expected to shake hands, the bow is the traditional greeting. How far you bow depends upon your relationship to the other person as well as the situation. The deeper the bow, the more respect you demonstrate. So, a junior person bows deeply to someone of higher status. You’re your back straight while bowing. The person of perceived lower rank bows first.

A foreigner may bow his/her head slightly, since the Japanese do not expect them to understand the subtle nuances of bowing.

Address Japanese with the appropriate title and their surname or their surname followed by “san”. To address a Japanese by their family name without a title or –san, is extremely rude. Wait to be invited before addressing someone by their first name.

It is impolite to introduce yourself, even at a large gathering. If your host is otherwise engaged, ask someone you know to introduce you to other guests. You will be introduced to the oldest or more senior person first. When leaving, say goodbye to everyone, starting with the most senior person.

Naming Conventions

  • The Japanese generally have two names: a family name and a given name.
  • As in many Asian countries, the family name (surname) comes first.
    • Ex: In the name Yamada Hanako, Yamada is the family name, and Hanako is the given name.
  • Family names are generally comprised of two Kanji characters. Quite often the Kanji characters relate to nature, geography or location (mountain, tree, rice field, island, village, bridge, above or below).
  • Personal names are also comprised of two Kanji characters, generally denoting positive characteristics such as beauty, love, light, intelligence, flower names or seasons, or even birth order. The ending of the personal name can tell you the sex of the person. Names ending in –ro, -shi, -ya, or –o are male while names ending in -ko, -mi, -e, or –yo are female.
  • Japanese women adopt their husband’s surname upon marriage. The woman might continue to use her own family name in business.

Gift Giving

Gift giving is highly ritualistic and meaningful. The way a gift is wrapped and the ceremony of presenting it can be more important than the gift itself. Giving gifts is part of the social communication; it is a sign of respect for others and demonstrates interdependence and group harmony.
Gift giving is reciprocal. When someone gives you a gift, you are expected to give them one of at least equal value at the next appropriate time.Gifts are given for many occasions. The gift need not be expensive, but ask someone who is savvy about the culture to help you decide on the proper gift.

Gifts are exchanged between relatives, friends, good neighbors, and close colleagues. There are special times for gift-giving: O-chugen (midsummer) and Oseibo (December and New Year’s). Midsummer gifts are generally given during Obon (Festival of the Dead). In addition, gifts are used to say thank you. For example, it is customary for the bridal couple to give a small gift to those who attend their wedding.

Birthdays and Christmas were not traditional gift giving times in Japan; however, exposure to Westerners has given rise to this in many urban areas.

Japanese often bring omiyage gifts to friends and colleagues from their holiday. Such travel gifts tend to be consumables.

On Valentine’s Day, Japanese women give dark chocolate to men who return the favor in March, on White Day by giving white chocolate.

Here are some general gift giving guidelines:

  • Gifts are given and received with both hands.
  • Gifts are generally brought in a paper bag (often a bag from the shop where it was purchased). The gift is taken out of the bag and the bag is placed underneath the gift when presenting it to the recipient.
  • If you are invited to a Japanese home, flowers, good quality chocolates, or cake make excellent gifts.
  • Pairs of gifts are considered lucky. Do not give gifts in odd numbers.
  • Avoid giving gifts in multiples of four or nine, which are considered unlucky.
  • Do not give lilies, camellias or lotus blossoms, which are associated with funerals.
  • Do not give white flowers of any kind, since they are associated with funerals.
  • Yellow flowers are considered the best gift for someone in the hospital.
  • Do not give potted plants or plants with roots to people who are in the hospital, since they are thought to encourage sickness, although a bonsai tree is acceptable.
  • Do not give clocks, scissors, or knives because they indicate time is running out (clock) or a desire to sever the relationship.
  • If you buy the gift in Japan, have it professionally wrapped. Most department stores provide this service and understand the appropriate way to wrap the gift for the occasion.
  • Money is the expected gift at weddings and funerals. However, only denominations of three, five or ten are acceptable, since the numbers two, four and nine are unlucky.
  • Pastel colors are the best choices for wrapping paper.
  • Avoid wrapping gifts in white, since the color symbolizes death.
  • Gifts are not opened when received.


For the most part, the Japanese entertain in restaurants and private clubs. They generally do not invite foreigners to their home because their homes are small. Traditionally, most entertainment was male only, although this is changing.

Japan is a highly structured and polite country where spontaneity is not valued. You will seldom, if ever, be invited out on the spur of the moment. Invitations are extended in advance. Once an invitation is accepted, it creates an obligation to attend. Some older Japanese women are uncomfortable with foreigners and may not accept an invitation to your home, even if their spouse does.

On the rare occasion you are invited to a Japanese house, consider it a tremendous honor:

  • Remove your shoes before entering and put on the slippers that have been left at the doorway. The slippers may not fit foreigners, so you might want to bring your own indoors slippers.
  • Leave your shoes pointed away from the doorway you are about to walk through.
  • Arrive on time when invited for dinner. If using mass transportation or traveling to an area you are not familiar with, get to the general area early and walk around, rather than arrive late.
  • If invited to a large social gathering, arriving a little bit later than the invitation is acceptable, although punctuality is appreciated.
  • Unless you have been told the event is casual, dress as you would for the office. You may have to sit on a “tatami” mat, so women should not wear tight skirts.
  • When you go to the toilet, put on the toilet slippers and remove them when you are finished.
  • Send a handwritten thank you note to the host and hostess the following day.

Table Manners

Seating plans and table manners are extremely important. Japan has a high context culture where subtle nuances speak volumes. If you are uncertain of the proper protocol, watch what others are doing and emulate their behavior.

  • Wait to be told where to sit. There is generally a protocol to be followed.
  • The honored guest or the eldest person is often seated in the center of the table, furthest from the door.
  • The honored guest or the eldest is the first person to begin eating.
  • Meals are prepared so that the subtle flavors complement each other and the placement of the dishes is pleasing to the eye.
  • The typical meal includes a selection of foods and sauces presented in little dishes.
  • The Japanese often say “Itadaki-masu” (thank you for the food) at the start of the meal.
  • It is rude to eat everything from one dish before eating from the other dishes.
  • When dipping sauces are served, use your chopsticks to pick up a piece of food, dip it into the sauce, and then place it on the rice or put it in your mouth.
  • You may eat sushi either with chopsticks or with your hands by holding the piece gently with the thumb and first two fingers.
  • When dipping sushi into soy sauce, dip the fish or top side into the soy sauce, not the rice side which would come apart.
  • It is extremely rude to point your chopsticks at another person.
  • Knowing how to use chopsticks will please your hosts. (You can buy a child’s learning pair in a local supermarket.) However, if you are uncomfortable with them, ask for eating utensils.
  • Formal meals may be served on lacquer trays. If so, the placement of the dishes is significant. Do not move them.
  • If there are not serving utensils, take food from the large bowl with the wider end of your chopsticks (the part that does not go in your mouth).
  • If soup is served, you may raise the bowl to your lips if there is no soup spoon.
  • Some Japanese believe that making a slurping sound while eating noodles improves the enjoyment.
  • Do not pierce your food with chopsticks.
  • Chopsticks should be returned to the chopstick rest after every few bites and when you drink or stop to speak.
  • Do not cross your chopsticks when putting them on the chopstick rest.
  • When you have finished eating, place your chopsticks on the chopstick rest or on the table. Do not place your chopsticks across the top of your bowl.
  • Place bones on the side of your plate.
  • Try a little bit of everything. It is acceptable to ask what something is and even to make a face if you do not like the taste.
  • Rice symbolizes purity. It is used as a palate cleanser between bites of other foods.
  • Mixing food with rice is usually not done. Eat a bit of one and then a bit of the other.
  • Since it is considered impolite to waste food, you may decline a second helping by saying “kekko desu” (“I’ve had enough”).
  • Japanese do not eat the skin of fruit, even grapes.
  • If you leave a small amount of rice in your bowl, you will be given more. To indicate that you do not want more, finish every grain in your bowl.
  • At the end of the meal, most Japanese say “Gochisou-sama” (“thank you for the food”).
  • It is acceptable to leave a very small amount of food on your plate when you have finished eating.
  • Conversation at the table is generally subdued. The Japanese like to savor their food.
  • When tea is served, the meal is about to end.

Toasting Etiquette

  • If you do not want anything more to drink, do not finish what is in your glass. An empty glass is an invitation for someone to serve you more.
  • Do not start drinking until everyone has been served and raise their glass for the first toast.
  • The most common toast is “kampai” (dry glass).
  • When having drinks with friends, it is polite to fill their cups but not your own.