Welcome dear gaijin-san. If you are new to Japan, you have a lot to learn. On this page I will try to give an overview of useful information for foreigners in Japan . Mostly small things of daily life that I discover every day while I live here myself. Or perhaps things I wish I had known before coming here. I hope it will help to make your life in Japan easier.
General rules of conduct
At the onsen
Spending the night
Visiting someone’s home
Reading and writing
When moving to Japan
- Be polite: I recommend doing the following things as much as possible, just to be safe: bowing, apologizing, thanking people.
- Shoes: Never enter a home with your shoes on. Other places where you should remove your shoes are: some restaurants (look at what other customers are doing), fitting rooms in clothing stores, some hostels and ryokan.
- Honorifics: Always add -san to other people’s names. Never add -san to your own name or the names of your relatives (like your husband or wife).
The giving and receiving of gifts is very important in Japan. Here are a few guidelines:
- In Japan, the most common gift is food. Japanese sweets are the most popular but sometimes fruit can also be an appropriate gift.
- Whenever you are visiting someone’s home, especially if it’s the first time, you are expected to bring a nice box of Japanese sweets. Alternatively, sweets or some other souvenir from your home country are also ok.
- When returning an item you have borrowed from someone, include a little gift to express your gratitude.
- If you are saying goodbye to people, it is customary to exchange goodbye gifts (see post about goodbye gifts).
- Whenever you give a gift, hand it over with two hands while making a slight bow. The same goes for receiving a gift: accept it with both hands and bow a little while saying thank you.
- If the gift is store bought and came in a beautiful paper bag, you are supposed to place the gift on top of the bag and hand both gift and bag over at the same time. Sometimes store clerks will even include an unused bag with your gift, just for this purpose.
- When giving a gift in a rather formal situation (e.g. to a teacher or someone older than you), it is polite to say ‘tsumaranai mono desu ga, …‘. It literally means ‘this is just a trifle, but … (please accept it)’. This expression implies a humble attitude in the giver, who feels that their gift is not adequate to express their feelings or gratitude. Even if you don’t feel this way, just use the phrase as a small courtesy. Another (more formal) expression is ‘hon no kimochi desu‘ (‘this is only an experssion of my feelings’) but I have had Japanese people react very surprised at this expression so I’m not sure if it is outdated, strange or just very formal.
- Traditionally it is the custom to not open a gift when the giver is still present. I imagine this is meant to prevent any loss of face on both sides in case the gift would not be appropriate for the situation. So don’t be offended if Japanese people put your present away without opening it. These days however, this custom is not strictly applied. In case you want to open a gift upon receiving it, you say ‘akete mō ii desu ka?‘, which means ‘can I open it?’. The reply is ‘dōzo’, which means ‘go ahead’.
- If you do open the gift in the presence of the giver, make sure you treat the wrapping of the present with respect. Do not tear the paper, since tearing the paper is considered very rude.
- After accepting a gift from someone, make sure to express your gratitude thoroughly and repeatedly. Emphasize how precious the gift is and how happy you are with it, and say thank you several times. Japanese people will usually do the same after receiving a gift from you.
- After a gift is given, sometimes on the next meeting a return gift is given to maintain the balance.
- In my experience, I am often blown away by the incredibly generous gifts Japanese people hand out without thinking twice about it. In those cases I often worry about what I could do to repay their kindness. However, if the relationship is an assymetrical one, like for example between a teacher and a student, or between an older person and a younger one, the lower ranked individual (the student or the younger person) is not expected to give back in the same measure. In fact, it could be even be perceived as arrogant if the younger person would present a return gift of the same value. The best way to express your gratitude in those case is to clearly show how happy you are with the gift and how precious you consider it to be. And of course you may give back something of lesser value.
- If you give money to someone, always give it in an envelope. There are rules for what kind of envelope is appropriate for what occasion (not sure on the details though) but as a foreigner you will be excused if you don’t know these rules.
- Never give a gift that consists of four items or any gift that otherwise refers to the number 4. In Japan, the number 4 is considered unlucky since the pronunciation (shi) phonetically sounds like the word ‘death’.
- You can look up any public transport in Japan on http://www.hyperdia.com (in English).
- Never use a cellphone on the train. It is considered rude to impose your conversation upon the other passengers. Texting is ok though.
- When waiting to board a train, there are designated areas for you to wait and form an orderly cue with the other passengers. When the train arrives, move to the side so people can disembark first, before boarding the train.
- Upon entering a shop, you will be greeted with the cry of ‘irrashaimase’. Sometimes in a sweet voice, sometimes shouted so loud that you jump up thinking you’re being reprimanded.
- When paying, you will be given the change in two gestures: first the bills, then the coins.
- When you hand over the money, they will first confirm the amount you have given them and ask permission to accept it.
- When you leave the store, they will continue to thank you for your visit until you are out of sight. So don’t worry, you didn’t forget anything and you didn’t do anything wrong. They’re just really thankful for your visit.
- Don’t wear shoes in the dressing room of a clothing store.
- ‘Can I try it on’ is ‘kite mite mo ii desu ka’.
- Upon entering the restaurant, the staff will ask you how many people your party is. It is customary to indicate the number of people by holding up the corresponding number of fingers.
- When ordering you can also use your fingers to indicate amounts. The staff will often do likewise to confirm your order (so they don’t do this because you’re a foreigner or they think you’re retarded).
- In most, if not all restaurants you will be presented with an o-shibori. It’s a damp towel, cool in summer, warm in winter. Sometimes it takes the form of a little wet towel in a plastic wrapper. But in the finer restaurants it’s an actual towel. It is meant for cleaning your hands. Wiping your face with the o-shibori is considered impolite, although a man might occasionally be forgiven this indiscretion.
- In a ramen restaurant, you will usually be asked to indicate how you want your noodles, going from almost uncooked to very soft. Two safe options are ‘futsu’ which is normal and ‘kata’ which is slightly less-cooked than futsu.
- Japan features both extremely advanced high-tech toilets and very basic ‘squat’ toilets. Click here to see a post about Japanese toilets.
- Some toilets will have toilet slippers lined up at the entrance. You are supposed to take off your in-house slippers before entering the toilet and use the toilet slippers instead. Make sure you don’t forget to take them off afterwards. Walking all over the house in toilet slippers is a frequent mistake of the absent-minded gaijin.
- Some public bathrooms will not provide paper towels or a hand drying device. Japanese people, especially women, carry little towels with them to dry their hands.
- Washing clothes (1): Washing machines in Japan only use cold water (at least the machines I have seen so far, correct me if I am wrong). So avoid making stains on your clothes because they don’t come out by washing clothes in the washing machine. And if you do make a stain, try washing it out by hand with a special stain remover as soon as you can.
- Washing clothes (2): If you wash dark clothes, use liquid detergent instead of powder. Powder will leave white marks on dark clothes. The marks do come off with water but it’s a lot of work removing these marks by hand.
- washing clothes (3): click here to get an overview of the washing symbols in Japanese clothing labels
- Garbage: Garbage separation is an art form in Japan. I will probably write a post about it at some point.
- In most onsen you are supposed to bathe naked. There are separate baths for men and women, so you will only have to be naked in front of people of the same sex. In the rare case where there are communal baths, people wear bathing suits.
- You have to take off your shoes before entering the onsen complex. Usually there will be lockers for shoes at the entrance. After paying an entrance fee you enter the gender separate area where there will be lockers for you clothing.
- Most modern onsen complexes have ticket machines where you can purchase the entrance ticket and, if you like, a towel, a hairbrush, etc.
- Upon entering the bathing facilities, first scrub and clean your whole body carefully. Rinse all soap throughly before entering the hot baths.
- Most onsen will provide soap, shampoo and conditioner for free. Of course you can also bring your own if you prefer.
- Most people use a small rectangular towel in the onsen. The Japanese call it a ‘face towel‘. It is used to scrub your body down when washing up before entering the onsen. While bathing, this towel is either wrapped around the head, placed on top of the head or put on the edge of the bath. It is considered unsanitary to douse the towel in the bath water. You can also use it to slightly cover up your body when walking around or to remove water droplets from your body before returning to the changing room. Face towels are sold at almost all onsen facilities for a mere 200 or 300 yen.
- Check the entrance to see if you have to take your shoes off before entering
- Most hostels and ryokan will have shared baths or shower rooms. In Japan being naked with people of the same gender is totally normal. So don’t be shy.
The shower room is pretty self-explanatory. In the shared bath you are supposed to scrub down at the faucet first, just like in an onsen. Only after having scrubbed thoroughly and rinsed all soap away are you allowed to enter the communal bathtub. The water temperature can vary from tepid to scorching. Sometimes the bath is covered with some sort of plate to minimize heat loss. You are allowed to remove this plate by yourself. Just put it back after you’re done.
- Whenever you visit someone’s home in Japan, you are expected to bring a gift. A box of Japanese sweets is an appropriate gift for that kind of situation, but other gifts are also ok.
- Upon entering the home, you say ‘ojama shimasu’. Literally it means ‘I am getting in your way’ but when used in this case it just means ‘excuse me’. When you leave the home, you say ‘ojama shimashita‘, which is the past tense of the previous expression.
- Make sure you are wearing socks when you are visiting someone’s home, especially if it is the first time. There will usually be guest slippers for you to wear, but even so, it is a bit rude to get the slippers dirty with your possibly sweatty feet.
- Arigato gozaimasu: ‘Thank you‘. Make sure to always add the ‘gozaimasu’ when addressing anyone that isn’t family or a (close) friend. It makes it more polite, just ‘arigato’ sounds very informal. The ‘u’ in ‘gozaimasu’ is silent.
- Onegai shimasu: another very useful expression that can mean either ‘yes please’, ‘please’ or ‘i beg this favour of you’. You might use it in a restaurant to conclude your order. Or you might use it to accept something offered to you (like the receipt in a store) or when asking someone for pretty much anything.
- Sumimasen: extremely useful expression that can mean both ‘thank you’ and ‘excuse me‘ (to apologize and/ or get someone’s attention).
- Here’s an example of the three aforementioned expressions used in a combo: when you ask a stranger to do you a favor, for example take a picture of you, you can open with a ‘sumimasen’ to get their attention. Then ask them whatever favour you need, followed by an ‘onegai shimasu’. After they have agreed, follow up with a few ‘sumimasens’ to apologize for imposing on them while thanking them at the same time (optionally while slightly bowing several times as you say this). Finish up with a heartfelt ‘arigato gozaimasu’ and a bow.
- Before eating, you say ‘itadakimasu‘, which means ‘I humbly accept this food’. After eating you say ‘gochisōsama deshita‘ to whoever presented you with the food.
- Counting: to indicate how many items you want, you use the phrase (item) o hitotsu/ futatsu/ mittsu/ …
- Gaijin means foreigner.
- The Japanese language uses three different writing systems. First of all kanji, the characters adopted from Chinese many centuries ago. Then there are the phonetic alphabets of hiragana (for Japanese words, to complement kanji) and katakana (for words adopted from English).
- Even if you speak a little Japanese, chances are you still won’t be able to read anything. This is one of the greatest obstacles of life in Japan. Fortunately Firefox (= a browser, you know, like Internet Explorer but better) offers a great solution for this: the extension ‘Rikai-chan’. It allows you to hover the mouse pointer over a word and get the translation and the Japanese pronunciation. How great is that? Just go to the Firefox extension center and download this wonderful tool. Just to be clear: this will only work in your browser, not for text documents etc.
- Study Japanese before coming to Japan! Even it’s only a little bit. Even if you just learn to read katakana or hiragana. When you get here, you will be very glad that you did so.
- Don’t bring too many electrical appliances from Europe. The electricity net is different in Japan (110 volt and different plugs). You can buy a transformer but they are quite expensive and can only handle a specific amount of Watt. Especially heat generating devices like an iron or a hairdryer will be too much for most transformers.
- Check out these free e-books about living in Japan: ‘Japan Living‘ and ‘Habitat Japan‘.
- In the comments section, you can find some advice on the best way to get a mobile phone in Japan. Be prepared, it can be quite a challenge!
Summers in Japan are extremely hot and humid. Be prepared!
- Repellent: When visiting temples, always spray yourself with mosquito repellent before entering. Better yet, before approaching greenery or still water of any kind (like parks, gardens, etc.), apply repellent. If not, this will happen: ‘attack of the killer mosquitoes‘.
- Sun protection: When venturing out into the sun, protect yourself. Mere sunscreen will not always do the trick. Take a hat or a parasol. You might feel silly but the Japanese do this for a reason (namely to avoid heat stroke and sun stroke). Read more about sun protection in Japan.
- Fan: Buy a fan and take it with you wherever you go.
- Think about what I like to call ‘the sweatability’ of clothing: how will this item of clothing look when you’re sweating like you’ve just run a marathon? Oversized clothing in breathable or sheer fabric and/or black and white tops are safe choices.
- Make sure you are wearing socks whenever you are going somewhere where you might have to take off your shoes. Especially when entering someone’s home or a fancy restaurant, it is a little impolite to be barefoot. Japanese people almost always wear socks, even if they are wearing sandals. If you dislike wearing socks with sandals or with summer shoes in general, you might want to carry around a pair of socks in your bag to put on whenever you have to take your shoes off. For people with smelly feet it is also adviseable to carry around an extra pair of socks in case shoes have to be taken off at some point.
- Japanese homes can be very cold in winter. Click here for ‘6 ways to keep warm during Japanese winter’.
- The climate in winter is radically different between the west and the east side of Japan. The west side gets lots of snow, the east side has sunny and dry winters. Click here to read more about it.
Other information sources