Bow, slippers and food: Three important areas to help you setting in Japan
February 1, 2019
Planning a move to Japan? You’ve probably heard a lot about the importance of good manners and etiquette. We will explore three important areas to help your transition.
You will quickly learn that Japanese people often greet each other by bowing. A bow ranges from a small nod of the head to a deep bend at the waist. A deeper, longer bow indicates respect, but more often you can simply perform a small nod of the head to indicate gratitude. Be aware that if the greeting takes place tatami floor, you’ll need to get on your knees to bow. Bowing is also used to thank, apologize, make a request or ask someone a favor.
Remember that while Japanese etiquette can seem confusing, as a foreigner, most Japanese do not expect you to know proper bowing rules. A nod of the head is usually sufficient. Furthermore, while handshaking may be the norm in this part of the world it is rare.
If you’ll be attending formal meetings, business cards are exchanged during the introductions. Business cards are handed to you they will be offered with both hands outstretched. You will be expected to receive it in the same manner.
Social environments such as shops and restaurants are very different when it comes to greetings. Customers are typically welcomed by the staff with the greeting "いらっしゃいませlrasshaimase". You’re not required to respond, although a small nod with the head can go a long way.
Expectedly, rules about footwear are plentiful in Japan. A clear line is traditionally drawn between inside and outside. Shoes are for outdoors and slippers are worn indoors. If you’re renting an apartment, try to take a few light pairs of slippers with you. Often separate indoor slippers for the bathroom and living room are used. These rules not only apply to most Japanese homes, but also to many ryokan (traditional Japanese hotels), some restaurants, temples and other historic buildings.
Alternatively, if you’re staying with someone else, slippers are provided by the host. If you are not wearing socks, it’s considered polite to bring a fresh pair to wear after removing your outdoor footwear. You can wear your slippers anywhere indoors except when entering rooms with tatami floor. Tatami requires different rules, slippers must be removed beforehand and should only be stepped on with socks or in bare feet.
Separate toilet slippers are often provided for use inside washrooms. The regular slippers are left outside the door when using the toilet. Don’t forget to remove your toilet slippers after usage, a common and occasionally amusing mistake made by some foreign travelers.
Any move to Japan wouldn’t be complete without acquainting yourself with the world famous cuisine. Restaurants in Japan sometimes have low tables and cushions on tatami floor instead of western style chairs and tables. Avoid stepping onto cushions other than your own. At most restaurants, you’ll be given wet towels to freshen up with before eating. After ordering it is expected that you wait for everyone’s order and then to start the meal with the phrase “いただきますitadakimasu” (“I gratefully receive”). If you decide that you want to start eating before others “お先にいただきますosaki ni itadakimasu” (“allow me to start before you”).
After you’re finished with what was hopefully a satisfying dinner, it is good form to return all your dishes to how they were at the start of the meal. This includes replacing the lids on dishes and putting your chopsticks back on the chopstick rest or in its paper holder. If you’re confident with admittedly difficult Japanese pronunciation, conclude the meal with the phrase “ごちそうさまgochisosama deshita” (“thank you for the feast”). Employees of the restaurant don’t expect this from foreigners, but it’s a nice touch and will be well received.
All of this may seem overwhelming at first, but it’s a nice way to demonstrate an understanding and respect of the culture. This could also improve your working and living experience if you do ever plan to relocate to Japan. But never forget, being an expert is not expected. The Japanese will understand that you’re a foreigner and appreciate that it may take some time for you to completely grasp Japanese etiquette.
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