Survival Guide to Japan: Don’t Do That!


Reading time: 4 minutes

It is perfectly understandable to be anxious about what would seem a long list of’ do’s and don’ts’ when visiting Japan, after all, it’s essential to follow the expectations of Japanese society in order to keep harmony and avoid the ‘disapproving stare’, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Below, you’ll find my quick read ‘Survival Guide to Japan: Don’t Do That!’ which includes top tips about some of the more common mistakes performed by tourists and how you can avoid them.

Keep It Down.

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 Tanya got fingered for a KitKat!


How do you feel when you’re involuntarily involved in someone else’s loud and private phone call when on the train? Switch your device to silent and never take an incoming call when using public transportation in Japan; don’t be the individual who shares the previous night’s events with, “Tanya got fingered for a KitKat!”. Riding in a carriage in Japan can be rather unusual and unfamiliar to us foreigners with the absolute stillness and absence of sound, but be mindful that many Japanese commuters who work long days and travel long distances use this time to sleep; consideration for others is hugely important in Japan and basic common courtesy.

Consideration to volume isn’t exclusive to public transportation, in fact, you should maintain a respectful level of volume wherever you are to avoid creating a self-image of, ‘loud and foreign’, so don’t shout across a crowd or store to get your friends attention, instead opt for physically approaching them and saying, “we need to top up on KitKats“. 

TIP: If in doubt, use your ‘indoor voice’, and remember, never talk on the phone when using public transportation.

Don’t Litter.

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selling drinks, snacks, cigarettes and even used thongs


In public, Japanese people never walk and eat, instead, when buying food from a convenience store they’ll stand outside the front, eat or drink there, and then use the bins provided by the store. Why? In Japan, there is a conscious effort to keep the streets clean from litter, plus, there is a shortage of public trash cans (learn why here), but despite this paradox, the streets are absolutely spotless. What if I buy from a vending machine? In Japan, you will find plenty of vending machines, 5.52 million to be exact, selling everything from, drinks, snacks, cigarettes and even used thongs in some places. If you buy something from a vending machine, you should consume/smell your purchased product there and most importantly, discard of it there. All vending machines have a bin next to them so you can dump your packaging, and do note that these are usually the only public bins available, so dump what evidence you can when an opportunity presents itself.

TIP: If public bins aren’t available anywhere nearby, Japanese people take their rubbish home with them, so consider taking a small plastic bag to put inside your handbag/rucksack for storing litter.

Spacial Awareness and Boundaries.

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 someone will push you down the escalator


Spatial Awareness is the ability to see and understand two or more objects in relation to each other and to one’s body in terms of space and distance; an ability that unfortunately seems to elude some tourist in Japan as they collide shoulders with passing pedestrians or knock into them when carelessly taking selfies. This, of course, is rude in any country but more so in Japan where boundaries and awareness of your surroundings are extremely important. Spatial awareness is even demonstrated when using escalators in Japan, for example, traditionally, people in Tokyo stand on the left side of an escalator and leave the right side clear for those in a hurry to ascend or descend; whereas, in Osaka, people stand to the right side and leave the left side clear. Do note that this is not just common courtesy that can be ignored, it’s pretty much frowned upon if you’re caught blocking the way, so don’t be that person that I we all hate, otherwise I’ll someone will push you down the escalator.

How do I respect personal boundaries in Japan? Don’t hug or reach out to shake hands with someone, bowing is the countries prefered choice of greeting and hugging will lead to an awkward and uncomfortable moment; this, of course, can be relaxed once a friendship is established, but not before. This also extends to public displays of affection, where you’ll not see couples sharing much more than a sip of coke.

TIP: Walk as if you’re driving, check before stepping out and give way, and if you feel too embarrassed to bow, at least lower/nod your head respectfully. 


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 just keep sniffing


As you know (hopefully), it is common decency to cover your mouth/nose when sneezing and coughing, but I bet you didn’t know that Japanese women take it one step further and also cover their mouth whilst laughing. Why? In Japanese culture, it is generally considered ‘ungraceful’, ‘clumsy’ and ‘unladylike’ if Japanese women laugh out loud. This is also the case with yawning, but for the reason that it is simply impolite to show the inside of your mouth. Lastly, blowing your nose in public is seen as rude, so, just keep sniffing basically.

What about shoes? Wearing your shoes indoors in certain establishments, such as hospitals, temples and sports centres, is seen as dirty, so do be sure to remove your shoes and change into the available slippers by the front entrance. This rule even extends to toilets, where you’ll need to remove your indoor slippers and instead put on toilet slippers; and if you visit a gym in Japan, you’ll need to wear ‘indoor’ trainers/sneakers to use the equipment. Don’t worry if you’re not sure where and when to change into the slippers provided as it will be made obvious in the entrance. 

My final tip is, ‘be considerate’, Japan isn’t Málaga nor is it Vegas, and it isn’t a place comfortable with some of the outlandish behaviour tourists have been known to demonstrate. Japan is a country rich in tradition where harmony is maintained through obedience and structure, so, follow the rules, don’t cross on a red light, don’t point your camera at people, don’t blow your nose in public, don’t shout and absolutely don’t stare. Do your utmost to respect Japan, adopt all guidelines and be respectful of everyone around you; and most importantly, remember, Japanese people are forgiving and understanding of tourists, so don’t worry too much if you make a mistake, be respectful, be considerate and have fun.

TIP: Basically, don’t be a dick.

Over the next few weeks, Clueless in Asia will be posting a few ‘Survival Guide to Japan’ articles that will, well…help you survive your trip to Japan. This will include, what not to do, what not to wear and what not to say. If you’d like to learn about Japanese culture then occasionally stop by Clueless in Asia to check out new content. Alternatively, you can join the Clueless in Asia mailing list to receive the odd prompt. 


2 thoughts on “Survival Guide to Japan: Don’t Do That!

  1. ejn says:

    I especially like ‘Not Blowing ones nose in public.’ And most especially in front of people who are eating. I wish people in the U.S. would be more considerate.


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