For outsiders looking in at a country’s etiquette rules, it can be easy to get culture shock. That’s especially true when, like Japan, the country is famous for the complexity of its social rules. Japanese culture prizes harmony and social order, and that focus is reflected in its social customs.
Honor-bound: Honorifics are phrases meant to clarify a person’s social standing, like Dr., Mr. or Miss. Japanese honorifics, a set of suffixes added to names to convey relative social standing, can be confusing to outsiders.
But most common honorifics are actually pretty easy to explain, even to people who don’t know anything about the system to start.
-san is the most common honorific, an honorific used between peers that has the same connotations as “Mr.” or Mrs.” Schoolchildren and co-workers typically refer to each other with -san. -sama is more formal, generally used for social superiors or a person whom the speaker admires. It’s also used for oneself if you want to be a smart-alec (meaning something like ‘my honourable self’).
-kun is typically used for people talking to someone of a lower rank than them, or a man the speaker is emotionally attached to. -chan is a suffix used for someone the speaker thinks is cute, like a child or a pet. -tan is an even more cute version of -chan. -kun, -chan, or -tan can be used with equals if you’re close to them, but they shouldn’t be used for superiors.
Senpai (“earlier colleague”) is used for peers in higher grades at school, and anyone with more experience at work, school, or a club. the equivalent of “senior.” This is used for classmates in higher grades and all people with more experience than yourself either at work, club, or in any kind of group. Kōhai (“later colleague”) is the opposite, but it’s not generally used as a suffix, as the speaker risks sounding condescending.
Serious Business: Offering business cards (meishi) is a serious ritual in Japan, and the market for business cards in the country is over ¥420 billion. Everyone carries business cards, and most businesspeople order cards three times a year. It’s a serious faux-pas to get caught at a business meeting without one.
Basic Rules: When in a business situation, there are a few simple rules for exchanging business cards. People offer and receive cards with both hands, ensuring that the card is turned towards the receiver, and carefully read the card after taking it. The person with lower social status is supposed to present their card first, and at a lower level.
Gifts: Giftgiving is serious business in Japan; the trick is to put as much effort as possible into the gift while not appearing to put any effort in. There are two gift-giving seasons in Japan, seibo in the winter and chūgen in the summer. In these seasons, gifts are given out to people the giver is close to, especially superiors. Gifts are impeccably decorated, to a degree that would put a North American mall wrapping kiosk to shame.
Gifting No-nos: A bouquet of white flowers wouldn’t be an appropriate gift in Japan, as they’re often associated with funerals and death – a little like giving calla lilies as a present in the west. People giving out wedding presents generally avoid anything breakable (like ceramics or a mirror) or anything used to cut (like scissors or a knife), because of the bad symbolism for the upcoming marriage. And gifts for someone moving into a new home or starting a new store shouldn’t include anything to do with fire (i.e. lighters or ashtrays).
Gifting Rituals: Of course, even if someone gives out a really inappropriate gift, it will probably be received graciously, because gift receiving is just as serious business in Japan as gift giving. There’s a real ritual to it: the person receiving the gift should feign surprise (the more the better!) and the person giving the gift should emphasize that it’s cheap, small and that the gifter is embarrassed by it.
Seiza, or kneeling with your legs together and the tops of your feet flat on the ground, is the formal way to sit on the floor. In less formal situations, men tend to sit agura (with crossed legs) and women tend to sit yoko-zuwari (with legs folded back to the side). Increasingly, women may sit agura, but it’s not seen as especially ladylike.
Sitting Pretty: If you’re not used to sitting seiza, it gets uncomfortable very quickly. As more people in Japan are unaccustomed to sitting seiza for a long time, there is now a discrete “seiza stool” that folds away to fit in a handbag. Low enough to be visually unimposing, it helps keep some of a person’s weight off the feet, alleviating some of the discomfort associated with seiza.
Money Matters: In Japan, most businesses discourage you from handing the money directly to the cashier, instead providing you with a tray you can put your money on for them to take. Handing money to a cashier when they have one of those trays in front of them would be the Japanese equivalent of slapping your money down on the counter and yelling “Gimme change!”
Take a Bow: For Westerners, bowing is probably the most visible form of Japanese etiquette rules. In Japan, people bow to say hello or goodbye, to thank or apologize or congratulate, or to ask for favors. And, depending on the context of the bow and the relative social status of the people involved, there are multiple different bows that can be given.
Bowing Basics: A proper Japanese bow starts from one of two positions: seiza (the formal seated position) or seiritsu (a formal standing position). A proper seiritsu involves standing with legs close together, hands on thighs, and a fist-width of space between the elbows and the rest of the body. Whatever kind of bow you’re using, the slope of your neck and back should be straight.
Mokurei (eye bow): This one is only used in very informal situations, and it’s not even exactly a bow per se. Instead, the bower nods their head at the person, bowing more with their eyes than their bodies. Obviously, this is pretty much restricted to close friends and equal-status family members.
Eshaku (15° “greeting bow”): This relatively casual bow is used with acquaintances of equal rank. While it shouldn’t appear rushed, this modest bow doesn’t need to be lingered over, and only needs to last a few seconds.
Senrei (30° “polite bow”): Senrei is semi-formal, the bowing equivalent of a “business casual” designation on an invitation. And it can only be entered into from a sitting position; the bower bends forward 30 degrees, sliding their palms towards their knees at the same speed, and looks down at the floor.
Keirei (45° “respect bow”): This is the bow for being confronted by a superior, or someone who is more socially-powerful than you are. Not only does the bower bend forward for the length of a total breath in and out, they also place their hands in a triangle on the floor if the bow starts from a seated position.
Eat Your Heart Out: A lot of Japanese eating customs are just normal politeness things that even Westerners should understand, but the rules surrounding chopsticks can be opaque for Westerners. You shouldn’t stab food with your chopsticks, use them to gesture, or use them as a knife. You also shouldn’t rub your chopsticks together, as that’s often done with cheap chopsticks to remove splinters.
Hard Pass: While most chopstick rules are pretty relaxed, passing food to friends between chopsticks is a serious no-no. That’s because, in the Buddhist funeral tradition, the cremated bones of a person are passed between family members with chopsticks before being deposited into the urn. For obvious reasons, this is considered bad luck when done at the dinner table.
Stuck Up: In a similar vein, it’s a serious faux pas to leave your chopsticks sticking upright in the bowl. The reason is, chopsticks are often placed vertically in a bowl of rice to honor the dead, at their funeral or in front of a photograph of them in a home altar. It’s also said to resemble a stick of incense sticking up in an offering bowl.