Japan is a country that's very concerned about etiquette, so there are manners that you should be aware of. Here are 7 things you should know so your trip can go smoothly and happily. The first three are things that shouldn't be done because they are related to Buddhist funerals so doing them will bring bad luck, while the other four are manners used in daily life.
1. Awasebashi (passing food from one pair of chopsticks to the other)
Awasebashi is the act of passing food from one pair of chopsticks to the other, such as in the photo when someone is offering you a bite. It's also called "hashiwatashi," and it's a breach of manners that will break the fun atmosphere of your meal. Why is this bad? In Japanese funerals, after the body is cremated, the family members pick the bones from the ashes and pass it to each other using chopsticks. Since awasebashi is reminiscent of that, it is an act that will bring bad luck. So what do you do in the case of the photo below? You ask them to place it on the communal plate so you can pick it up yourself or you pass them a small dish. Under no circumstances do you take food directly from chopstick to chopstick.
2. Tatebashi (standing chopsticks)
Tatebashi is what it's called when chopsticks are placed in a bowl of rice standing up. In Japanese Buddhist funerals, rice is offered to the deceased with the chopsticks standing straight in the bowl. Since it has this funeral connection, it's also a breach of manners to do it in daily life. When you're eating and you want to put your chopsticks down, please use a chopstick rest. If there isn't one, place the end of your chopsticks on a small dish as shown in the photo. If you're using disposable chopsticks, you can also use the paper envelope it comes in as a chopstick rest.
3. When you wear kimono or yukata, the left side goes on top
Since Western shirts have the buttons on the opposite sides depending on the gender, many Japanese people think that kimono or yukata (summer kimono) are meant to be worn with the opposite side on top depending on gender as well. Actually, both men and women are meant to have the left side on the top. If you have the right side on top, you're dressed the way deceased people are dressed for funerals. An easy way to remember it is to wear it so that your right hand can easily touch your chest under the top layer. In this photo of a woman you can see that her right hand should be able to easily slide into her kimono. That's how you know the left side is on top. Please remember that when you wear a kimono or yukata, your right hand should be able to slide into your clothing easily so you know you're wearing it correctly.
4. Don't bring outside food into restaurants/drinking establishments
Since restaurants are establishments made to offer food and drink, you're meant to eat what they have on hand. Depending on the store, there are places that will let you bring in outside food for a fee but this is not a regular rule. Also, for restaurants, if a customer gets food poisoning then it won't be clear where the customer got it from and the store might have to close temporarily, making it a very big problem. Please only eat food offered at that restaurant. For example, don't bring rice balls to a French restaurant. However, if you're going to a food court, you're relatively free to eat what you want. If there's something you want to bring to eat, please go to a place like a food court. Please consider ordering something from a place in the food court as well.
*Photo is for illustrative purposes.
5. Stand on one side of the escalator
Technically you're not supposed to walk up the escalator, but in Japan it's considered polite to leave one side open for people in a hurry to walk up. When you ride the escalator, please leave the right side available for people. While the rule to leave one side open for people in a hurry is nationwide, standing on the left is the Kanto rule. In Kansai, you stand on the right. This is only a rumor, but it's said that the reason people in Kansai stand on the right is that when the World Expo came to Osaka in 1970, they moved to the right to match Western etiquette. So why do people stand on the left in Kanto? It's said to match Japanese traffic laws, where cars drive on the left so people pass on the right. This might be different from your country.
On escalators vators that aren't wide enough to pass by, please be careful to utilize the escalator when you're in a rush to you avoid accidents. When you walk on them, please make sure to use the handrail.
6. Don't speak loudly or use the phone in trains and elevators
It's fun to move around while talking with your friends. But if you get too excited and speak really loudly, it's considered a breach of etiquette in Japan. It is even worse in a small space like an elevator or a train. Speaking in such a loud voice that the people around you can hear you clearly will make others uncomfortable. Also, on trains, there is an announcement asking to put your cell phones on manner mode, to refrain from speaking on the phone, and to turn your phone off entirely when you're by the priority seats. Most Japanese people will hang up their phone quickly or respond by text if their phone rings. Even during the morning rush hours when trains are packed, it's surprisingly quiet. The basis of this rule is to not intrude in on other people's space and cause trouble, something that is very important to Japanese people. While it isn't necessary to ride a super-packed train, please be careful of your volume when you're in public areas.
7. Trash separation
It's necessary to separate your trash when you're throwing it out. The biggest categories are burnables (raw trash, paper, etc.), non-burnables (pots, glass, etc.), and recyclables (glass bottles, cans, plastic bottles, newspapers, cardboards, etc.). Also, depending on the organization dealing with the trash, it might separate food trays that comes with pre-prepared foods bought at the supermarket separately from burnables, or non-burnables might be separated into even more specific categories. Please be aware of what it's like in the area you're staying in. Something that you'll see often is trash cans by vending machines that separate plastic bottles and cans. At convenience stores, there are garbage cans with illustrations representing which trash they're for so please try to use them without making a mistake. Being able to fully enjoy your trip sightseeing in Japan while participating in keeping the country clean is truly a great thing. Please separate your trash.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Please remember and abide by these Japanese manners during your stay.
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.