[Intermediate Level] Five Common Sense Etiquette in Japan

Behavior that is normal in one's country may be inappropriate in Japan or even illegal. Be sure to keep the following in mind so you are not considered ill-mannered or end up breaking the law.

1. Touching Food Sold in Stores

It may be common to pick up products to examine when shopping, but don't touch unpackaged food or items sold by weight just out of curiosity. It raises up sanitary concerns, and some products can be damaged when touched. It is the same at bakeries, where you pick up breads using tongs, and at buffets. This is common sense in Japan, so there are no warning signs. If you're interested in food that is being sold, talk to the salesperson. Depending on the shop, they may even give you a sample to taste. The product belongs to the shop until you buy it, so don't touch it however you like.

2. Eating While Walking

Light food that can be eaten on the spot, such as dango (dumplings) on skewers and fruits, are often sold at the storefront. Street food is a wonderful way to experience the local food culture and can be one of the highlights of traveling. Unfortunately, inconsiderate behavior, such as walking into shops while eating, touching and soiling products with dirty hands, and littering the streets, has led some towns to ban eating while walking. Even if there is no ban, do not enter shops while eating or touch products with dirty hands. Also, be sure to put litter in the garbage bin, and make sure that you're careful not to spill anything on other people. Utilize any space the shops may have available to eat at, such as in the photograph.

3. No-Shows When You Have a Reservation

Reservations can now be easily made over the phone, but unfortunately, that has made no-shows a big issue in Japan. Some people make double bookings, or their plans have changed and they don't bother to cancel. No-shows can result in cancellation fees, and in extreme cases, have even led to court cases. Be sure to check cancellation policies when making a reservation, and if your plans change, don't forget to cancel the reservation.

4. Leaving Food Uneaten (Especially at Buffets)

Buffets, where you put whatever you want on your plate, are a great way to enjoy a variety of different foods. Your eyes are often greedier than your stomach, so it is common to want to try more than your stomach will allow. However, it is inappropriate to leave a lot of food on your plate. Try to get just the food that you can eat and to eat all that you have taken. (Also, remember not to touch the food on display before serving yourself.) There is an expression "mottainai" in Japan, which means that food and other items that can still be used should be cherished and not allowed to go to waste. Be sure to eat all your food, not only at buffets, so you are not accused of "mottainai" behavior.

5. Smoking While Walking or Outside of Designated Areas

In most places in Japan, there are designated smoking areas inside and outside of facilities. Many municipalities have banned smoking while walking, and you might not get away by saying that you didn't know or forgot. The rules are different by municipality, with some charging fines for throwing cigarette butts on the ground, in addition to smoking while walking, so it is safe to assume that you are not in a spot that allows smoking when the desire hits you. If you want to smoke, go to a designated smoking area or to a restaurant that allows smoking. If you are using a smoking area in a restaurant, be sure to place your order first.

There are countries where the etiquette is to leave a little food on the plate, so cultural differences can be quite interesting. One of the joys of traveling, whether in Japan or elsewhere, is learning about and enjoying the differences in culture and etiquette!

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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