Have you been living in Tokyo for some time but have yet to master the nuances of Japanese etiquette? Or are you just visiting as a tourist, oblivious to local social norms? Here are some basic courtesy rules that bear repeating and will help you not to stand out for the wrong reasons...
DON'T: TALK LOUDLY OR MAKE CALLS ON TRAINS
We all have those moments when we’re very excited and feel the need to broadcast this to the world. A crowded train in Tokyo, however, is not the place to do so. Both talking on the phone and loud conversations on trains are rather frowned upon in this city where commuters like to be able to travel in peace.
If you get a phone call, either decline the call and buzz them back once you’re off the train, or pick up and quickly, quietly, let them know you can’t talk at the moment. The only exception to this rule is the last train home on weekends, when the average rider is so sloshed that all inhibitions are lost and almost anything goes.
DO: BE ON TIME – MEANING, EARLY
The Japanese like to be punctual. It’s the main reason our transport system runs like clockwork (in 2017 a train operator apologised profusely for a train leaving 20 seconds early), and in any other situation the same principle holds. The additional piece of information you need, however, is that being ‘on time’ when it comes to work or official situations in Japan means being 15 minutes early. Reset your clock if you need to be tricked into doing so; your coworkers or clients will appreciate it and you’ll add a few stars to the good foreigner board, thus elevating the image of a much maligned bunch.
DON'T: MISUSE THE WORD 'YOU'
Locals understand that you’re keen to show off your shiny new Japanese language skills, but it’s key to remember that pronouns aren’t used as much in Japanese as they are in English, and that the translations for ‘you’ all carry different connotations.
Words with the ‘o-’ prefix may be honorific, but ‘omae’ is definitely not. Use it to anyone you don’t know or a superior and you’ll get more than a raised eyebrow – not surprising considering you’ve essentially just said ‘oi, you!’.
The same goes for ‘kimi’ – it may be used informally between school friends these days, but otherwise it’s reserved for superiors talking down to juniors. ‘Anata’ is probably the safest one, but is mainly used when you don’t know someone’s name. Use it after meeting someone and it’s a fairly hefty social misstep.
To be on the safe side, the best thing to do is to simply stick to calling someone by their name, suffixed with ‘-san’.
DON'T: EAT ON THE GO
The amount of plastic used to encase takeaway meals should be enough of a hint: in general, food in Japan is not to be eaten while trying to get from A to B, unless you have a proper table to place it on. There is a sliding scale, though: the more pungent the food and the more crowded the place, the bigger the offense. Quick onigiri on a non-crowded train or while speed-walking? Perhaps. A pack of natto or a big slice of pizza during rush hour? Don’t even think about it.
Counterintuitively for many travellers, blowing your nose in public is more of a faux pas than constantly sniffing away. Doing so while eating is considered even worse: local minds conjure up mental images of germs and beads of mucus flying through the air and landing in less-than-optimal places. If you really can’t help it, try to deploy your handkerchief at a minimal noise level in order to keep the hygiene peace.
Illustration by Miso Okada