Chris Broad on What NOT to Do in Japan
In his new book Abroad in Japan, the popular YouTuber, filmmaker and podcast host Chris Broad shares hilarious incidents and misadventures from the decade he has spent in his adoptive country Japan. In this exclusive piece, Chris shares his top tips on things you should never do when visiting the Land of the Rising Sun.
When I arrived in Japan back in 2012, the country had recorded 8 million overseas visitors for that year. By 2019, that number had swelled to a massive 31 million. This huge uplift in foreign tourism is a testament to the country’s enduring cultural appeal and eager travelers were clamoring to visit while borders were closed during the pandemic. Now, having re-opened to the world last year, Japan is back to welcoming overseas tourists who are rushing to immerse themselves in the rich culture, cuisine and sights that make the country such a captivating and rewarding travel destination.
Over the last decade living in Japan, I’ve been lucky enough to explore each of the country’s diverse 47 prefectures, producing over 200 Youtube videos which span everything from eating pizza with a movie star to exploring the restoration efforts following the Fukushima nuclear disaster. I’ve even climbed Mount Fuji, twice despite the infamous national expression “A wise man climbs Mount Fuji once, only a fool climbs it twice.” Anyone who saw my first attempt, where I almost froze to death, might argue that I was never a wise man.
Yet, for all the videos I’ve produced, begrudgingly the most popular by far, with a staggering 17 million views, is an episode called "What not to do in Japan”. Perhaps it’s not so surprising given that Japan’s baffling and often complex etiquette strikes fear into the hearts of travelers. I don’t blame tourists for wondering if their journey to the Land of the Rising Sun will end in disaster if they forget to bow at the appropriate time or perform some kind of chopstick faux pas midway through a delicious meal. In my own early years in Japan, I was no stranger to humiliating myself in public or regularly putting my foot in my mouth due to my shoddy Japanese.
With that in mind, I want to share with you 12 things NOT to do in Japan, with the hope that it’ll put your mind at ease if you find yourself visiting there any time soon. It’s a fantastic, often beautiful culture and I’d hate to think that any fear around etiquette might prevent anyone from visiting. Some of these points may seem like common sense, but you’d be surprised how often people make these mistakes! Others will perhaps be more surprising, but will save you some embarrassment in the long run. So, in no particular order, let’s dive in!
1) DON’T Get Physical
In Japan, personal space is highly valued and there is little to no physical contact in public, especially between strangers. Instead of handshakes, hugging and touching, expect bowing. Lots of bowing. That’s not to say people don’t shake hands. Just remember that doing so might make others feel uncomfortable and is often the exception rather than the rule. If you’re travelling as a couple, note that public displays of affection are very rare indeed...
2) DON’T Eat and Drink While Walking
Eating or drinking while on the move is considered bad manners in Japan, for two reasons. Firstly, unlike British roadsides which are often smeared in chewing gum, wrappers and chips from Happy Meals gone by, Japanese streets are pristine and litter free, and the general public make sure to keep it that way. By avoiding eating or drinking while on foot, you’re less likely to inadvertently make a mess in a public place. Secondly, the Japanese believe food should be appreciated with one’s full attention and carried out in a proper way. There are even fixed phrases used before and after eating a meal such as Itadakimasu (I humbly receive) and Gochisousama deshita (It was a feast). If you’re eating your meal while racing across town, it’s hard to give the food the appreciation it truly deserves.
That being said, there are certain tourist areas which embrace street food (such as Asakusa in Tokyo) and it’s much more acceptable to tuck into a stick of Yakitori skewered chicken while strolling around such neighborhoods. If in doubt, check what the locals are doing.
3) DON’T Wear Shoes Indoors
Remember not to wear shoes inside homes and certain traditional establishments such as temples, ryokans, and even some restaurants. It's considered rude and disrespectful as you’re bringing dirt into a clean space. The only time I’ve witnessed a stranger in Japan go truly berserk was the day a friend left their shoes on while entering a public bath house. The elderly woman at the reception desk rocketed out of her chair and pushed him back to the doorway where he tore off his footwear. Just be mindful when entering certain establishments to check whether you need to remove them or not. It should be made fairly obvious by a shelf stuffed with shoes.
4) DON’T Play With Your Chopsticks
There are certain things you shouldn’t do with chopsticks in Japan. For instance, sticking chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice is a ritual at funerals, so doing this is considered inappropriate. The same goes for passing food from chopstick to chopstick, as it mimics a practice at funerals where the bones of the deceased are passed around by family members. It’s hard to forget this rule when you’ve witnessed that imagery.
5) DON’T Tip
In Japan, tipping is not customary and can even be viewed as insulting. Workers are proud to provide the best service as part of their job and offering an additional reward would imply otherwise. You may think you’re being polite to offer it - especially as the service quality in Japan is second to none - but it’s going to cause more problems than you realize. Don’t do it!
6) DON’T Use the Phone on Public Transport (or in Restaurants)
Phone conversations in public places like buses, trains, or restaurants are considered rude in Japan. People value peace and quiet and have respect for others' personal space, particularly on crowded trains. Try to keep your phone on silent mode and step outside if you must take a call. This is one etiquette rule where breaching it may lead to a lot of angry stares very fast.
7) DON’T Underestimate Business Cards
Business cards are almost seen as a physical extension of an individual in Japan. When receiving a business card, don't put it away immediately or write on it. This can be seen as disrespectful. Business cards should be received with both hands and studied for a good ten seconds before being put away carefully and discretely.
8) DON’T Blow Your Nose in Public
Blowing your nose in public is considered rude and unhygienic in Japan. It’s preferable to sniff rather than blow your nose in front of people or instead excuse yourself to the restroom to blow your nose in sweet solitude.
9) DON’T Be Overly Opinionated
Japanese culture values harmony and consensus, so being overly opinionated, especially in a confrontational manner, can be considered disrespectful and disruptive. Speaking your mind in a direct manner or grilling people on their opinions can be a great way to alienate new friends early on.
10) DON’T Litter (Despite the Absence of Bins)
Despite the surprising lack of public trash cans, littering is highly frowned upon in Japan. It's expected that you carry your trash with you until you can dispose of it properly. Venturing out on a quest to find a public bin can often feel like an Indiana Jones film. I recommend keeping an eye out for a convenience store, as they’re the most likely bin you’ll find while out and about.
11) DON’T Jaywalk
Even if there are no cars in sight, jaywalking is considered a big deal in Japan. It's important to obey traffic rules and wait for the man to turn green before crossing the road. You might feel a bit ridiculous waiting by the side of an empty road, especially coming from the UK where pedestrians enjoy something of a free for all when it comes to crossing roads, however I can guarantee, you’ll feel phenomenally awkward stepping out while all the Japanese pedestrians watch on, patiently waiting.
12) DON’T Worry Too Much About Etiquette
I know, a bit of a contradiction! While it's important to respect Japanese customs and practices, don't be overly anxious about it. Most Japanese people understand that foreigners may not know all the rules and are generally forgiving if you make a mistake out of ignorance. What they appreciate is the effort made to respect the culture. For the most part, mistakenly breaking these rules won’t be the end of the world, but I will say, good luck to you if you forget to remove your shoes or make a phone call on public transport.
Now you know what NOT to do in Japan, be sure to head over and experience all the country has to offer – and take advantage of the current exchange rate! Visiting here isn’t cheap but there’s never been a better time to do it.
And of course, don’t forget the one thing you absolutely SHOULD do before visiting Japan: grab your copy of Abroad in Japan!
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