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Japanese etiquette questions

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  • Japanese etiquette questions

    Hi all- I just have some questions about etiquette in Japan... as somebody who was there in late 2015 and didn't know the stuff then .

    1) How serious is the "no eating while walking" thing? Because I had NO IDEA that was a thing (it was on NONE of the etiquette/how-to/tourist stuff I was reading!) until I got back. Because seriously... I ate and walked EVERYWHERE. Usually with ice cream cones, but also with snack food and anything that was possible to eat while moving. I didn't realize until I got home that this was a faux pas! Heck, one time I was eating an ice cream cone near a sacred temple, and trying to hold up my pants with my other hand (Japanese serving sizes + walking all day = weight loss, apparently)!

    I assume I can get a bit of a "foreigner pass" for that (ie. "oh look, that white guy has no idea what the rules are"), but is it really viewed as extremely rude and disrespectful?

    2) What is the proper response to a full 90-degree bow? This happened to me three times (a server at a restaurant; a guy in a bookstore; and some old lady who left her umbrella/bag on a train and I flagged her back and gave it to her), and I just kind of did the "uncomfortable nod/bow" thing because I didn't know how to react to the hyper-respectful bow.

    3) Do Japanese people actually say "Domo arigato"? Because I said that to a knowledgeable train station worker who helped me find the right bus for Disneyland, and he just kind of stared at me blankly. Apparently it DOES mean "thank you very much", but his reaction made me think I'd accidentally said "a pox upon your family" or something !

    4) I know you're supposed to offer your seat to an older person, but what do you do if they refuse? That happened to be twice- one old dude was like "No no no no no" with a smile (well, he was speaking Japanese, but it gave off the impression that that's what he was saying), and then two old ladies were trying to offer each other the seat next to me, and I got up to let them BOTH sit down, but they both waved me off. Was I supposed to insist? Or was just offering once enough?
    Last edited by Jabroniville; 02-03-2017, 01:19 AM.

  • #2
    Others might have a different opinion but from personal experience:

    1) There is an increased chance of dropping crumbs, spilling food on people/the floor which ends up making a mess and causing other people problems/discomfort. So therefore it is seen as being selfish and disrespectful. But you would get the "foreigner pass" if you did it.

    2) The bowing thing depends on the situation. But you were the customer/good samaritan in the examples you mentioned above so a nod and smile is enough. You would not be seen as being rude if you did not bow in a situation where you could have because everyone understands you are from overseas.

    3) Japanese people do say it, but I rarely hear it.
    Instead, I use the following words:
    "Domo" - when I am a customer and someone hands me something like change, ticket, order etc. The English equivalent would be "Thanks"
    "Arigato gozai maa" - When someone has gone out of their way to assist me. The English equivalent would be "Thank you very much"
    "Gochi so sama dea" - Used when leaving a restaurant with table service and/or to the person who paid for your meal. In English it means something like "Thank you for the delicious meal"
    4) Can be a little tricky because it depends on the situation, since the person might be about to get off the train or might not think she/he is old enough to be thought of as being old. But insisting at least once would be a good thing to do in any situation.
    What I normally do is:

    a) I only give up my seat to a person who looks like they definitely need to sit (e.g. they are struggling to stand due to a disability/old age, pregnant etc).
    b) If there is an open seat next to me and nearby when a group of two people are standing close to me, I usually just stand up and move to the other seat without saying a word (usually they will notice that I changed seats for them and will sit down while giving me a nod/smile to thank me)
    c) If there are no other empty seats nearby, but I would like the person standing to take my seat, I just move to another part of the carriage without saying anything.

    Overall I think you did not do anything that was viewed as offensive, but I would be careful about walking around while eating (unless everyone else is doing it like at a festival with lots of food stalls). And as the saying goes when visiting other countries "when in Rome, do as the Romans do".


    • #3
      Great- thanks for letting me know !

      The "walking while eating" thing was a big surprise to me, especially in such a fast-paced area like Tokyo. So I was annoyed to find out that was a "rule" when I got home. Usually it was just ice cream & snack food, though. But one time I got grilled chicken or something from a stall in Akihabara and walked around while eating it (usually stopping & standing somewhere if I had to). It was dark and kind of rainy, so not that many people were around. I'm sure the guy at the stall thought it was weird when I talked with him for 10 minutes (he spoke pretty good English) and then I immediately left when he was finished making the food .


      • #4
        I'm sure you did fine. From your description you did the most important thing which was to try to show appropriate respect in situations. The Japanese are a great and friendly people, yes by Japanese standards a few things like eating while walking may be a bit unorthodox but as a foreigner you'd be forgiven and now you know more about the culture you can different next time 😀

        As Jabroniville says above there are several ways to thank you, also remember that accents can make things very hard for Japanese people to understand, I have been trying to learn Japanese for 8 years and still get told off for my pronunciation. Also most Japanese taught in the west is very formal business style rather than the more informal style that people use everyday so you may have surprised people a bit rather than insulting them.

        With train seats eats I have had the same experience at one time an old man even tried to give me his seat (I'm 38) explaining that I was a guest in his country so should sit down. If locals refuse it's not anything to do with you but more likely to be not wanting to inconvenience a guest for themselves, as Jabronville says you can always move to avoid embarrassment

        please dont let the experiences above spoil your trip, Japan is a special soul touching place unlike anywhere else and the people are so warm and friendly when you get to know them. I do hope you had a wonderful time and are able to go back with your new knowledge and have an even better one 😄


        • #5
          Cool, thanks! Hopefully I didn't bother anyone too much.

          The funniest thing about the etiquette was that every single thing I read insisted that you offer everything, and accept everything, with two hands whenever possible. I read this again and again- ESPECIALLY regarding someone giving you their business card. So I made sure that any time somebody offered me their business card, I would follow the etiquette as closely as possible.

          So of course the ONE TIME this happened (at a Games Workshop/Warhammer store), I absent-mindedly grabbed the manager's business card with one hand, because I was holding a bag with the other one. I was like "D'OH!" Every time I gave someone money, I did it two-handed, and of course THIS time I just used the one! So silly!

          I like how everyone in Tokyo walked fast, though. I'm the kind of walker that's constantly getting stuck behind slow people, so finding an ENTIRE CITY of people who walk at the same pace I do was amazing. Unfortunately, Kyoto & Osaka aren't as fast-paced, as everyone walked normal speed over there!