Study Abroad Etiquette: Japan

Before students travel abroad, encourage them to brush up on local etiquette so they can comfortably adjust to their new surroundings. In this blog, we’re sharing tips to help your students avoid common etiquette mistakes in Japan.

Greetings and Punctuality
Punctuality is extremely important in Japan. You should plan to arrive 10-15 minutes earlier than the scheduled time listed for your class or even when meeting a friend. If you are running late – even by a few minutes – call, text, or email to let your contact know. When greeting someone, saying goodbye, or thanking them, it is considered respectful to bow. The length and time of the bow is determined by the person’s title or relationship to you. In most cases, a slight nod of the head is enough, as the Japanese understand you will not be familiar with the bowing culture.

Conversation and Gestures
It is encouraged to learn some conversational Japanese before studying abroad as many people do not speak English. Even if you are a beginner, you will impress the locals with any effort to speak their language. Keep your voice low and avoid direct eye contact as it can be considered intrusive and aggressive. Try your best to stand up straight and focus on your posture while speaking with someone, as good posture means you are engaged and attentive. You should never point, even if signaling an object. If you would like to motion to somewhere or something, you may hold your hand open and gesture gently, as if leading the way. A common gesture among peers in Japan is to allow your wrist to go limp and move your fingers (similar to the traditional waving cat you may see in shops around Japan), which means ‘come here.’

Remove your shoes whenever you walk into a private space – this includes classrooms, temples, and the home of your host family. Socks should be clean and worn at all times, as being barefoot is frowned upon. If you are staying with a host family, bring a pair of house shoes that you only wear indoors. Traditional Japanese clothing is mainly worn for special events such as funerals or festivals, but you may see some people in traditional outfits regardless of the occasion. Western clothing is a large part of the current culture. Casual clothing is accepted, but you should always look presentable and avoid exposing too much skin. If dining out at any upscale restaurants, men should wear a jacket and tie while females should wear a dress or skirt.

Before you start eating, you should say ‘itadakimasu’ as it signals that you are thankful to have food to eat. Most meals are eaten with chopsticks in Japan, but you can ask for a fork if you’re uncomfortable using chopsticks. There are important rules on chopstick use that should be reviewed prior to travel, but the most common are not to leave chopsticks upright in rice or a bowl, and not to use chopsticks to pass food to another person. Slurping while eating noodles is extremely common. It is considered rude to waste food, so be careful not to take more than you can eat. When dining out in Japan, it is not customary to tip.

It is also considered extremely rude to refuse a beverage. If you are done drinking, leave your glass halfway full. You should never fill up your own glass. Allow your friends or colleagues to pour drinks for you, and fill up their glasses if you notice they are empty.

It’s a good idea to bring a gift (or two!) from the United States for your host family or to have on hand in the event you would like to thank someone. Avoid expensive items and stick to something simple like a keychain, candy bar, or baseball hat. The locals will be very appreciative of this gesture. Make sure you use two hands when giving and receiving gifts.

We hope your students find this information helpful! Want to learn more about pre-travel planning and
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