Japan - Etiquette



Although I did know quite a few things about Japanese etiquette before I arrived, whenever I wasn’t 100 percent concentrated and had my mind on other things – in other words: pretty much all the time – I forgot. I knew perfectly well that I was not supposed to wear shoes indoors, but one of the first days I still forgot and had taken two steps inside, until I was reminded. Oops! Back to the entrance again, cheeks and ears a little more red. There were indoor slippers and bathroom slippers, and at one ryokan even a third kind of slippers for outdoor use. And no slippers allowed on tatami mats. No shoes in temples either, of course. Next time I’ll make sure to only bring shoes without shoe laces.

Japan shoes

I made the first blunder when I had taken a taxi to my hotel. The fare was about 1700 yen. I gave the driver 2000 and didn’t expect any change back. He came running after me with the exact change and almost looked a bit offended. You do not tip in Japan.

Some things I am still not sure about. When they gave me my change (if there was not a special little tray to put it) they handed it to me with both hands. I was never sure if I was also supposed to take it with both hands or not. Most of the time I would be holding a wallet and/or the item I had just bought, so I only had one free hand but still attempted to hold out two hands.

I tried to sit on the floor by kneeling and then sitting back on my heels but I never lasted more than five minutes before it felt as if all blood circulation had stopped. I think that must be learned from you are young? Being overweight doesn’t help, either. If I had sat like that for longer than five minutes, they would have had to carry me around locked in that position for a day or two afterwards, I’m sure. But luckily it seemed as if nobody really cared if I sat crosslegged or with my legs stretched out. Maybe they were just being polite and pretended not to notice.

Japan interior

It seems perfectly acceptable to slurp. I am not used to that, but it somehow felt cosy and relaxed, so I made an effort to learn how to slurp my soup. I was not a good learner. I either inhaled way too much air and had a fit of coughing or almost got it up my nose. I guess those 'will you stop that' looks from my parents when I was a child and happened to slurp had had their effect, after all.

The bottom line is that even though I tried to act according to local etiquette, I did look like a fool regularly. A friend of a friend had invited me out for dinner, and as we went into the restaurant we were in the middle of a conversation when the doorman (there is probably a more correct term than doorman) gave me his right hand. Or rather: he lowered his head and reached out his right hand in my direction. 

In my world that is the beginning of a handshake and I realized much too late that he was actually just offering to take the umbrella that I held in my left hand. I stopped in the middle of a movement and after flapping both arms around for a moment I finally managed to give him my umbrella. My new friend – whom I had just met ten minutes earlier – seemed to manage to kill a chuckle, but the doorman struggled very hard to keep a straight face. And then he oshook my hand afterwards. Do not let the customer lose face.  (Incidentally, the dinner was absolutely delightful. Thanks for inviting me, E!)

I am sure my Japanese friends can add to the list of the things I did the 'wrong' way. I hoped that there were extenuating circumstances and it was my impression that many people made allowances because I was a foreigner and saw I did make an effort. Sometimes perhaps too much of an effort. At many restaurants they had disposable chopsticks with pointed ends at both ends. Someone once told me it was best to use the end of the chopsticks you did not eat from when you took food from a common plate. One evening friends told me that I was overdoing the ‘politeness’ a tad. 'You can stop juggling those chopsticks around like a drum major. It’s way too formal'. I think other things may not be so easily forgiven. Not sure what, though. Maybe soap in the bathtub? I have a feeling that might not be so popular.


'Never' is a big word, but until a few weeks ago I would have sworn you would never, ever catch me singing karaoke. And even if it should ever happen, chances of me actually admitting it would be next to none. But there we were out one evening and my Japanese friends took me to a karaoke bar. I didn’t realize what kind of place it was until after we got all the way in there and sat down and someone started singing. Otherwise I might have been tempted to head for the closest escape route. I had been a lot more spirited and cocky when we were singing in the car some days earlier. This was different. I tried (without much success) to convince myself that I’d try anything once. And why not simply take the bull by the horns and take the initiative instead of just trying to hide and wait until the other four people I was with had had their turn and I would feel a bit of a pressure on me. So, as the first of my friends had finished 'performing' I flipped trough the songs trying to find one for myself.

Japan karaoke

I have always imagined that karaoke was most fun if someone was either a really good singer or completely tone deaf. Those of us falling somewhere between those two categories may just risk looking rather pathetic up there. However, I picked a song I thought I could do without being too embarrassed, and I just went for it. 

Half way through the second verse it suddenly struck me there was a rather long guitar break coming up which I had happily forgotten all about, but where I needed to come up with something to do. I improvised a little choreography for one person and one microphone stand (which was really just a variation of a dance for one person and one vacuum cleaner to a Springsteen number I used to do at home), and somehow got through the song.

I have never been offered drinks from as many strangers as I did the rest of that evening. I am not sure if this was because they thought I was pathetic or a good sport, but who cares. All I know is that it’ll most likely be the first, last and only time you’ll ever see me in a karaoke bar. Probably. Without much doubt. I think. Maybe…..

© emenel 2020