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8 Taboos Not to Break When in Japan

by Agnès Redon Nov 7, 2014
1. Walk on the wrong side

Even though greater Tokyo is one of the most-densely populated urban centers in the world, here, crowds are orderly. Pedestrians on wide sidewalks follow the unspoken rule of staying to the left almost as strictly as cars do. On Tokyo escalators, the rule becomes still more complicated: you need to stand on the left and walk on the right this time. Don’t you dare stand in the walking lane and walk in the standing lane, or you risk being trampled by a crowd or remorseless pedestrians.

2. Call a sexual organ by its actual name

Saying the name of genitals out loud, especially the female one, is one of the most serious Japanese no-nos. Instead, a Japanese person will imply the nether regions by saying “asoko,” which literally means “there” and is generally understood — no creepy winking necessary.

This taboo is so strong that a Japanese artist was recently arrested on obscenity charges for selling and distributing the design files to make 3D-printed models of her vulva. She was told that she was not allowed to use the word “manko” (a casual word for vagina), which brings up a point of caution: With a preponderance of female Japanese names ending in “ko” as well as other common words such as “hanko” (seal), new Japanese speakers must be careful to avoid an unfortunate slip of the tongue, such as “Have you seen manko?” That will not end well.

3. Be tactile

If you think some physical contact is a good way for people to connect, you may be considered a “hentai” (weirdo). In Japan, you are always expected to bow, especially toward those who are older or superior to you. Unlike Westerners, Japanese people do not share their germs when greeting others — no handshakes and, of course, no cheek kisses!

4. Leave a tip

Don’t even think about tipping in Japan! Tipping just creates confusion. If you leave extra money behind, no matter how much, don’t be surprised if your waiter chases you down the street to return it.

5. Blow your nose in public

Take the metro in Tokyo in winter and you will enjoy a nose-sniffling concert. Japanese people hate to blow their noses in public, or worse, see someone blow theirs. In fact, sniffling is perfectly normal in Japan, and serious snorting goes completely unnoticed. People walking around with runny noses or snorting it all back in are, unfortunately, not rare. Believe me when I say that, more than once, I fought the urge to hand out a pocket pack of Kleenex to someone sniffling and say: “Just go ahead and BLOW IT already!”

6. Pour soy sauce on white rice

Are you mad? Even if you don’t like plain white rice, don’t do that in public or else the chef/restaurant owner/your host will be deeply offended. But don’t worry, there’s a workaround: you need to pour or dip soy sauce on other things such as pickles (perfectly acceptable), eat them, and then proceed to eat white rice immediately after, savoring the light remnants of soy-sauce flavor still clinging to your tongue.

7. Cross your legs

Crossing your legs is considered very casual and improper even if you do your best to cross them tightly and stylishly. Instead, experience the “seiza,” an excruciating form of traditional Japanese sitting (on your knees), invented especially to torture foreigners. I know this to be true because Japanese people do not seem to have any problem sitting that way. Many even seem to enjoy it.

8. Eat in the street / subway

Despite the fact that it may be convenient to walk while eating, in Japan, it could be seen as if you are taking food too casually and not paying the proper respect to the people who grew/made it. Broadly speaking, you are supposed to cherish your food. Even if you are just ordering from street vendors, you must eat it right there on the spot, or take it home. Under no circumstances should you walk away while eating it. For a Japanese vendor (except for ice cream and maybe some donuts shops), it’s very hard to understand that someone may want to enjoy a piece of cake right after purchasing it; a cake can only be eaten at home. Try telling them, “Don’t put it in a box, I’m eating it immediately,” and they’ll do the exact opposite.

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