Different countries have different rules when it comes to tipping. Tipping can be customary, appreciated but not necessary, or lightly suggested. When it comes to tipping in Japan, however, there’s really just major one rule to remember: don’t.
“Tipping is generally not necessary in Japan,” says Hiroshi Kawaguchi, general manager at the travel company Oku Japan. “Unlike North America, restaurant staff do not rely on tips to get by. While service in Japan is typically exemplary, tipping can actually cause confusion and will likely be refused.”
Trying to tip can lead to an awkward situation all around — for you, for the staff, for the management, and for everyone else nearby. Even worse, tipping can be seen as an insult to the restaurant. Instead, Kawaguchi says, be patient and respectful with the staff and say arigatou gozaimasu (thank you) or gochisousama deshita (thank you for the meal) when you’re done. While it might feel strange to many Westerners, service industry workers are paid better than in countries with tipping cultures, and there’s no need for an incentive to be attentive.
“Good service is a given,” says Alex Bradshaw, an expert on Japanese business etiquette and traditional culture at the Kagoshima travel company Shimadzu Ltd. “The Japanese spirit of hospitality, omotenashi (hospitality), anticipates the needs of the customer in advance of making requests.”
When tipping is acceptable in Japan
If you’ve taken a guided tour, tipping around 10 percent is accepted. Rather than simply handing over cash, it’s placed in a shugi bukuro (money envelope). High-end European restaurants and hotels also may add a 10 to 15 percent service-ryo (gratuity) that’s clearly labeled on the bill, explains Tomoko Imade Dyen, culinary curator at JAPAN HOUSE Los Angeles.
Though not technically a tip that you choose to give, some izakaya will charge for a small plate called an otoshi that’s brought to your table when you sit down, whether you order one or not.
“It’s sort of like a ‘pane e coperto’ charge you might see in Italy,” explains Nick Leighton of the etiquette podcast Were You Raised By Wolves. “This is basically a service charge. In western Kansai, this is usually called tsukidashi, but it’s the same thing.”
Other restaurant etiquette rules you should know before dining in Japan
“While most faux pas will be forgiven based on the understanding that tourists are from another culture and will likely not know the ins and outs of Japanese etiquette,” Kawaguchi says, “there are a few things to keep in mind that can be offensive.”
Canceling a reservation or not showing up is considered extremely rude. Kawaguchi also says to avoid dumping soy sauce on sushi and rice, as it hides the natural flavor. Also, be sure to properly use the oshibori (moist towel) — it’s to clean your hands before the meal and nothing else. Lastly, when it comes to payment, make sure you put your money in the right place.
“Big tourist mistake: In Japan, you don’t hand money or credit cards to people directly,” Leighton says. Place your payment on the tray instead.