What to do/not to do as a foreigner in Japan

A friend of mine is going there to teach English in a month. I’ve noticed a fair number of expats posting here, so I was hoping I could get some help in a little list of what he should or shouldn’t do so as not to appear a boorish tourist.

I’ve already given him a lot of the basics – copy your hosts dining habits, when in Rome, etc.

Are there any good Japan specific pieces of advice? I can’t say where in Japan he’s going because he doesn’t know yet. But he will be living there for a few months if not longer if he really likes it.

Thanks in advance!

Oh, but being a boorish tourist is half the fun of travel!

He would appear very strange if he showed up seeming to already know all their customs. They would think he was a spy. At least, that’s what I would naturally assume.


If he visits a prostitute (or one visits him), she might want him to lip his stocking.

A non-intuitive one: don’t eat while you’re walking. It’s not really rude or offensive, just uncooth.

I can only dream of going to Japan, but many years ago I found this site and found it quite absorbing.

A Japanese friend working as a tour guide for visiting foreigners once recommended teaching all visitors the word “doumo” どうも, as it can be use in a variety of situations.

But what does it mean? “Please”? “Thank you”? “I am an idiot”? “Marry me”?

Yeah, for all I know my friend’s just been told to run around declaring war…

Yes to all four. :stuck_out_tongue:

Literally, it means ‘very much’, but is most frequently used in “domo arigato” - “thank you very much” which in turn is often shortened to just “domo”. It’s also used in “domo sumimasen” - “pardon me / I’m sorry”, which is also shortened to just “domo”.

Another tip: if your friend is staying with a host family, he should definitely bring a gift of some sort. Chocolates are always good (they also make a good introduction gift for the office, since they’re easy to share with everyone), and local specialties from your home are always appreciated, even if the taste is unfamiliar (my wife’s family really likes the maple syrup I bring back from New England). Warn him, though, not to give licorice; I’ve yet to meet a Japanese people who didn’t gag at the stuff.

I don’t have any specific advice - I’ve never been to Japan, for one, but here’s a very funny site written by a guy who went to teach English in Japan. It’s fairly popular, so apologies if you’ve already seen it!

Look out for Kancho!


Don’t wear shorts. I don’t know if it’s a breach of etiquette or what, but I spent a week in Japan (in summer) and didn’t see anyone over the age of 12 in shorts.

Oh, if you visit a shrine and there’s a ladle by a spring or pond, don’t drink directly from the ladle. Pour a little into your hand and drink from that.

It’s not uncouth to wear shorts in Japan, they’re just all dressed for work and such.

But in general, at least in Tokyo, yelling in the restaurant, getting drunk and being a bore, spitting as you walk down the sidewalk, wizzing on buildings, etc. are all daily occurences so pretty much if you are an American you are probably already a lot more couth than a large number of Tokyo/Japanese males.

The one thing that does always come out at me though is whiteys being all cheerful on the train. Trains are kind of like fancy restaurants in the sense that everyone is meant to keep a mellow tone and the crowd over at table eight making all the commotion…not so cool. And when you ride the train for an hour or two everyday, you do really kind of appreciate when it is mellow and you can space out.

Don’t take someone who has anger management and alchohol abuse issues, put him in a country where he is bigger than everyone and have him start jumping on car hoods and punch a Sony executive.

(one of my brother’s* fraternity brothers learned that the hard way)

  • my actual brother like we have the same Mom
    ** h

Apparently ‘thumbs up’ (very similar to the ASL sign for ‘A’) is a Rude Sign in Japan. This made things difficult for an ASL interpreter I know who was taken on a business trip there, as the ‘A’ hand shape is used in a good few ASL signs.

I am going in the fall. As a tall, oveweight white man… I look forward to scaring children and the elderly.

On a similar note, if your friend has someone fluent in Japanese write out stuff beforehand, like “I want to go to the train station, please,” BE SURE he has it proof-read by someone else also fluent!

A friend of ours many years ago, was going on a vacation to Tokyo, and had her Japanese friend write out “Please take me to the ___ shopping district” for the taxi drivers. (Sorry, don’t remember the name, but a very large shopping area near there)

After arriving, shoppy-girl time came, and she got into the taxi and handed the driver the note. Guy like to have had a freaking heart attack! Turned red in the face and kept saying something that meant “very good” or “Number one” in Japanese. Well, he got her just fine, and upon returning to the hotel, she gave the note to the concierge and asked for a translation.

To cut to the chase, the guy said, completely deap-pan, “It says, ‘Please take me to the ___ shopping district. By the way, how do you like my large American breasts?’”

We almost had a murder when she got back.

:smack: “Well, he got her THERE just fine…”


Try not to blow your nose in public. It’s considered rude.

:eek: I’m not welcome in Japan.