This Question Came to My Inbox: What are some things I can do as a foreigner to be polite in Japan?

There are all kinds of things foreigners can do to be polite in Japan. I will tell you some I know, and there may be more than I know.

Pick the futon up in the morning. If you don’t and leave it there too long, mushrooms might grow under it, and you have destroyed it and the tatami mat (the straw mat). Put it in the closet, and hang it outside once a week.
  1. Always take your shoes off at the door. Never wear inside shoes outside nor outside shoes inside.
  2. Always pick your futon up and fold it up and put it in the closet every morning. Once a week, hang your futon outside on the balcony to air out. If you leave that futon in the floor too long, you may actually find mushrooms under it.
  3. If someone offers you a drink, a piece of cake, a piece of candy, etc., don’t take it the first time they offer it even if you want it. They will offer it again, and don’t take it the second time either. Take it the third time they offer, and they will offer it a third time.
  4. If you offer them something, just get ready because they won’t take it the first time. You will have to offer it three times if you really want to them to take it. Japanese may be really puzzled if you don’t because they may really want it, but they are just being polite waiting for the third offer.
  5. If someone gives you a gift, it means they want to be friends. If you want to be friends, what you have to do is give them a return gift, and they will know you want to be friends.
  6. If you give a gift, put a red ribbon on it. A red ribbon means a happy occasion in Japan.
  7. Be careful about touching Japanese, They are not used to hugs, holding hand, etc., and you could really freak them out if you touch them. When I took my Japanese son in law to introduce him to my sister, my mother, and lots of other family members, they are American southerners, and they were hugging everyone, even him, and it really freaked him out!! They were just trying to be welcoming in their way, but it was very uncomfortable for him.
  8. If you are a foreign guy around Japanese girls, be careful. The Japanese guys don’t run around holding their hands and kissing them like the guys in the west do with girls they like. If you get a hold of the wrong Japanese girl, you could really freak her out. I will never forget when it was all over the news about an American service man in Okinawa who went on a date with a Japanese girl and got accused of rape. American guys can be aggressive, and American girls know it is up to them to say “yes” or “no,” but the Japanese girls don’t always understand because Japanese guys are stoic and usually ignore them.
  9. If you are a foreign girl in Japan, the Japanese guys won’t ask you out even if they like you because Japanese guys don’t ask girls out. If a Japanese guy likes you, he will give you a gift. If you like him too, give him one back.
  10. If you are a foreign guy, go ahead and be a gentleman. The tradition in the west is for guys to carry the heavy bags and open the doors for the girls. In Japan, the girls do those things. If a foreign guy does those things for a Japanese girl, he will have an automatic friend. Traditionally, foreign guys and Japanese girls get along very well because culturally, they have the same role.
  11. if you are in Japan, be sure and bow at the appropriate times. If you are a student, bow from the waste if you meet your teacher. Show therm lots of respect. If you meet someone your age, still bow, but you don’t have to bow as low for them as you do the teacher. Do a lot of bowing in Japan.
  12. If you want to say something negative to a Japanese, never say it to their face. Tell someone else and ask them to tell them. For example, a teacher wanted to tell me not to chew gum in her class, so she asked someone else to tell me. She was not direct because being direct in Japan is impolite.
  13. Learn to use phrases like “I think” (to omoimasu), “I suppose” (deshiyo), and “maybe” (tabun). If you express yourself too straight forward, you are impolite in Japan. Even if you know that what you are saying is true, preface it with these kinds of phrases. You will be much less shocking to a Japanese.
  14. Japanese don’t like show offs. They want people to be humble. They go so far as asking people to translate even if hey can speak English, so you can do the same even if you can speak Japanese, and you are afraid you might come across too bold, use a translator. They will appreciate it.
  15. Never place your chop sticks straight up and down in the bowl. It means that someone has died.
  16. If you are in a conversation with a Japanese, to show them you are listening, don’t interrupt them when they are talking, but nod your head and say things like “so, deshiyo!” (That is the way it is, I suppose.) or “Hai, so-u desu, ne?” (Yes, it is like that, isn’t it?) or simple, “Hai, Hai, Hai!” (yes, yes, yes). They want to know you are listening.
  17. If you are sitting in the floor, girls don’t sit Indian style. It is impolite for a girl to sit like that in Japan. Girls are supposed to kneel and sit on their legs. Boys are allowed to sit Indian style.
  18. If you are a girl, you may hear the word “boku” used for “I,” but never use it. It is only used by guys. If a girl uses it, she is considered bad. As a girl, use “watashi” for “I” unless you are trying to be very respectful, and then say “watakushi.”
  19. Don’t ask where the bathroom is. If you need the bathroom, just poke around and find it because talking about the bathroom in Japanese is impolite.
  20. Learn to use words like “gomenasai” and “sumimasen” meaning “excuse me” or “I am sorry.” Use “Domo arigato gozimashita” meaning, “thank you very much.” Use “Doi tashimashite: meaning, “you are welcome.” Bow when you use these phrases.
  21. Learn to read between the lines. Sometimes they will say something as a suggestion, but they are actually really wanting you to do it. They are just being polite by using a suggestion.
  22. If you mess up, apologize. They don’t forgive one another when they apologize. Japanese ignore one another when they get angry, and they may ignore someone in their own house for years. They just refuse to talk to them. If they are friends, they lose a friend. They forgive foreigners more readily if the foreigner apologizes because they understand they don’t know the Japanese rules. However, they will expect you to learn.
  23. Carry money in Japan. Don’t depend on credit cards because the Japanese don’t really like credit cards. If you’re in Korea, you can use credit cards all day and you are encouraged to do so, but that rule doesn’t fly in Japan.
Girls should always kneel when sitting in the floor. Don’t wear your house shoes in the tatami room. It will mess the tatami mat up.

There may be some more, but that is all I can pull out of my brain right now. I hope this list helps people who go to Japan to make friends and not get themselves in trouble. Enjoy hanging out in Japan. I did. I hope you make lots of friends and have lots of fun in Japan.

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