Sunday, June 20, 2010

Japanese Manners: Things that will make Japanese people gasp, or look at you funny

Today's post is all about things that I have encountered numerous times in this country that I feel are important to point out. Some have to do with manners, some have to do with cultural misconceptions, but I am here to say, please don't do (or assume) the following:

The top three things you are not supposed to do with chopsticks (aside from wearing them in your hair, OBVIOUSLY):

Stick them straight up in your food (particularly rice) and leave them there
This is related to the Buddhist tradition in which we offer food to the dead, so it's thought to be very bad luck to do at a table. It's the most common mistake made by foreigners. I've intercepted this move many times.

Passing food from chopsticks to chopsticks

Also related to the funereal tradition. In the old days, family members of the deceased picked up the bones after cremation and passed them from one person to the next with chopsticks into a box. Not good to do at a table.

Using chopsticks as drum sticks Don't do it. I know they look like drum sticks. It's like the urge of the Westerners to crack the chopsticks and hit all the dishes. It's just rude and embarrassing. This is just common sense-not related to any religious thing.

There are many other things you are not supposed to do such as; grabbing your chopsticks in your fist, touching one food (your own) then another, point at someone with them, stir up your food with them looking for something good, etc. But these are less known even amongst native Japanese.

Here are some of the other manners around Japanese people you might find useful:

Don't ever bow to a Japanese person with your hands together. If you do that to me, I will punch you in the neck. On the inside, of course, because I'm a nice Japanese girl. We bow with hands gently folded in front of us and deeper and longer you bow, the more respect you show (or the lower your rank is compared to the person you are bowing to).

People is some of the other South Asian countries (such as Thailand) bow with their hands together, but the only time we put our hands together is when we pray, and occasionally, when we are profusely apologizing (but I think that's only done between friends and never in polite company).

Geishas are not prostitutes. They are traditional entertainers whose job is to make your private parties enjoyable by carrying conversation in their beautiful Kyoto dialect, dance traditional Japanese dances, play instruments, and pour your drink. There are many books out there about the life of Geisha that will tell you the complex life style of a Geisha girl, but the bottom line is that they don't take your money in exchange for sexual favors.

Sumo wrestlers are not for comic relief. I realize this is a very hard concept to swallow and frankly I don't blame people for thinking so, but Sumo Wrestling is one of the oldest traditions in Japan and is regarded as a royal sport--as in our Emperor attends it, like the royalty in England attending Wimbledon. They symbolize strength and power ( I believe Japan had their best Sumo Wrestler open the Nagano Winter Olympics) and are very well respected, especially if you hold a high rank. They are not the same as Pro Wrestlers in the States.

The gong is not a Japanese instrument. It's just not. You may not care, but I do.

And no, we don't all know each other. I've had, on more than one occasion, people ask if I knew so-and-so from Tokyo. Seriously. And I don't mean by children. I have friends who say that jokingly, and I play along (having a good time doing so), but I found myself speechless when this happened. I didn't know where to start. So I just used to say, "no, no I don't."

Soon, I will write a post about misconceptions of America in Japan.

chopstick images from :
bowing image from:


  1. Just to be fair - the little mermaid DID use a fork as a comb. I think she called it a dinglehopper. But out of respect for you I will go and take the chopsticks out of my hair!!!
    Hey, by the way, I have a new kid in my class from Japan. Her name is Yuki. Her mom is from Tokyo. Her name is Suzanne. Maybe you know her???

    (I love your writing! Look forward to more!!)

  2. I am incredibly pleased to say that I knew about not sticking one's chopsticks straight up in a plate of food.

    I do point with them, though. I can't help it - I'm Italian. We like to gesture with our hands.

  3. Wow. I guess Westerners lack that much common sense? Most of this is very self explanatory... Except for the bowing. I guess I have been doing it wrong? Interesting article.

  4. I know it´s been six years since you wrote this, but it is very helpful. Thank you. :)


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