karaoke scene
Japanese tend to treat invitations more seriously than Westerners. Extending an invitation is not something that is done lightly. And accepting an invitation is treated as an obligation and something one can not back out of easily.

Japanese often interpret offers and invitations differently than Americans and other Westerners. If a busy Japanese host tells guests who arrive early at a party to help themselves to some drinks, Japanese are likely to decline, believing that the offer was a way of telling the guests that the host was busy and they should not trouble the host. In the same situation American guests would be more likely to see the offer as genuine and help themselves to drinks. {Source: Kate Elwood, Daily Yomiuri]

Children routinely talk about plans to do something even if someone present has not been invited. This behavior is generally seen as rude in the United States. In Japan, the onus is on the excluded child to stay quiet and not whine rather than on other children to not talk about their plans.

Japanese often regard an American invitation as something akin to a sales pitch that is difficult to refuse. In America, expressing the idea “we need you” in an invitation is often viewed by the person who receives the invitation as a compliment that their presence is important. Japanese, on the other hand, often feel stress, when confronted with an invitation with such wording, viewing it as an obligation they must honor. Consequently Japanese often handle invitation and the response with lighter, more indirect suggestions so it easier for the person being inviting to delicately refuse.

Japanese are very punctual. Sometimes they show up early or call if they are five minutes late. For a party or a dinner engagement, guests are expected to arrive exactly on time. Westerners are sometimes caught unprepared with Japanese guests at their door or are chided for being late. It is also considered rude to not be patient and wait even when someone is really late.

In Kyoto, it was customary until recently "for an unexpected guest” to decline the host's invitation to enter at least tree times before actually entering. In addition, visitors were expected to know that a serving of brown tea rather than green tea meant that it was time to leave.

Websites and Resources


Good Websites and Sources: Japan Guide ; Japanese Manners and Etiquette ; Ten Japanese Customs / / ; Culture- at-Work ; Executive Planet ; Kwintessential ; Books: “The Traveler's Guide to Asian Customs & Manners” by Elizabeth Devine and Nancy L. Braganti. “Kata: The Guide to Understanding and Dealing with the Japanese!” By Boye Lafayette De Menter (Tuttle, 2003). Sources for advise on Japanese and international etiquette include Mary Kay Metcalf of Creative Marketing Alliance in New Jersey and Chicago-based Japan Intercultural Consulting.

Eating and Drinking Customs: Essential Japanese Guide ; Sushi Etiquette ; Right Way to Eat Sushi ;Drinking Customs ; Bathing Customs Rituals and Etiquette at Japanese Public Bath Fabulous Travel ; Bathing Etiquette

Gift Giving in Japan

Japanese gift
Gift giving is a big deal in Japan. Gifts are offered a sign of respect, a token or appreciation and sign of friendship or continuing association. The Japanese give gifts for all kinds of occasions and often follow rigid rules when giving and receiving them. One research firm counted 24 gift-giving occasions, compared to 11 in the United States. The Japanese list included returning from a hospital, White day (an alternative Valentines Day) and funerals.

The tradition of gift giving dates back to feudal times when subordinates often gave gifts to their superiors to curry favor, seek protection and establish a good relationships. Gifts in the old days included special foods, silk items, lacquerware and crafts.

There are two main gift-giving seasons: “O-chugen” (midsummer) and “Oseibo” (December and New Year's). Midsummer gifts were traditionally given during “Obon” (Festival of the Dead). One department store survey found that customers spend an average of between ¥3,500 and ¥4,500 per gift on obon season gifts. Gift giving is also a duty of anybody that goes on a vacation or trip and leaves his friends and coworkers behind.

Sawa Kurotani, an anthropologist at Redlands University, wrote in Daily Yomiuri: “Unlike Western culture, where gifts are primarily considered the expression a personal connection between...individuals, many kinds of gift exchanges in Japan are obligatory, as required by the need to maintain social ties between family members, colleagues, superiors and subordinates and people involved in one’s daily life. Kurotani also said the process is very standardized in terms of the kind of gift one gives, how it is wrapped and delivered with careful consideration given to appropriateness and the nature of the relationship between giver and recipient. Often more importance is placed on how the gift is given that what the gift is.

But that isn’t to say that how much money is spent is not factored in. Elizabath Andoh wrote in the New York Times: “In Japan price is what counts — the occasion and relationship to the recipient dictates the amount. Food is the most popular gift. The Japanese depend on personal relationships to sustain them throughout their lives. Most feel that the time, money, and energy they spend on nurturing a network of professional and personal contacts are both essential and gratifying...That $95 luxury melon presented to the patient, but consumed by family members, becomes a welcome respite as they worry about illness. In a society that finds effort meritorious, time spent in line waiting to buy a limited edition gift is appreciated for its intrinsic value.”

Gift Giving Etiquette in Japan

Japanese gift
There is a certain protocol that determines what kind of gifts should be bought and how much money should be spent depending on the occasion, the gift-giver's wealth and his or her closeness to the gift-receiver. In some cases gifts are thanked with a thank you gift which in turn is thanked with a thank you gift.

Great care and emphasis is put on how a gift is wrapped and presented. Gifts are usually presented with both hands. inside a house not at the entryway and usually not opened in front but are opened later at home. The recipient of a gift should make sure to shower the gift giver with thanks, smiles and compliments. Gifts of money are usually placed in special envelops and it is customary to give clean, crisp bills.

Japanese are very good at keeping track of who gives gifts to whom and making sure that each gift is reciprocate with a gift or an act at an appropriate level. The urge to give gifts is strong that one town in Tokashima Prefecture tried to ban the requirements of giving gifts for certain occasions only to find that people found that giving up the custom was too difficult and continued giving presents.

“Okaeshi” gifts are ones given in return for presents received. The are particularly commons with wedding and funeral presents. The advantage of this system is that a gift-giver is immediately rewarded with a return gift. Americans, by contrast, ascribe the “what goes around comes around system” in which wedding presents one gives will be rewarded down the road when that person gets married. The only problem with this system is what happens if the initial gift giver never gets married,

In business and politics, there is a fuzzy line between gift giving and corruption. The issue become even more complicated when factoring in the fact that refusing a gift is considered very rude.

Gifts for Different Occasions

Japanese gift
Gifts are routinely brought to weddings, funerals, parties, birthdays, gradation, hospital visits, coming-of-age festivals, entering school, special holidays, promotions, and even casual visits and to thank people for help or to apologize for something. At weddings and funerals, gifts are given to the guests by the families of the bride and groom and the family of the deceased. Often there are particular kinds of gifts are associated with particular occasions. Sales people can usually help you chose the correct gift.

If you visit someone's house make sure to take along a small gift as an expression of appreciation. Fruit, chocolates, handkerchiefs, or alcohol or common gifts (avoid flowers, anything white or denominations of four; they are all associated with funerals). Gifts are carefully wrapped and nicely packaged.

Wedding gifts are like loans. They money that a couple receives on their wedding day is given back in the future, perhaps as a gift to commemorate the entrance of the original gift giver's child into kindergarten.

“omiyage” are souvenir gift — often an edible one associated with a particular place — brought back from a trip. They are one of the most common gifts and expected by anyone whoa travels on oversea trip or to a destination in Japan. In Japan there are shops at train station and airports that specialize in omiyage. The customs dates back to a time when pilgrimages were common and pilgrims brought back something from their trip. “Miyage” (of which omiyage is the polite form) originally referred to a container that held food offerings to the gods, which would eventually be consumed by those who made the offerings and would rub off on those who came in contact with them.

A lot of thought gives into giving gifts. For example yellow cut flowers are regarded as the best kind of flower to giver someone in the hospitals because roses conjure images of blood, camellias, which suddenly fall from their stems are traditional symbols of death, and potted plants suggest an illness may be firmly rooted.

For Japanese who have a hard time expressing their feeling the toymaker Takara makes gift plants that are sold in small containers complete with soil. About five days after it planted the plant — a kind of bean sprout—reveals a message such as “I love you” or “Good luck.” The message is inscribed with a laser on one side of bean and a happy face is inscribed on the other. The plants are called “Ma Mail” — a pun on the Japanese word for bean. Rival toymaker Tomy makes a similar plant product that hatch from eggs and give French-language fortunes.

Balance and Economics of Japanese Gift-Giving

Kate Elwood wrote in The Daily Yomiuri, “A principal difference between Japanese and Western gift-giving is the intermeshing of gifts and commodities in Japan, as many cultural researchers have pointed out. While Americans certainly tend to aim for a balance in the value of presents given and received, and wonder how much something cost, we find it awkward when the notion of a gift as a financial exchange becomes too plain. American cultural researcher Jim Farrell observes that MasterCard's long-running "Priceless" advertising campaign responded to the fear that everything comes with a price tag. Yet as Farrell points out, "In most of these ads, the 'priceless' moment is the direct result of a series of spending decisions...Often, it seems, the 'priceless' moment has a considerable price." [Source: Kate Elwood, The Daily Yomiuri, September 13, 2011]

True, but Americans tend to prefer to finesse that side of things. In a roundtable discussion of the Priceless campaign, Joyce King Thomas, one of the creators of the advertisements--which have appeared in 52 languages in 112 countries--noted that there is no word in Japanese corresponding to "priceless," so the English word was used in the campaign.

Generally speaking, Japan is more comfortable with the alignment of cash and care. In her fascinating book Gift-Giving in Japan: Cash, Connections, Cosmologies, anthropologist Katherine Rupp notes that a flower shop informant told her that when he makes deliveries, the recipients ask the price of the flowers so they know how much to spend in return. Monetary calculations of presents are undertaken more openly in Japan than in the West, and yet the gift transaction remains distinct from actual buying and selling, as Rupp emphasizes. Rupp asserts, "...the way sincerity is shown is precisely through money...For the gift to be considered sincere, proper, from the heart, it must be measured and calculated for the benefit of the recipient."

Elwood related one story about gift-giving and visiting a neighbor named Mrs. Madea at the hospital. “I was quite happy when she was finally well enough to be released from the hospital and be back home once more, but unprepared to hear a knock upon my door and have Mrs. Maeda hand over gift coupons for a fancy supermarket, totaling 10,000 yen. I felt a little bit nonplussed, as something I had done because I genuinely care for Mrs. Maeda had been assessed monetarily. At the same time, I was well aware that Mrs. Maeda knew my kindness had not been motivated by the possibility of financial gain. Japanese friends told me to take the coupons as a token of Mrs. Maeda's gratitude, which I did, and she and I resumed our usual neighborly relationship of casually sharing cookies and other home-cooked dishes with each other.

Elwood told another story about a man named Keisuke who apologized for coming empty-handed to a pot-luck party, saying he “pulled out his wallet, and attempted to give me some money. I didn't accept it, telling him I was just happy he was able to come to the party. While Keisuke's well-intentioned action was perhaps a bit uncouth, I had also received an earlier party-money suggestion from a socially sophisticated woman who had attended several parties at my home. She told me that my parties were elaborate and that I should charge guests an attendance fee.

I mentioned my refined friend's proposal to some American friends who, like me, could not really imagine exacting payment for this kind of friendly get-together, feeling that to do so would cheapen the occasion. And yet, of course, parties do require money, and there is no reason that straightforwardly acknowledging this should diminish the event. In speaking of presents, a common saying is "It's the thought that counts." Thinking about the thought, as it were, it is perhaps valid to say that receiving some direct recompense would be more efficient than working one's way through all the bottles of wine and boxes of cookies left over from the party (though not necessarily as much fun!).

Conversations and Phone Etiquette in Japan

Japanese sometimes consider questions about their families prying, and generally don't like discussions in which Japan is compared with other countries. Food, sports and tourism are generally safe subjects. Japanese also don't tease each other, flirt or make sarcastic comments as much as Americans do. Sarcastic remarks made by Westerners are sometimes taken literally.

Well thought-out silence is sometimes expected in conversation and sometimes better received than frequent interruptions and constant efforts to fill in the gaps and pauses.

Studies of Americans and Japanese have found that Japanese tend to listen to someone speaking to them for a period of time without interrupting while Americans often interrupted and finished the sentences of people speaking to them. A study of 20-minute conversation segments found that when Americans were talking there were 79 speaker changes, 27 overlaps and 52 interventions and when Japanese were talking there were 44 speaker changes, 14 overlaps and 30 interventions. At the same time the number of “back-channel responses” — that indicate a speaker is listening — were five times as frequent among Japanese than among Americans.

Describing top executives at a business meeting, Japanese culture expert Kate Elwood wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “Often they sit quietly, noncommital , as various team members wrestle and wrangle with ideas. At times it seems they might even be dozing. And yet, as the end of the meeting draws near, they will speak up, summarizing the points made and fitting everything into a neat package that might be titled “the direction it appears best to take based on what everyone has said.

Japanese call often call each other after 10:00pm because than is when they are most likely to catch people home.

Partying, Singing and Dancing Customs in Japan

another karaoke scene
Japanese like to party in one big group rather than breaking up in small groups and circulating like Westerners do at a cocktail party. Taking turns singing is a popular activity, with one person playing the role of "emcee" and calling on the others to participate one by one. If you attend a party like this it is a good idea to have a song ready.

Japanese men party as hard as they work. They often hit three or four bars after work, get loaded, crash in a capsule hotel or even on the streets and go to work the next day. House parties and parties involving married couple often break up around 10:00pm. If your host says "please stay longer" that usually signifies that it you should leave in around 15 minutes.

Discos are not very common in Japan. They are more common in Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore. Men and women at Japanese discos often don't dance as couples, they often do practiced dance routines by themselves, in a group or in front of mirror.

Japanese love to sing. They sing in karoakes and singing rooms, bring portable karoakes to parks and beaches, ask guests to "sing-a-song" at parties, and watch sumo wrestlers and actors sing karaoke songs on television. They generally are shyer about dancing.


The Japanese take their temperature with a thermometer in the ear or under their arm not under their tongue. Some Japanese put plums on their temples to relieve headaches. Others touch their ear lobes if their burn their fingers because they believe that is the coolest part of their body.

People wear surgical masks when they have colds to prevent people from getting their germs. They also wear them when they have hay fever to keep from breathing in pollen. The use of the masks began during the flu pandemic in 1919. The practice is common throughout East Asia, where you can buy colored ones with messages like ACHOO! and ON THE ROAD TO RECOVERY!

The Japanese are great believers in massage when it comes to beauty and health. Mothers massage the stomachs of constipated infants. Fathers massage the feet of children they want to be athletes and elderly massage their face to keep their skin looking good.

Bath Etiquette in Japan

According to Japanese bathing etiquette one must wash with soap before stepping in a bath, and wearing a bathing suit, towel or underwear in a bath is considered crass unless one is in a mixed sex bath that requires bathers to wear them.

Before entering a bath, bathers usually sit on small stools, rinse with hand-held showers and wash with small towels which are squeezed dry. Japanese often wash each other's back and the back's of strangers in the public bath.

People staying at an onsen often wear a yukata (robe) between their room and the bath. Don't wear jewelry in the bath because the metal may tarnish or be altered by the chemically-rich water. Foreigners should be prepared to be stared at.

Japanese often carry a towel with them into a public bath and place it on their head or private parts. Women sometimes wrap the towels turban-style around their heads. Men men like to place them flat on their head. These wet small towels are also used to dry off. Sentos and onsens generally supply customers with towels, Some charge a fee of ¥100 to ¥200. At home Japanese sleep with dry towels in the summer and wash with wet ones.

In the old days it was common for men to have a smoke while relaxing and watching a baseball after a good soak in a public bath. But these days smoking is generally not allowed as the baths try to attract a more health conscious clientele. The trend is more common in Tokyo than Osaka, where many baths still allow smoking.

Image Sources: 1) Gifts Ray Kinnane 2) Karaoke, Tokyo Pictures

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2012

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.