ETIQUETTE IN JAPAN
The perfect traveler does not cause or express
surprise, but few of us are perfect. In any
country, it pays to copy what you can, and
endure what you can't. To a typical Japanese,
a typical Westerner will seem tall, fat and
pink, with medium hair and a long nose. Those
points must be endured, obviously. Small children may laugh at you, but don't
be offended. They have no malice.
Westerners often have expensive, well-shined shoes, pressed pants, more casual shirts and jackets, ostentatious glasses, unshaven faces, unkempt, ill-smelling hair. Japanese often reverse this. They have clean and trimmed hair (regardless of style), well-cut shirts, baggy trousers and filthy, cheap shoes.
Cleanliness in Japan is not enough. You must be seen to be clean. Toilets are used in the squatting position (natural and healthy). They don't provide paper towels or hot water. Always carry tissue and a handkerchief. Always wash your hands in the cold water, and dry your hands conspicuously on your handkerchief. Napkins are not provided in restaurants. No one understand why they are necessary. With chopsticks, it's not easy to make your face filthy. Wash and rinse carefully before entering any bath.
Never touch anyone intentionally. Don't offer to shake hands. Some Japanese may think you wish to shake hands, and so will offer a hand. In this case only, shake. Don't hold hands or kiss in public. Unintentionally, you may shove and be shoved in a crowded train. Again, no offense, but be careful of children below your line of vision. In very good humor, one may slap or punch another's shoulder lightly. A man who slaps his own face is expressing humorous regret. If he pats the back of his own head, he is uncertain about something.
A concept of self-respect is vital anywhere. In Japan, a self-respecting person would never eat away from a table, never walk with coat unbuttoned, never stare---and would ignore the time element. This latter often proves very difficult for many foreigners, but time takes a low priority. Most Japanese are late for appointments, and then stay long after you want to stop.
Don't open doors for a woman; she won't understand, and may be confused, but she may walk through just to please you. Don't offer her your seat in a train, either. It's rather impertinent. Seniority, however, is very important.
Always offer your seat to any grandfather or grandmother. If you don't know what to say, tap the person gently on the arm and point to the seat. Mothers carrying babies also deserve this courtesy. Some mothers carry infants strapped on their back: Don't be surprised. It is most healthy and comfortable. Mothers will sometimes nurse their babies in public, or hold them over the edge of railroad platforms to let them relieve themselves. This is an accepted practice. Likewise, a man may relieve himself in public. Don't be alarmed.
Master the art of chopsticks, and ease of sitting on the floor. Neither is easy. Chopsticks are waved around much more freely than is the Western custom with knives and forks. Restaurants may provide knives and forks (a sign of expense), which Japanese guests proceed to wave about alarmingly. In the West, it is usually the host or a servant who serves the food and drink. In Japan, the guest often helps himself. In the case of drinks, the host will pour the first round. Later, each guest will take the initiative.
Soba is something like spaghetti in soup; eating it noisily shows appreciation. Belching slightly is perfectly correct. At the wash basin, gargling and clearing your throat loudly are also acceptable and normal.
Privacy is not a physical concept in Japan. Many toilets and bathhouses are mixed. At the doctor's, everyone strips down together. Courage! No one will give you a glance. At ryokans (inns) there are no locks on the doors. People will pop in and out all the time with tea and towels, etc. Be forewarned.
As for social niceties, if you are chatting with A, and B walks up, you may chat with B also, but it's quite unnecessary to introduce A and B to each other. In fact, don't introduce them unless you have a particular reason to do so. If you make an appointment for any kind of business meeting, it's quite likely you'll be met by a committee, half of which will never speak. Don't be unnerved.
Money is not emphasized in Japan. Rich and poor are hard to distinguish from one another. Never bargain over prices---bills are never inflated with gimmicks. In the West, you may give gifts to tradesmen at the New Year. In Japan, they give them to you. Giving gifts is important and tricky in Japan. When invited to a friend's house to dinner, take a medium-priced gift, flowers or a box of candy. This invitation is a serious affair: You'll never receive a casual invitation. In more elaborate circumstances give something more elaborate. Scotch is a good choice. Offer the gift to the host using both your hands (and use both hands when passing a plate at table). Japanese themselves tend to give very expensive gifts, or to ignore you altogether. Department stores give excellent delivery service, but if you send a gift indirectly, strange things may happen. One is that the friend will send you a gift of equal value; such return gifts are always made at weddings and funerals (the two most fascinating events in Japan). Another possibility is that the recipient will not respond. This may be embarrassing. Has he received it or not? What will you say next time you meet him?
In general, avoid anything indirect in Japan. No Japanese delivers a telephone message correctly to a third party. No Japanese returns a borrowed book.
Yet, a Japanese may be quite friendly with you for a time, not see you for a long period for whatever reason, then take up the acquaintance exactly where it was left off. It's the time element, again. If the Japanese conceived of time as we did, after all, wouldn't their works of art have perspective? It's a country where you can find the best and worst, but few of the dimensions between that characterize the West.
The Japanese see the world differently, in sum. Try to see it their way for a time. You won't be bored.