people sat down eating at a busy restaurant in tokyo

What Not To Do In Tokyo

Japan has a unique culture, steeped in tradition and history. A lot of them might differ from your own. If you’re visiting Toyko, it’s a good idea to get acquainted with the cultural norms, habits, and practices. Some things might seem small, but you want to avoid inadvertently offending the locals. As a representative of your own country, being polite and knowledgeable about the country you visit goes a long way. To help you better understand and enjoy your visit, here’s a list of what not to do in Tokyo.

What not to do when visiting Tokyo

1. Wear your shoes inside

Like many countries in Asia, Japanese people never wear shoes at home. Bringing dirt from inside a home is considered grotty and rude. You’re likely to be offered slippers, but be sure not to wear these in the bathroom. Generally, homes will have separate slippers for living spaces and the bathroom – if you mix them up, quickly apologise.

Wearing shoes isn’t just disrespectful inside the home – it’s also commonplace to take your shoes off when entering a school, workplace, restaurant, hotel, etc.

shoes outside of a house

2. Slip up on chopstick etiquette

There are a few things that should be avoided when using chopsticks in Tokyo. The main one is: don’t stick your chopsticks in your rice. It might seem convenient to stick your chopsticks in your bowl of rice to avoid putting them on the table, but this is incredibly taboo. At Japanese funerals, chopsticks are vertically placed in a bowl of rice during the rituals, therefore remaining Japanese people of death. It’s also a symbol of bad luck – definitely one to avoid!

Something else to avoid is using your chopsticks to pass food onto someone else’s, that’s sure to get a few eyebrows raised. You should also always use your chopsticks to put food onto your plate when sharing dishes rather than eating it straight from the shared bowl. And while many other Asian countries rub their chopsticks together to check for splinters, it’s considered an insult in Japan as it’s implied that the chopsticks are cheap.

chopsticks placed vertically in a bowl of rice

3. Leave a tip

This might be a strange one for westerners, especially Americans, but tipping is not a done thing. The service is already considered in the cost of what you’re purchasing and attempting to offer more is just unusual to them. While many people think that it’s ‘rude’ to tip in Tokyo, that’s not necessarily always the case. The Japanese are modest, hardworking people, they don’t expect anything for their service. Mostly, it’s simply not a part of their culture. If you try to tip, it’ll be refused or you’ll find the server running down the road to give you your change.

busy restaurant in tokyo

4. Talk loudly on the Metro

In Tokyo, commuters want to travel in peace. A huge 6.84 million people use the Tokyo Metro every day, making the London Underground look feeble with its mere 2 million people! Despite so many people using the Metro, Tokyoites have got their commute down to a T. There are certain unspoken understandings and etiquettes involved but if there’s one thing you absolutely mustn’t do, is to talk loudly. Whether that’s on the friend or in person with your friend, talking loudly is a big no-no. At the very least, you’ll get uncomfortable and unwavering death stares. Or, you’ll simply be told to be quiet. People use their commute to sleep, read, and have a moment of peace. Being forced to listen to a private conversation is seen as extremely disruptive and rude.

passengers travelling on the metro in tokyo

5. Blow your nose

Having a sniffly nose is up there with one of the most annoying things ever. When it happens, all you want to do is blow your nose. In most cultures, it’s pretty commonplace to blow your nose in public. But in Japan, it’s considered uncouth to openly blow your nose. Most people will sniffle until they find the appropriate time to blow their noses. Or, they’ll excuse themselves to the bathroom to let it all out. It’s especially rude to blow your nose in a restaurant or when people are eating. Japanese people are very conscious of hygiene, so the idea of mucus and germs flying around the place horrifies them.

6. Eat on the go

Tokyo is a busy, cosmopolitan city, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that eating on the go is okay. It’s absolutely common to see people eating a pastry while working to work in somewhere like New York, but in Tokyo, it’s considered rude. With so many people trying to get somewhere, they don’t want to be around you chomping on something. It’s looked down upon for being unsanitary and invasive, plus it increases the risk of dropping something on the floor. There are many street food stalls around Tokyo, but 99% of the time they’ll have a designated area for people to stand or sit while eating.

7. Misuse the honorific ‘san’

This one’s more embarrassing than offensive, but it’s seen as arrogant to refer to yourself by the honorific ‘san’. And in a culture where being modest and humble is key, you might hinder your chances of gaining a Japanese friend. Many foreigners will overhear or know of Japanese people referring to each other by the honorific ‘san’, so think they should do it too. However, if you do want to impress and show your respect to a Japanese person, adding ‘san’ at the end of their name is respectful. It’s a similar way of saying ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’, etc. all in one, so it’s completely gender-neutral. For example, if someone was called Asuka Tanaka, you could call them Tanaka-san. If in doubt, don’t say it.

japanese old woman doing farming work

Aleyna Thompson

Aleyna is an appreciator of learning about a culture through its food, whether that's closer to home or being out there in the world. She’s always happiest when experiencing somewhere new, but her base in Manchester is a close second. A blend of her love of writing, food, travel, and culture has naturally led her to travel writing full time.

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