At times, the layers of formality and subtleties of Japanese etiquette can seem a little overwhelming, occasionally leaving foreigners with a vague sense of "not quite getting it." It's not always easy to tell whether you've just done something incredibly offensive, or if you've managed to pull it off just right - and feedback can be notoriously un-forthcoming.
Arriving & Leaving Work: When entering the teacher's room in the morning, say "Ohayo gozaimasu" (Good Morning). You should also be punctual. Punctuality is viewed as part of being an adult member of society in Japan, so take the extra five minutes. When leaving at the end of the day, say "Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu" (Please excuse me for leaving before you). These are minor things, but they make a big difference.
Introductions: When meeting your Supervisor, Principal, and other coworkers & townspeople for the first time, you may be given a meishi (Japanese business card). Receive it with both hands and place it on the table in front of you. When you are about to leave, place it into your purse or shirt/jacket pocket - not pants pocket! Treat it as a symbolic representation of the person you have just met.
Clothing & Indoor shoes: When meeting your Supervisor or Principal for the first time, wear appropriate business attire. When starting school, take your lead from other teachers. Depending on your school, dress can be semi-casual business attire to casual, and you may even be able to get away with jeans. You will need to take a spare pair of shoes to school to be used only inside rooms at school. Comfortable shoes, sandals, or slippers are sufficient. Don't forget to take them off and wear the bathroom shoes when using the bathroom.
Omiyage (お土産): If you go on a trip during school hours, it is customary to bring back omiyage (souvenirs) for your coworkers from the place you have just visited. Snacks (cookies, crackers, chocolates, etc.) are usually sufficient. You can bring such things every once and a while for no particular reason just to be nice!
Using the Phone at School: Personal use of the school phone is not a usual practice. Use your discretion. If it is an emergency, ask your Kyoto-sensei (Vice Principal) first. For smaller schools, you may be able to get away with it since it will be easy for them to see which calls you made once they get the phone bill, and then you can just pay them whatever you owe.
Keep Yourself Busy: You may find that you have little (or nothing) to do on occasions. It is advisable to keep yourself busy during these times. Study Japanese, reading, plan lessons, make resources, use the Internet--look busy. Whatever you do, DO NOT sleep on your desk. You might think this unfair, as many of your fellow teachers (especially some of the older men) may do this, but you don't want everyone else talking about you the way they talk about them.
While some of these points may be obvious, I cannot overstate how important keeping yourself busy is. After I was done with all my lesson plans, I would study Japanese or read books (English and Japanese). One time I was sitting at my desk engrossed in my novel when one of my coworkers came over. I realized it was almost 6:00 when he praised me for staying late and "working" so hard. As long as you are there and looking busy, you'll make a good impression.
Enkai (Party) Etiquette
Enkais are a lot of fun, and for some it is one of the few opportunities to really get to know their coworkers. That taciturn science teacher sitting across from you might suddenly become your best friend after a few drinks. Etiquette tends to loosen as the party progresses, but there are a few basic guidelines worth following: Don't start eating or drinking before Kanpai (the toast)
Never pour your own drink -- someone will pour it for you. When someone is pouring you a drink, hold your glass off the table.
If someone around you has an empty glass, likewise pour them a drink. When being poured or pouring a drink, hold the glass/bottle with both hands.
When someone offers to pour you a drink but your glass is still full, take a sip and allow them to pour you a drink. If you don't want to drink any more, keep your glass full and politely say "No thank you." (結構です kekko desu).
When visiting a Japanese family, friend, or acquaintance, there are some matters of etiquette worth keeping in mind:
Be Punctual: It is essential you turn up on time. Japanese people place an immense importance on time.
Remove your shoes: Take off your shoes in the genkan (the entranceway where you take off your shoes) before entering the main part of the house. Be aware of the separate bathroom slippers - use them, but don't forget to take them off when you leave the bathroom area!!
Bring a gift: It is considered polite to bring a gift. Souvenirs from your home country, cookies, fruit, wine, cake, etc. will do - it doesn't need to be expensive.
Be a Guest: Wait until the family asks you to be seated. Do not sample the food in front of you until everyone has been seated and has said "itadakimasu." End the meal with "Gochisousama deshita." Before leaving always thank them for having you into their home.
Hand towels - In most Japanese restaurants, you'll be given hand towels to clean your hands before you eat. Some older men use the towels to wipe their faces, but this is generally considered crude.
Itadakimasu (頂きます) - This is something that is said before you eat, and literally means "I humbly receive this meal." It is like "Bon appetit," but it is ALWAYS said before one eats anything, not just on special occasions. If you are in a group and are not all served at the same time, wait for one of your dining companions to let you know it's okay before saying "itadakimasu".
Bit by bit: Don't eat the entire contents of a given dish or bowl at once. Work your way around the table, eating a little bit of each dish at a time.
Slurping: In Japan it's perfectly acceptable both to bring your bowl up to your mouth when eating, and is encouraged to slurp loudly when eating noodles.
Chopsticks: Using chopsticks may be tricky at first, but don't despair! A few basic rules are:
- Don't spear your food with them
- Don't point them at people
- Don't leave them standing in a bowl
- Don't bite or lick your chopsticks
- When you're taking food from a communal dish, turn your chopsticks around and use the end that you haven't had in your mouth. People you know better will probably tell you that you don't have to do that, but it's better you do it the first time just in case.
If you are accustomed to using chopsticks, you will also need to get used to people being surprised and amazed by this (Yes, people outside of Japan use chopsticks, and they were actually invented in a foreign country, much to the surprise of many Japanese people). Just try to be patient - complimenting someone on their chopstick skills is one a few set phrases Japanese people use to make conversation.
Gochisosama: When you are done eating, you should say "Gochisosama deshita" or just Gochisosama (ごちそうさまでした) to your host, or to the restaurant staff as you leave the restaurant. It literally means "It was a feast" and is a way of thanking people for food.
Waribashi: Put waribashi (割り箸 disposable chopsticks) back in their paper (箸入り hashiri).
Lids: Replace the lids of the dishes, bowls, and teacups you've used once you are finished.
Bento Boxes: If you ate a bento (弁当- "lunch boxes"), use the elastic band to hold the bento closed (leaving your waribashi inside).
Going to an onsen (温泉 hot springs bath) is one of the most relaxing experiences in Japan. The first time you're completely naked in front of everyone you feel a bit weird, but get used to it and start enjoying going to onsens. Most people get a little lost the first time, but just ask someone for instructions (or go with friends who are experienced). Most onsens stock all the basic toiletries (shampoo, soap, hair dryers, etc.), but you may need to bring or purchase a towel and any additional toiletries.
Tattoos are quite often associated with the Yakuza (Japanese Mafia) and people with them are often not permitted to enter onsens (and often fitness centers/gyms/hotels as well). If you have a tattoo, it is best to try to find some type of bandage or waterproof makeup to hide it. Otherwise, you may be asked to leave if a staff member sees your tattoo.
Step by Step Onsen Instructions
- Upon entering the onsen, take off your shoes and put them in a locker. Keep the locker key with you.
- Pay at the counter. If available, place your valuables in the paid lockers for valuables.
- Some nicer onsen will give or sell you towels, but many assume you will bring your own. You will need two towels: a small white rectangular one which is used to cover yourself as you wander around the bath and scrub with while showering, and a regular sized one to dry yourself after your bath.
- Enter the dressing room of the appropriate gender, place your belongings and clothes into a locker, and head into the bathing area.
- Enter the bathing area with only your small "modesty" towel, key, and any toiletries you may have brought (the key will usually be on a stretchy chord that you put around your wrist).
- Shower BEFORE entering the baths. Find a stool to sit on and scrub yourself thoroughly. You cannot over-wash, and it looks better if you take longer, rather than a shorter time. Be careful of where the splash from your shower is going! Rinse off your stool when finished and stack it neatly.
- Enjoy the various baths. There is no set order for using them. Especially make sure to enjoy the 露天風呂 (rotenburo "outside baths"). Do not put your towel in the baths. Many people balance or tie them on their heads. If you have long hair, make sure not to let it dip into the baths - tie it up with a hair tie or your towel. Look around and see what everybody else is doing. The important thing is to ENJOY it and RELAX.
- Caution Some onsens have a salt bath that will sting if you enter it after having shaved. In fact, shaving before entering the onsen is a bad idea: cuts will take forever to close because of the hot water.
- Before re-entering the dressing room, use your small towel to quickly dry yourself off a little. Upon entering go to your basket/locker and dry yourself properly with your big towel, then dress.
- When leaving, leave the dressing room locker key in its lock and if you have a locker key for your shoes, don't forget to take it with you!
- You can sweat out a lot of body-water while in the onsen, so replenish yourself at the drinking fountains or buy some water or sports drinks from a vending machine.
The Gross Stuff
Japanese people do not hold the same beliefs about bodily functions as many Westerners. Most bodily functions and sounds do not have the same taboos associated with them, except for blowing your nose in public, which is sometimes viewed as rude, so you may encounter jokes made about them.
When sick, most people choose to wear masks (like those you see on surgeons at hospitals) so as not to infect others. I have heard that an additional reason is that it shows that although they are sick, they are toughing it out and coming to work - I will let you be the judge...
Toilets are either "Western" bowl style or "Asian" squatter style. Western style toilets can come in regular and super high-tech style (look at the picture carefully before you push the button!) Squatter toilets look like urinals on the ground, which you must (surprise, surprise) squat over while facing the flusher. It is best to get as close to the front hood as possible to avoid splashing and roll up your pant legs to avoid peeing on them.
Make sure to carry tissues and a handkerchief with you at all times, as some Japanese toilets are not equipped with toilet paper or a hand dryer.
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