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Tokyo Dos and Donts

The key to avoiding the title "Ugly American" (applicable no matter where youre from) is to know something about the culture of the country youre visiting. This primer will get you started -- and remember, when in doubt, watch and imitate what others are doing.


While you can buy everything from beer to whisky from vending machines on just about every street, please remember that the legal drinking age in Japan is 20. Drinking and driving is strictly punished. You may wonder how the drinking age might actually be enforced in a country where alcohol is so readily available from machines: the Japanese assure visitors that consumption by minors is not a problem "because it is illegal". While this may sound like a naive assertion, it makes perfect sense once youve spent any time at all in Japan.


People in Japan bow -- a lot. While visitors are not expected to know the complexities of the bow, a few tips will help. First, bow from the waist with the arms straight at your sides. Imitate the bows you receive (there are lots of rules regarding the depth of bows -- social abstractions that take decades to learn). Dont overbow or ignore the greeting. Its better to smile politely and nod your head than to be perceived as rude. After awhile, youll find yourself bowing automatically (when I encountered a Japanese coworker at my office in Los Angeles, I automatically found myself bowing in greeting).

Etiquette - Guests

The Japanese are gift-givers. If youre invited to their homes (very rare, as the culture tends to entertain in public places), bring a gift -- the hotels concierge can assist in this matter if necessary. While we are very fond of the gift melon concept, flowers, candy, or alcohol are also appropriate (besides, a good melon in Tokyo can cost a small fortune). For any kindness done, be sure to be profusely thankful. You may feel awkward, but your return gestures will be remembered and appreciated.


Western-style restrooms are generally found in larger department stores and many restaurants. If you encounter a Japanese-style toilet, remember that you squat (or aim) facing the raised hood of the unit (it takes some getting used to, but it is quite sanitary). Always carry tissues or toilet paper with you -- not every restroom stocks these items. And, weve found, paper towels are also scarce in restrooms. Its helpful to note that a current marketing trend involves printing advertisements on small packages of tissue. These packages are usually handed out around the major subway stations and can come in quite handy.
Blowing your nose in public is considered to be bad manners. Excuse yourself and go into the restroom.

While the number of public baths in Tokyo has declined, the custom is still prevalent. Men and women bathe separately except in outdoor hot springs. You will be guided through the process, however the ritual is generally the same in all situations: first, remove your clothing and (after discretely covering the front of your body with your washcloth), proceed to the bath area; before actually entering the bath, you must first wash yourself; basins and stools are situated near faucets -- fill the basin with water, sit on the stool, soap down completely, then rinse off the soap; once youre clean, then you may enter the bath. The water will be very hot (ease in slowly), but after a while, relaxation seeps into your bones and peace enters your soul.

Language - Spoken

Japanese is a phonetic language, and that makes it easy to learn some basic phrases. English is generally read and spoken by younger Japanese people, however, the differences between Japanese and English generally make conversation very difficult