Taboos in Japan

2012/10/4
By Mark Ellis


Taboos exist in every society.  Outsiders who are unaware of local taboos could find themselves in a pretty embarrassing situation.  For example, in the US we cross our index and middle fingers as a sign of good luck.  In Vietnam, however, doing this same action at a business meeting or in front of someone’s parents would be mortifying because that gesture symbolizes… umm… lady parts.
 
So, what should a person who just got off the planeknow about taboos in Japan?  Before I get into it I have to say first that Tokyo and other major cities in Japan are pretty modern.  Most people are quite tolerant when foreigners unknowingly do something that is offensive.  Still, if you find yourself in a situation where you don’t want to accidently upset a boss or a potential fiancé’s parents then take heed of these basic rules.

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  1. Never leave your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice.  Just to be on the safe side avoid all situations where your chopsticks will be left unmanned and vertical in food.   For most Japanese people this is symbolic of death.  In the old days, and even now, that is how food was offered to the dead, as a mountain of rice with chopsticks protruding from the top.
  2. Never pass food from one set of chopsticks to another.  This is also symbolic of death.  During the funeral, after the body has been cremated, the bones are collected and passed from chopsticks to chopsticks.
  3. Never leave your chopsticks crossed on a table.  This is also reminiscent of the funeral ceremony.
  4. Never drag a dish across the table using your chopsticks.  As far as I know, it doesn’t remind people of death but it is extremely rude.  Speaking of rude never ever lick your chopsticks.  If you are in a formal setting always eat with one end of your chopsticks and use the other end when you are getting food from a common dish.Not licking and using the clean end of your chopsticks make total hygienic sense.Since we are on the subject of hygiene
  5. Never EVER wear your shoes inside the house, doing this will make all Japanese people cringe even worse than standing chopsticks upright in a rice bowl.   Wear your shoes inside the house is considered to be absolutely filthy.  Even in your own home, if you invite Japanese guests over it is best to keep up appearances by taking off your shoes.
  6. Never wear the toilet slippers anywhere but in the toilet.  In Japan many people wear slippers inside the house.  There are two sets: the regular walkabout slippers and the slippers that are designated for the toilet.  When you go into the toilet you switch from the walkabout slippers to the toilet slippers.  If you weren’t wearing anything on your feet before entering the loo then you just put on the slippers, do your business and leave the slippers where you found them when you are done.  Once I visited a friend house and accidently walked out of the bathroom wearing the toilet slippers.  The husband just busted out laughing but the wife looked as if she was about to have a serious panic attack.
  7. Never blow your nose in public, burp, or loudly pass smelly gas.
  8. Never touch people, on the shoulder, the arm, or anywhere unless they are really close friends.  These days a handshake is ok but a hug and kiss, the standard first time greeting in many countries, would not go over so well here in Japan.
  9. Never give anyone a pair of scissors as a gift unless you want to send the message that you are ready to cut ties with that person.
  10. Never give chrysanthemums on Mother’s Day or any time of year, especially white or yellow ones.  These flowers are mostly used at funerals.