Japanese Customs & Traditions: Avoid Embarrassing Yourself

Japanese customs & traditions in the situations of gift-giving and being a dinner guest in a family home.

As a foreigner, trying to understand what exactly is correct etiquette in Japanese society can often seem to be an almost impossible task. There are so many different codes of behaviour for so many occasions, that the choice is bewildering. Even when you try so hard, sooner or later you feel you'll slip up and cause a cultural faux pas. Please don't give up, try your best and you will be appreciated for the effort that you've made. As a blushing foreigner myself, I would like to make few suggestions on how to behave in some situations, especially observing the custom of gift giving and eating with a Japanese family.

Once you have spent some time in Japan, and formed relationships with people, you will soon discover that the custom of giving presents is widely observed. The act of giving a gift on a certain occasion strengthens the relationship between giver and receiver, and says so much without the need for words. If you are moving into a neighbourhood for the first time, it is a good idea to present your neighbours with a small gift, preferably some souvenirs from your own country. Modest is best, an extravagant gift will embarrass them, and ruin the expression of goodwill you had intended to convey. They in turn will return a gift and thus you have established your arrival on a friendly note.

If you go away for a trip, even just for a day, bringing back some small souvenirs of the visit for your colleagues will be greatly appreciated. This is called "omiage", and is a very established custom. You are not obliged to follow it, particularly if you are making the most of your time in Japan and going away every weekend, but it will go down very well if you do.

If you are invited to a Japanese family's house, then always take something with you to give to the hostess. Flowers are ideal, or some nicely presented food. I can guarantee that wherever you buy a gift, the staff will wrap it beautifully to a standard and a style I have never seen in the West. Do not be offended if your hostess does not open the gift in front of you. It is the height of bad manners to open the gift immediately. It does not mean she doesn't appreciate it; on the contrary she will be highly delighted at your thoughtfulness. Likewise, if you are given something, you should observe the same convention. Still, as a foreigner, it is quite likely that you will be urged to open it at once. However, unless you are invited to, please don't.

If you have got as far as being invited to someone's home, then I do not need to say that you MUST take off your shoes at the door. Your hosts will offer you a pair of slippers to wear. As you shuffle off down the hallway with your heels hanging over the back, do not forget to take them off before you enter the tatami (rush flooring) room. Not only is tatami delicate, but it is also the floor covering used in temples. You will shock your hosts, who will then be presented with the excruciatingly embarrassing task of asking you to take them off. Similarly, don't make a fool of yourself by gaily wandering through their home wearing a garish pair of toilet slippers. It has been known to happen. Slippers should always be changed on the way in to the toilet, and definitely on the way out.

The hostess is usually the one to serve you at the dinner table. If she doesn't sit down much, as uncomfortable as this might make you feel, don't keep asking her to join you. If you sit at a low table without chairs, men should sit cross-legged, women should not. That style is regarded as very unfeminine, and it is better that you sit with your legs tucked neatly behind you, even if you are wearing trousers. Of course you could kneel, and see how long it takes until your legs go numb. To prolong that moment, you should shift your weight discreetly from one leg to another. Nonetheless, I doubt you could sit there unmoving for the best part of an evening. (How do they do it?)

As a guest you will be invited to serve yourself first. Before eating it is customary to say "itadakimasu" ("I receive"). Do not pick up the food with the ends of the chopsticks that will touch your mouth. It is also rude to wave your chopsticks around while talking. And don't stab your food. After finishing say "Gochiso-sama deshita" (Thank you for the feast).

Even if you have worked hard all evening to be as "Japanese" as possible and yet still worry you may have caused some kind of gaffe (I always did), then you can be excused by saying to your hosts as you leave: "Shitsurei shimasu" (Please excuse me) and this should absolve you of any blunders you may have inadvertently made during your visit.

These are just a few tips for a few occasions. There is a lot more to learn. But don't worry too much. All your efforts to observe the correct manners will be very welcome. Any small mistakes will be forgiven. I once took some good quality green tea to a family who had invited me for dinner. It wasn't until a long time later that I discovered that green tea is only offered at funerals. I really do believe though that the hostess was so pleased with the fact I had brought her a gift, she discreetly overlooked the fact it was the wrong kind.

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