Japan is one of the world’s top tourist destinations because it is a beautiful country that offers plenty of fun and interesting places to go to and things to do. It is home to several UNESCO World Heritage temples and shrines, ancient castles and gardens, preserved Edo period districts, and stunning natural scenery. It is also where you can enjoy a wide variety of delicious Japanese dishes, and meet many friendly and polite people.
If you are planning to visit Japan in the future, it is important to be familiar with their cultural and social norms. Because you may be coming from a country that is very different from Japan, doing some research prior to your trip on what things you should and should not do or say can save you from many embarrassing and awkward moments.
Below are examples of things that you should not say to a Japanese person if you do not want to be seen as rude or offensive:
1. Say “You must be Chinese?” or “You are Korean, aren’t you?”.
A lot of foreigners have trouble telling East Asian people apart. That is not really a big deal, as even some Japanese people cannot also tell the difference most of the time. The Japanese, Chinese, and Korean people share many similar facial features, so it is common to mistake one for the other. However, the problem begins if you start making judgments and saying negative comments out loud. You should not immediately assume that a person that you meet is this or that, based on things that you see on tv and read on the news. Understand that Japan, China, and Korea are three different countries with different languages, cultures, politics, and others, and their citizens are individuals that have their own beliefs, points of view, and opinions too. Avoid making generalizations, and actually make the effort to get to know the person.
2. Using “ni hao” to say hello to a Japanese person.
Many Japanese people have shared stories about their experiences of being mistaken for a Chinese or Korean person while traveling abroad. Some said that some foreigners would just blurt out “ni hao,” which is the Chinese word for hello, to greet them, even though they are not Chinese. This has also happened to many Chinese and Korean people, who have experienced being greeted “konnichiwa,” which is the Japanese word for hello, when they were touring other countries too.
3. “How often do you pray?” or “How religious are you?”
The role of religion in Japan is vastly different from the role of religion in other countries. In Japan, Shinto and Buddhism are the two major religions that have co-existed harmoniously for several centuries now, but they do not have as much influence on the people’s daily lives, government policies, and others, compared to Christianity in the Americas and Europe or Islam in Saudi Arabia. In general, an average Japanese person only follows certain religious rituals, such visiting a temple or shrine on New Year, or when attending weddings, funerals, births, and festivals.
4. Saying this to an Okinawan: “You are Japanese, aren’t you?”
Okinawa and Japan are like Hawaii and the United States. Yes, Okinawa is a part of Japan, just like Hawaii is a part of the United States, but it has a distinct culture and roots, and their people are proud of that. So, if you are in Okinawa and meet a person who you are not sure is Japanese or Okinawan, choose your words carefully to avoid being in an awkward situation.
5. Calling Japanese people by their first names.
In your home country, it might be common and okay for you to address people by their first names. However, in Japan, using Japanese people’s first names, especially if you just met them or if they are older, can be seen as impolite.
The Japanese people use honorifics when addressing others. They usually attach these at the end of the last names to show respect. Below are some common examples:
Explanation: This is the Japanese honorific used in the most formal situations, such as when addressing royalty (“ohime-sama”) or God (“kami-sama”).
Explanation: This is a formal Japanese honorific works like “Ms.” and “Mr.” in English. It is used when addressing bosses and superiors, coworkers and clients, teachers, acquaintances, and those that you meet for the first time. For example, if you meet someone named Mr. Hashimoto or Ms. Hashimoto, you can call him or her “Hashimoto-san.”
Explanation: This is an informal Japanese honorific commonly used when addressing young boys, close male friends, and long-time co-workers and peers. For example, you can address your Japanese friend named Yoshihiro, who you met through a school exchange program and became close with through the years, “Yoshihiro-kun.”
Explanation: This is an informal Japanese honorific commonly used as a term of endearment for young girls, and female family members and close friends. For example, in some Japanese households, the grandmothers are called “oba-chan” by their grandchildren.
6. Do not use “sayonara” to say goodbye to people who you will see again the next day.
The casual way of saying goodbye in Japanese is “ja nee” or “ja mata.” These two phrases roughly translate to “see you” or “see you again,” which are more appropriate when saying goodbye to your co-workers, classmates, and friends who you will see again tomorrow or in a few days. Using “sayonara” in these instances is wrong because it is more suited for farewells where you are not sure when you will see that person again or if you will ever see each other again, such as if you meet a fellow traveler at a hostel or a tour group.