Whether this is your first time to Japan, or you have lived here for a while, it is always good to keep in mind some aspects of Japanese culture so we can better love and serve the Japanese people. Actions definitely speak loader than words in Japan. Below you will find a few cultural pointers for your life in Japan.
Reading the Air
Out of everything on this page, this point is the most important and will help you greatly in Japan.
There is a slang term in Japanese called 空気読めない or KY. This literally means 'cannot read the air'. People are labelled this if they spoil the atmosphere or are socially awkward. Foreigners are often stereotyped as this.
As you do not know all of the social customs when you first come to Japan, remember one thing: read the air. That is, pay attention to what others are doing. Or more importantly, what are they not doing? For example, is everyone quiet on the train? Then be quiet. If you can learn to do this in any and every situation, this will help you to not get into awkward situations (as much as possible anyway..), and you will find that Japanese people will generally fell more comfortable around you too.
Of course, sometimes God may lead you to talk to someone randomly on the street, or to pray for someone. This is KY, and you should do that! But when not lead by God, read the air. The heart behind this, for our purposes, is to love, respect and serve the Japanese.
You will notice that people in Japan bow a lot! This is a way of saying thanks, sorry, hello, goodbye, and welcome, without using words. As a rule of thumb, if someone bows to you, copy them.
As a side note: if you are foreign, it is okay to shake hands with people! Just don't do this instead of bowing, but rather as a compliment, in some occasions. Also, it is probably wise to never initiate a hug. People don't really physically touch each other, unless really close friends. Hugging someone will likely make the person feel uncomfortable. This is especially important to keep in mind for the opposite gender.
Japan is a gift giving culture. Here are some common occasions to give gifts:
Vising someone's home
Seeing people after going away on a trip (usually small gifts from the location you visited)
Moving into an apartment, mansion or house (giving small gifts to the neighbours on either side, and above and below you)
Attending a wedding (usually money in a special envelope)
When wanting to express thankyou
Women/girls give chocolate to male coworkers and friends (not necessarily romantic) on Valentine's Day
Men/boys give cookies to female coworkers and friends who gave them chocolate on Valentine's Day (again, not necessarily romantic) on White Day
If you remember to give gifts on these occasions, it will go a long way in communicating your cultural understanding and appreciation.
Bonus points: If you bring small gifts from your home country to give to people, it will be greatly appreciated by the recipients!
Using Both Hands
When receiving anything from anyone, try to remember to use both hands. Same for when giving something to anyone. This can be a business card (which are still important in Japan!), credit card, cash, envelopes, gifts etc.
Seeing People Off
In Japan, it is normal and respectful to properly see people off. You will find that when saying goodbye to a Japanese friend, for example at a train station, they will stand waving/bowing to you until you are out of sight. Or at a Japanese person's home, the host will always come to the door with you (or even follow you outside if you are driving, for example) when saying goodbye. This is a sign of respect and hospitality. So as not to cause unintentional disrespect, it would be good to keep this in mind! This is especially important when saying goodbye to those older than you. Wave/bow until its impossible to see them, and it will leave a good impression!
Japanese culture honours elders, whether in terms of position (those higher than you in the workplace or school, or pastors/priests) or age. Examples of showing honour and respect to elders:
Using more polite language (keigo)
Letting elders sit furthest from the door at a restaurant
Standing when they enter the room
Sitting down after they sit down
Offering your seat to them when there is nowhere else for them to sit (like on a train, or in a room)
Generally speaking, in Japan shoes are unclean and fit only to wear outside. So whenever you enter a building that has a section of the floor seperating the door area (genkan) with the rest of the building, you must take off your shoes. This is usually people's homes, smaller churches, temples, shrines, Japanese guest houses (ryokan), onsen/sento, some Japanese restaurants, etc. Be aware: this is not optional!
After you have taken off your shoes, you may be given slippers to wear. These are generally to wear in areas with wooden flooring. You must take off your slippers before stepping into these areas:
Japanese-style rooms with tatami (straw) floors
Toilet rooms (there is usually separate slippers for in here, try not to get them mixed up!)
Children's play areas, usually marked off with carpet or padded flooring
Eating and Drinking
In Japan, you will mostly be eating using chopsticks (hashi), so please practice before coming to Japan! Some meals will be eaten using cutlery, rather than chopsticks. If in doubt, observe those around you (this will help you in all situations in Japan!). There are some manners involved with using chopsticks:
Never stick them upright into a bowl of rice (a Buddhist funeral rite)
Never pass anything to anyone chopstick to chopstick (another Buddhist funeral rite)
Don't point them at people, or play with them
It is totally normal to slurp noodles in Japan! Just don't eat everything like this in Japan... Just noodles.
If you are at least 20 years old, you may drink in Japan! This is a great way to get to know the locals. Just don't drink too much, of course!
One custom to keep in mind is that when sharing a bottle of something (beer, sake, wine, etc), it is polite to pour someone else's drink if their glass needs filling. And don't pour your own drink. Keep an eye on everyone else's glass and fill them up. This will communicate respect. Of course, if you feel that someone has drank enough already, don't be obliged to fill their glass. Also, never feel pressured to drink more than you would like. A common non-alcoholic drink to order in those settings would be oolong tea.
This isn't done in Japan! So don't do it, even if you want to be kind. They will chase after you if you try, even if you just left 1 yen!
There are a few set words that everyone says in Japan at meal times:
Itadakimasu (I receive) - This is said before you start eating
Oishii! (delicious!) - This is said when enjoying the meal (say it a few times throughout the meal - this will really honour the cook!)
Gochisousamadeshita (It was a feast) - This is said at the end of the meal (usually after everyone is finished)