9 Ways to Act Like a Local in Tokyo

Okay okay, you’re six-foot, blonde and your eyes are bluer than the fjords of Norway. I can’t promise you full ninja-style camouflage or bestow you with the sudden ability to speak the language.  With these nine tips you’re sure to blend in just a little bit better.

Dress the Part

Japanese woman in traditional attire
Tokyo folk are conservative. They’re stylish, well dressed and groomed. Boys, that means your Bintang wife-beater stays at home, and girls – don’t show your cleavage. Ever. If in doubt wear a turtleneck. Wear nice shoes and save the thongs – I’m sorry, flip flops – for the beach.

The Japanese have a saying: “The protruding nail is struck with a hammer.” Keep this in mind when considering business dress code for both men and women, in addition to Japanese business culture in general.

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Yell at the Waiter to Get their Attention

In western culture it’s all about the elusive “eye contact” and perhaps a slight raise of the hand to get a waiter’s attention. In Japan, don’t hesitate to let your voice carry to the other side of the restaurant. “Sumimasen!” (excuse me!) will have your waiter yell back with an enthusiastic “hai!” and come rushing over to you in seconds.

Let Go of the Physical Contact – It’s All About the Bow

When making new friends, there should be no kissing, hugging, touching or shaking hands. The deeper the bow the greater the respect you are showing, generally. Ideally someone else will introduce you. Then, keep your arms by your sides and bow to the appropriate degree – if it’s a social situation just a casual tilt will do. If you just met the emperor, well then. How low can you go?

Respect is very important in Japanese society, and bowing is one of the most common ways for people to express respect to others. It is vital for success to bow appropriately for each conceivable social or commercial setting.

There’s no need to feel self-conscious: after a little practice, you’ll be giving and receiving bows in Japan without ever realizing it. After a week or two in Japan, it becomes part of the routine to do so.

…Except in Crowded Places

Tokyo is a crowded city. I make contact with many strangers everyday and no one is ever bothered by it. In fact, it’s considered the norm. Bumping into people on the street is okay – no need to apologize. Take the train in peak hour and revel in the sardine experience.

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Giving and Receiving Gifts with Both Hands

If you’re giving a present or business card to someone else (which is usual), you’ll do so with both hands and a small bow.
When you get a present or a card, you’ll do the same thing. It shows that you value the connection and are treating it with respect.

Take Your Shoes Off When You Enter Someone’s Home

If you have the opportunity to enter someone’s home in Japan you will find a genkan as soon as you walk in – an area where everyone takes off their shoes before entering the home. Your host will most likely provide you a pair of slippers to wear inside the home.

If you need to use the restroom, take your slippers off outside the door, enter the restroom, and wear the restroom designated slippers. And, most importantly, remember to take off your restroom slippers and change back to your house slippers when you are done. It’s considered very embarrassing to be walking around the home in restroom slippers.

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Say “Itadakimasu” and “Gochisousama Deshita”

Itadakimasu literally means “I received this food” and Gochisousama deshita means “Thank you for the food”. Both of these simple Japanese expressions, however, have deeper meanings.

Itadakimasu is a greeting used by Japanese people regardless of when, where, or what they are eating. Even if they are eating alone at home, many Japanese say  “Itadakimasu.” What if someone prepared your meals for you? If you want to express your thanks, say “itadakimasu.” Are you going to a restaurant to eat? Even if you’re a paying customer, saying “itadakimasu” before you eat is polite.

Make the Peace Sign (V) for Kodac Moments

Everyone you see in Japan will pose for photos making the “V” sign with their hand. When the hippie movement began in the US during the 1960s the peace sign was a symbol to oppose the Vietnam war. Around the same time, Tokyo had a small hippie culture that adopted this hand signature. From there it made it to mainstream Japanese culture but nobody knows how or why. I can guarantee you nobody in Japan will even know this is the history behind it. I only know because I’m a nerd and I had to google it.

Slurp Your Noodles

Nobody really knows why the slurping thing happens. I was trained out of it early because the sound drove my dad mad. The slurping sound is synonymous with maximizing the deliciousness of the noodles and soup, however, so by all means, if you can physically do it (many gaijin actually struggle!) slurp away.

Even with these tips you’ll still stick out like a sore thumb and get the attention of a D-Grade celebrity. I say roll with the punches and indulge your inner-diva!


Understanding Japanese culture, especially if you’re from the West, can be a difficult endeavor. The behavior of the Japanese in society is governed by very strict social conventions and codes of good behavior, which a Westerner may not understand at first glance. Learning about and adapting to Japanese culture and customs is both a difficult and exciting process. The definitions of “rude” and “polite” are radically different. You must also grasp Japanese culture in order to fully learn the Japanese language.

This is just the tip of the iceberg! If you have any extra tips, fire away in the comments. 


I’m a writer, new mom and foodie. I love sharing what I know while making others feel beautiful. On this blog, I share my healthy lifestyle, simple meals, fitness tips and experiences.

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