Why Do The Japanese Sit This Way? You Will Only Find Out If You Read This • illuminaija
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Why Do The Japanese Sit This Way? You Will Only Find Out If You Read This

   
   

Why Do The Japanese Sit This Way? You Will Only Find Out If You Read This

Sitting upright on the floor is common in many situations in Japan. For example, meals are traditionally held on a tatami floor around a low table. Sitting on the floor is also customary during the tea ceremony and other traditional events.

The formal way of sitting for both genders is kneeling (seiza) as shown on the picture below. People who are not used to sit in seiza-style may become uncomfortable after a few minutes. Foreigners are not usually expected to be able to sit in seiza-style for a long time, and an increasing number of Japanese people themselves are not able to do so either.

In casual situations, men usually sit cross-legged, while women sit with both legs to one side. The former sitting style is considered exclusively male, while the latter is considered exclusively female.

Seating order

The most important guest sits on the honored seat (kamiza) which is located farthest from the entrance. In Japanese-style rooms with an alcove (tokonoma), the honored guest should be seated in front of the alcove, with his or her back towards the alcove. The host or least important person is supposed to sit next to the entrance (shimoza).

Basic Etiquette

Why Do The Japanese Sit This Way? You Will Only Find Out If You Read This

It is impolite to yawn or chew gum in public in Japan.

People are expected to bashfully deny compliments. Being too quick or willing to accept compliments can make them seem conceited. 

It is polite to give a faint refusal or show slight hesitation before accepting an invitation or offering. Such behaviour shows modesty.

The Japanese commonly sit in the seiza style positioning, in which one sits with their legs tucked directly underneath themselves with a straight back.

It is inappropriate for women to cross their legs, and men should only do so by crossing their knees or ankles. It is impolite to sit casually with the ankle resting on the other knee.

People who are sick are expected to wear a face mask to prevent the spread of germs in public places. Blowing one’s nose in public is also considered unhygienic.

Visiting

It is best to call your host before your arrival to give them a warning—even if they invited you. 

   
   

Bring a small edible gift (e.g. tea, sweets, fruit) when visiting someone’s home for the first time.

Shoes should be taken off before entering and placed next to the door or in the allocated area before entering a Japanese home. The Japanese place their shoes facing towards the outdoors if they’re on the floor. Slippers may be worn indoors instead but are taken off when walking into rooms with straw mats.

Eating

The Japanese use chopsticks to eat their food. Sometimes a large spoon may be used to sip broth.

Miso soup is served with most meals and often replaces the purpose of a drink. 

When eating at a traditional meal, the bowl is held to the mouth to avoid bending down to reach the table. 

It is considered inappropriate for adults to eat while walking. Street food is often eaten on the spot where it is bought.

Gift Giving

Pass a gift to the recipient with both hands. A Japanese person may also receive or give a gift with a slight bow. 

Gifts are important in Japan as their quality and choice is reflective of the relationship two people have and the respect the giver wishes to show to the recipient. 

Food and drink are appropriate gifts for most occasions. 

Do’s and Don’ts

Do’s

Express flattery when it is due as this will give face to the recipient, however always do so earnestly. An insincere compliment can cause a person to lose face instead. Furthermore, do not compliment a single person too profusely since their obligation to humbly deny praise can make them become embarrassed. 

It is good to add a lot of reassurance during conversation. 

If you reflect on an interaction with a Japanese person and feel you may have come across impolitely, it is okay to apologise for the rudeness the next time you see them. In Japan, apologies are made several times a day for rudeness that was not actually committed.

The Japanese often smile and nod throughout conversation. Remember that this is done out of politeness to save face and does not necessarily indicate that they fully understand or agree with what you are saying. Therefore, if you notice that your Japanese counterpart’s English is limited, try not to interpret their encouraging nodding as a cue that they totally comprehend what you are saying. 

Make a considered effort to be humble and modest. It is polite to lightheartedly disagree with people when they compliment you.

Don’ts

Avoid being blunt or frank about delicate topics. Sometimes blatant honesty can be unappreciated as the Japanese form of communication is very indirect. Negative news is delivered more discreetly.

Do not raise your voice or lose your temper. Losing control of one’s emotions even in the most frustrating situations is a sign of poor upbringing and is likely to make you lose face in a Japanese person’s eyes.

Do not tell third parties about a conversation you’ve had with another Japanese person unless they have made it clear that it is okay to do so.

Why Do The Japanese Sit This Way? You Will Only Find Out If You Read This

Avoid discussing sensitive historical and political topics such as World War II.

Avoid being openly critical or pointing out mistakes. The Japanese may take criticism quite personally. For example, if they have taken you to a restaurant and you do not like a dish served, commenting on its quality may be taken as a comment on their skills as a host even though they did not prepare the dish. Such occurrences can quickly cause a Japanese person to lose face.

Verbal

Indirect Communication: The Japanese communication pattern is very indirect and far less verbose than what the English-speaking West is familiar with. They rely less on words to convey context and are more attentive to the posture, expression and tone of voice of the speaker to draw meaning from a conversation. In order to maintain harmony throughout conversation and prevent a loss of face on either end, they may use ambiguous speech and understatements to convey their message in a more subtle way. The best way of navigating around this rhetoric to find the underlying meaning is to check for clarification several times using open-ended questions.

Refusals: The cultural preoccupation with saving face and being polite means that the Japanese may wish to avoid giving a flat “no” or negative response—even when they don’t agree with you. Therefore, focus on hints of hesitation. Listen closely to what they say, but also pay careful attention to what they don’t say and implicitly mean. It’s a good idea to clarify and double check your understanding.

Laughter: When communicating bad news, a Japanese person may smile and laugh to diffuse the uncomfortable situation. People may also cover their mouth when they giggle. It is rare to see big bursts of laughter with corresponding gestures.

Non-Verbal

Physical Contact: The appropriacy of physical contact varies depending on the context in Japan. You can expect a Japanese person to immediately apologise if they bump into or brush against you by accident. However, often the situation is unavoidable (e.g. on crowded public transport). In these situations, people are generally accustomed to a lack of personal space. 

Body Language: The Japanese do not gesture very much while speaking as their body language is largely restrained. Instead, they often hold their hands together as they speak which prevents them from gesturing throughout conversation.  

Eye Contact: The Japanese avoid eye contact with strangers as it is considered rude to stare.

Facial Expressions: It is common for Japanese people to maintain a placid expression and smile during an interaction regardless of the topic. This evidently differs between personalities, but a modest, reserved demeanour is polite. Furthermore, consider that whilst smiling can indicate happiness, it is sometimes used in an attempt to cover awkwardness or sadness.

Nodding: Japanese people often nod to acknowledge what is said. However, this does not always mean they agree or understand. It is primarily a gesture made out of politeness.

Feet: Displaying the soles of your feet is considered rude.

Inhaling: When a Japanese person inhales air through their teeth, it usually implies disagreement.

   
   

Why Do The Japanese Sit This Way? You Will Only Find Out If You Read This

Silence: Silence is an important and purposeful tool used in Asian communication. Pausing before giving a response indicates that someone has applied appropriate thought and consideration to the question. This reflects politeness and respect.

Beckoning: It is impolite to beckon people who you are not close friends with. Beckoning is done by facing the palm of the hand to the ground and waving one’s fingers towards oneself. Individual fingers should not be used.

Pointing: Pointing is done using the entire hand unless referring to oneself, in which case they place their index finger on their nose.

Waving: Shaking the hand with the palm facing forward from side to side means “no”.

Gestures: A Japanese person may clasp their hands together in front of their chest when apologising or accepting something. This expresses gratitude and respect.

   
   

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