Faux Pas for First-Time Visitors

Contributor Brian Covert hails from California, where he worked as a newspaper reporter and editor. He arrived in Japan in December 1986, and wishes to share his advice with Discover Kinki! readers.

For a Westerner staying in Japan, life is a series of “firsts”: your first cup of sake, your first public bath, your first visit to a shrine or temple. Just walking down a crowded city street or an isolated country road can be a “first” (especially if you’re lost), and these “firsts” are not likely to fade from memory anytime soon.

The Japanese are proud of their culture and are usually more than willing to share it with foreigners, particularly first-time visitors. But in return, Westerners need to respect and appreciate the Japanese way.

To show your respect and appreciation, you, as a first-time visitor, must be on your toes. You need to make sure you don’t insult your Japanese host, either accidentally or intentionally. So how does one attain such a perfect state of grace? Trial and error, my friend. And to help make your experiences in Japan much more memorable, you’ll need to follow a set of guidelines devised specifically for first-timers.


Don’t: Sit and stare at your plate of food. It’s downright rude. Besides, you can rest assured that the ocean fish still airing its gills on your plate will be dead once it hits your stomach.

Do: Say “itadakimasu” before eating. It’s the Japanese way of saying “bon appétit,” and lets the host know you appreciate the meal you are about to consume.

Don’t: Keep asking over and over again what you’re being served. It may seem that many Japanese dishes were designed solely to gross out Western taste buds, but keep in mind you’re in the Land of the Rising Sun — not at Grandma LaVerne’s Homestyle Country Ranch Restaurant.

Do: Pay close attention to the delicate care taken in preparing your meal. Many Japanese cuisines look so exquisitely appealing that you almost hate to touch them with your chopsticks. And don’t forget to thank your host after the meal by saying, “Gochisō-sama deshita.” They’ll know you ate well and appreciate their effort in preparing your meal.


Don’t: Get bothered by giggling teen-age girls or sake-filled businessmen who refer to you as “gaijin” and point you out in the crowd, amid your obvious humiliation.

Do: Understand that “gaijin” is not a direct derogatory statement, but rather a loose translation of “foreigner.” Just smile back and say, “Sō desu ne” (that’s right!).

Don’t: Fret about getting lost, even though you’re 40 kilometers from your intended destination, caught in a rainstorm, surrounded by Japanese residents who don’t speak a word of English, and about to be pulled into the local police box for looking like a suspicious character.

Do: Look at the bright side. Every visitor gets lost at one time or another while staying in Japan; it’s inevitable. Besides, it’s a perfect chance to see some new sights, gain some valuable traveling experience and practice your Japanese — all in one shot.

The above guidelines are just a few examples of experiences that you, the first-timer, are likely to encounter during your stay here in Japan. Despite any setbacks you may face, don’t forget you’re here to enjoy yourself and take in all that this special society has to offer.

While the majority of “gaijins” visiting Japan do appreciate the hospitality of the Japanese people, there are many others who, unfortunately, are here for nothing more than to milk Japan for all it’s worth before returning to the routine, day-to-day lifestyle back in their own homelands. Beware of falling into this latter category; the Japanese are very perceptive and do know insincerity or selfishness when they see it.

By respecting and appreciating the Japanese people, you’ll find that every experience you have in Japan can be just as intriguing and exciting as the first one.