Learn With Nippon Hippo

6 Social Taboos
In Japanese Culture

Japanese Culture | 6 Minutes Read
Written by : Aliza
11 September 2021

Japan is known for having a unique culture, which foreigners may find quite surprising. What’s more surprising are some of the social norms in Japan that are unlike anywhere else in the world. While Japanese people can be extremely hospitable and friendly to foreigners, some travellers are often cautious about offending them due to lack of knowledge about the acceptable and unacceptable behaviors within the Japanese culture.

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If you’re one of them, we are here to make your life easier! If you are planning to travel to Japan soon, then you must read further to know about some of the most common Japanese etiquette and taboos. Give it a read and make some mental notes before you visit!

1. Flowers

If you’re thinking about picking flowers for your Japanese friend or colleague, we think you might need to know this. In Japan, many flowers have different symbols and meanings attached to it. To you, a red camellia might seem like a perfect pick for a hospitalised person to brighten their day - Well, not in Japan! Camellia flowers or any other pale yellow or white flowers symbolizes death and funeral in Japan. So, how about lilies? Well, it's not as easy as it seems. In Japan, while white lilies represent purity, red spider lilies can be seen as a symbol of a final goodbye. Let’s just steer clear of camellia and lilies.

2. Numbers

It is no surprise that in different cultures, different numbers carry meanings or are considered as lucky or unlucky. Like in the western culture, number 13 is considered unlucky, same is the case for number ‘4’ or ‘42’ in Japan. This is because of the Japanese pronunciation of the words ‘four’ (shi) means ‘death’ and ‘forty two’ (shi-ni) means ‘to die’. This is why both the numbers are avoided, especially in hospitals in Japan.

Interestingly, the number ‘2’ in Japan is associated with breaking a couple's feelings for each other, which is why gifts in the quality of ‘2’ or even multiples of 2 are avoided. If you thought that gifting 2 boxes of chocolates is enough to your married friends, think again!

3. Colors (Red & White)

Understanding the meanings attached to different colors in Japan can be a little complex. Don’t worry, we will try to break them down for you as much as we can. Starting with the color red, it can be seen a lot in Japan as it is known for protecting people from evil and disaster. However, if you’re going to a housewarming party, you might want to reconsider your gift options as anything in the color red can be associated with fire and bad luck in such a situation. In short, buy red things for yourself only!

Moving on to the color white, it is considered as blessed and sacred, which is why it can be seen at traditional Japanese weddings; however, it also signifies death and mourning. In short, it is acceptable to wear at weddings but not while visiting a Japanese person in the hospital.

4. Tattoos

If you are planning to visit Japan and you have visible tattoos or tattoo sleeves, prepare to turn some heads - but no in a mesmerizing way. What may look like art to you, looks scary to Japanese people. Most older people in Japan associate tattoos with the Japanese mafia (Yakuza), which is why they might be surprised to see people with tattoos. You might not be allowed in a lot of places in Japan if you have tattoos, especially in a lot of Japanese onsen facilities. It’s always a good idea to check online before visiting public pools, bathing houses, beaches, gyms and hot springs.

5. Onsen (Hot Spring)

Let us just say this once: Your Japanese cultural experience is incomplete if you have not gone bathing in onsen (hot springs), or a traditional neighborhood sento (bath house). By now you must know that almost everything in Japan has certain rules and restrictions.

Before getting into the bathtub, make sure to clean your body in the washing area. While some modern themed bath houses may allow you to wear a swimsuit, traditional onsen and sento follow a strict ‘no swimsuit’ rule for a completely authentic experience. You are given a small towel to take to the bath with you but make sure it doesn't touch water. Lastly, we are sad to inform you that if you have any tattoos, you are likely to miss out on this experience.​

6. Gifts

As we mentioned before, giving gifts in even numbers to couples can be seen as extremely unlucky at weddings, which is why people give things and even money in odd numbers. If you plan on gifting flowers to a hospitalised person, make sure the flowers are cut and not potted as flower roots signifies putting down roots in the hospital. You might also want to avoid gifting clocks, scissors, and knives to Japanese people as they are a symbol of time running out and cutting relationships.

Now that you know some of the most common taboos among Japanese people, you might feel a little more prepared to visit! In case you’ve a lot of visible tattoos - we're truly sorry for scaring you!