Whenever the pandemic does finally calm down, I think a lot of people in Japan will go back to visiting each other’s homes. There are a few customs that seem to differ from what I experienced in America, so I thought I’d share a few I’ve picked up.
Visiting someone for the first time
Have a gift ready
If you or your kid has made friends with someone, and you get invited over to their home, make sure you bring with you a gift. This is usually in the form of snacks. If the host is gracious, you can expect them to offer to share the snacks with you, so prepare something you all can enjoy eating. To make a good impression, try to pick something fancy that no one would normally buy, like cake from the local cake store or high-end snacks grocery stores and department stores sell. It helps to ask them before visiting what kind of snacks they, or their kids, like. They might say, “Oh you don’t need to bring anything” but that’s just them being polite. Bring something.
If kids are involved, a great move is to prepare individual bags of snacks for each kid. If there are no kids and you can expect alcohol to be involved, then a great move would be to bring along snacks that pair well with alcohol.
Take your shoes off at the front door
I think a lot of households in America are getting into this, but Japan is huge about no shoes in the house. I can understand people here not wanting to track mug, dirt and everything else from the streets into their home so I love following this rule.
When you enter someone’s home, even if it’s a tiny apartment, you should notice some sort of divide between the front door area and the rest of the house. Either it’s a step up into the house or different colored flooring. Stay within the area near the front door to take off your shoes.
Take off your shoes and step into the rest of the house. Then turn around, line up your shoes and point them facing the front door.
Wash your hands
The pandemic has made everyone here a stickler for washing your hands, and I don’t think it’ll change after the pandemic has eased up a bit. So a good thing to do is ask where the washroom is and wash your hands.
The host should offer you something to drink almost as soon as you come inside. If this is a casual visit between friends, then you can tell them you’ve brought your own drink if you have. If you haven’t, or if this is more formal, then drink whatever they offer you.
Don’t ask for more to drink. Instead, wait for them to notice your empty cup and offer more. The only exception is if it’s a really hot day and you’re about to die of thirst. Ask for water, then. Also, if your kids are involved, you can ask for refills on their behalf.
Don’t wander around
I think that’s pretty standard manners the world over, but in particular do not try to see their bedroom. This is almost a sacred space in a Japanese household, and usually the door will be closed. You can ask for a tour of their home, but don’t expect to see all of it.
Instead, after you wash your hands, wait for the host to tell you where to sit (usually at the table or couch in the living room) and just sit there and wait for the drink to arrive. If you are on a playdate with your kid, then tell your kid to go play with their friend while you sit there nicely and wait.
Say only nice things about their home
Again, this is standard manners, I think, but in Japan it’s custom for the host to say something like, “Oh the house is such a mess” or “our house is falling apart” or something to degrade their home. This is an act of being humble. No good host will sit around bragging about their home, no matter how cool it is. Your job as the guest is to say, “Oh no, your home is so lovely and big.” If you guys run out of things to say, look around the home and pick something out that you think looks nice. “I love your feature wall” or “that’s such a lovely staircase design” or something like that.
Ask to do things before you do them
I don’t know why, but many hosts expect you to ask before you can use the bathroom.
You also need to ask to throw things out because most of the time, the trash can is in the kitchen. The kitchen is another almost sacred space that hosts don’t want visitors to get a good look at, so ask before throwing things out or carrying your plates to the sink.
Know when to leave
The host will rarely just tell you to go home. Instead, time your visit for about two hours if it’s morning, mid-morning or afternoon and one hour or less if it’s in the evening (try not to ever visit someone in the evening). It can be a bit longer if you know this person well or if the kids are really hitting it off.
A good sign the host is ready for you to leave is when drinks aren’t offered anymore or they start putting snacks they have offered away. Try to suggest you need to go home before this happens. If the person insists multiple times that you can stay longer, then go ahead. If they only say, “Oh no please feel free to stay a bit longer” only once, they’re just probably being polite. Go home.
Clean up before you go
If this is a playdate, make sure the toys get put away before you leave. If your kid is too young to clean up or annoying about it, then the responsibility falls on you to clean everything up, too. Usually the host will pitch in to clean it up, but you have to leave the home looking as it did just as you arrived.
The host will see you to the door, and if you have no idea how to get to the nearest bus stop/station and such, they might offer to walk you there. They will definitely walk you to their door, though. Put your shoes back on, thank them for the lovely visit and the nice food and drinks, then leave.