Japan has many unwritten social rules, but I believe the most important one to know is cell phone etiquette. What you might consider normal phone usage in your home country could come off as quite inappropriate in Japan.
Cell Phone Etiquette in Japan
If you spend any amount of time riding Japan’s public transportation, you will probably notice that trains and stations are relatively quiet, even in the busy cities of Tokyo and Osaka.
There are strict societal rules about keeping noise to a minimum. Conversations are quiet, people don’t talk on their phones, and there aren’t any sounds coming from cell phones, such as keyboard noise, ringers, videos, music, etc.
From a young age, Japanese children are taught to notice how their behavior is affecting other people around them. This creates a very quiet environment that makes the outlier that doesn’t comply with the societal norms stand out like a sore thumb.
Talking on the Phone
One way of respecting the people around you, is to not disturb them with your personal phone call or video call. In Japan, it is considered impolite to have a private conversation on a cell phone while others, especially strangers, are around to listen.
This rule extends beyond trains, subways and buses. It is considered impolite to talk on the phone in just about any indoor public space. This would include a coffee shop, restaurant, hotel lobby, waiting room, lounge… you get the idea. Basically, if others can hear you, you should either go outside or somewhere a bit more private.
Volume, Ringtones and Sound Effects
In Japan, turning the ringer off on a cell phone is referred to as putting your phone on Manner Mode. This is because it is considered bad manners for your phone to make any kind of noise while out in public.
This isn’t limited to receiving phone calls and texts. It’s also considered extremely rude to watch videos, movies or play video games on your phone, tablet or computer with the volume on, even if it is low. It is recommended that you use headphones.
There are constant reminders in the form of posters and announcements at every station telling passengers to be respectful of the people around them by turning off the sound on their phones.
Walking while Smartphoning
This is a hot topic right now in Japan. Local jurisdictions and transportation companies are running campaigns to curve this behavior. It’s the new unwritten social rule – don’t walk while staring at your phone. It’s recommended that you stop and move to the side when you need to look at your phone.
There have been instances of people falling off train platforms, walking out into traffic and falling down stairs while staring at their phones. Then there are other simpler accidents of running into bicycles and other pedestrians.
While in Japan, we recommend that you keep your phone on silent mode whenever you’re outside your hotel room. It’s just easier, and it avoids the embarrassment of it going off on a train.
If you do get a phone call, either find a nice quiet place away from others or refuse the call and text the person back telling them you’ll call them back.
When visiting another country, it’s polite to observe the societal rules. Remember, you’re an ambassador when traveling abroad and your behavior is a reflection on your country.