One interesting, and for some foreigners, a bit exasperating issue when living in Japan is whether blowing your nose in public is an uncouth thing to do. The custom with how the Japanese deal with a runny nose or a stuffed-up nose may seem a bit strange, but that’s the way they roll.
In a nutshell, it’s rude to blow your nose loudly in public areas in Japan, and more rude if you use a handkerchief. It’s not rude to sniffle continuously or discreetly wipe your nose with a tissue. Find a public bathroom or out-of-site place to blow your nose using tissue.
Why Japanese Don’t Blow Their Nose in Public
It’s a culture thing. Japan is a quite culture. Its good manners not to disturb others with loud noises. This would include not blowing one’s nose loudly in public.
The poor soul will continually sniffle because that has been how they were taught—to not be an annoyance to other people. Another reason for sniffling maybe they don’t have any tissue.
However, during the winter months, in front of train stations, it’s common to see a person handing out small tissue packets that advertise something. In some cases, like riding on a crowded train, it may feel too embarrassing to break out a tissue and discreetly wipe one’s nose.
It’s culturally more acceptable to sniffle-away. In some forums, some foreign expats find this ludicrous. Why would anyone keep snuffing up a runny nose.
Which leads to another reason why Japanese would rather sniffle than blow their nose is that body fluids are considered dirty.
One reason why Japanese may consider body fluids dirty is because tuberculosis (TB) was prevalent during the Meiji Era (1868-1912). During this time, the population became concentrated in major centers. Any person with lung TB who would spit, cough, or sneeze making the germs (body fluids) airborne that would easily infect people nearby.
Spitting is against the law in public parks. You may get you a citation and/or a stern warning if caught spitting in public by police.
I believe, and I could be wrong, that this may have come about the fear of spitting may cause the spreading of TB.
Now for the paradox, coughing and sneezing without covering your mouth is customary in Japan. This can be very disconcerting for foreigners where it’s not only custom, it’s common sense to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze.
Many Japanese are sensitive to seasonal allergies. In Japan they sneeze as loud as thunder. I mean it’s loud. I’ve heard a person go into a sneezing frenzy a couple of houses down from my apartment.
How do Japanese Blow Their Nose
Here are their options.
Find a perfect quiet out-of-the-public’s-eye place, like a restroom, a quiet street or park. One can’t be bad mannered if no one can see you.
But, what about riding trains or in a crowded public place?
They will use pocket tissue to discreetly wipe their nose. If they do blow, it will be very slight. Normally they just wipe discreetly.
One thing they won’t do is use a handkerchief because handkerchiefs are used to either wipe perspiration off the face during the hot summer days and/or also used to dry their hands after washing as most toilets, especially public ones, don’t have dryers nor paper towels for drying hands.
When using tissue they will, in most cases, discreetly turn away, or face downwards to wipe or blow ever-so-quietly into the tissue.
Japanese Discreet Behavior With a Toothpick:
This is a similar kind of discreet behavior when using a toothpick to clean their teeth after a meal. Japanese will use both hands. One to work the toothpick and the other to cover over both the mouth and hand cleaning the teeth with the toothpick.
It’s more polite to cover your mouth when cleaning your teeth with a toothpick.
There Will Be Exceptions
With some groups and even within some companies some Expats have seen the Japanese co-workers blowing their nose in true Western fashion, using a tissue. It’s still not that common, more like an exception.
To Sum It Up
It’s best to go with the flow and be discreet when it comes to blowing your nose. Of course if you blow your nose like you normally would no one is going to come down on you. You may get a few looks of disgust or surprise but for the most part no one will outwardly show their distaste…but you can bet,
Inwardly, they’re thinking and feeling it.