Is it Rude to Smile in Japan?

This post may contain affiliate links. When you click the link and buy something I earn a commission
NOTE: This does not change the price you pay.
Is it rude to smile in Japan

Smiling in Japan, especially at strangers, is perceived differently than it is in the US. Is smiling in Japan rude, taboo, or perfectly friendly?

While it is not rude to smile in Japan, it may be off-putting. Casually smiling at strangers in Japan is not part of the culture. When you smile in Japan, a stranger might wonder if your smile is genuine or what your intentions are.

If you plan to visit Japan or are simply curious, read on to learn how smiles are received in Japan. You can find out when Japanese people do smile and how they prefer to present their emotions. There are several other faux pas in Japan that you should also be aware of.

What will someone think if I smile at them in Japan?

Friendly people smile at strangers here in the United States. It’s a gesture of warmth and openness, which are characteristics Americans value.

In Japan, a stranger probably won’t see your smile as inviting. Of course, everyone is different, and your smile will be perceived differently based on your unique situation and the lucky stranger you choose to smile at!

Here are a few ways that a Japanese stranger might interpret your random grin:

  • They might find you disingenuous. Since smiling at strangers is so abnormal, especially in large cities, people might feel suspicious of your motives. In Japan, smiling is a way to hide your real feelings, which may leave people confused. They rely on nonverbal cues more than a frown or smile.
  • They could wonder if you are being flirtatious. Scott Worden shares one perspective in his blog, which is a collection of his experiences living abroad. His friend has a Japanese wife, who says on the topic of smiling at strangers: “’ Stop smiling at everyone! People are going to think that you’re weird or a pervert, especially if you smile at a young girl’” (link to blog here).
  • They will probably find you bizarre. Plain and simple: Japanese people do not smile at strangers. It’s not part of their culture. When you smile at a stranger in Japan, they are going to be surprised and confused, and might even question your mental state.
  • It might be disarming to see a smile from a foreigner. In some cases, a smile from a foreigner could be welcomed as disarming, and it may ease tension in an uncomfortable situation.

Fortunately, your smile is unlikely to be considered rude or offensive, but it might cause misunderstanding since it is not a part of Japanese culture.

Of course, some people may be familiar with tourists and the cultural differences that come with them. It is best to put your greeting-smile on the backburner while in Japan, and use your best judgment for those occasions when it might be time to use it.

Why is smiling rare in Japan?

Americans value charisma and kindness while the Japanese people elevate humility and suppressing emotions. While Americans tend to look at vulnerability and sharing emotions as a way to build relationships. The Japanese, on the other hand, tend to be more polite with their acquaintances and suppress emotion in order to improve their relationships.

Japanese people do not usually communicate emotion with the mouth. Translate Media explains that ‘Naki-warai’ conveys the idea that Japanese people might smile when angry, sad, or embarrassed to mask their emotions.

Japanese people still smile to convey happiness, but not as often as Americans. Japanese people interpret emotion through the eyes more than the mouth, and they are better at identifying a true smile versus a fake smile, according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Therefore, smiles are not thrown around in abundance.

Japanese people will more likely use your nonverbal cues and the looks in your eyes to determine emotion.

You can visualize the way Japanese people look for emotion in the eyes instead of the lips when you see the difference between Japanese and American emoticons.

EmoticonAmericanJapanese
Happy😊^_^
Sad🙁>_<
Crying;-(T_T
Note the emphasis on the eyes rather than on the mouth in the Japanese versions.

While Americans wear their emotions on their sleeves, the Japanese keep them more hidden. A smile can be used to mask emotions or convey genuine happiness, but it is not used as a greeting to strangers.

Are Japanese people friendly?

There are those rare establishments that are Japanese-only, and like every country, there are some individuals who are anti-foreigner. However, for the most part, people in Japan are very cooperative towards foreigners.

Actually, you’ll hear travelers rave about how nice Japanese people are. This may seem counterintuitive since smiling at strangers is so uncommon, but on the contrary, Japanese culture embraces a kind of politeness that helps visitors feel quite welcome.

What makes Japanese people come across so gentle and accommodating is a concept called “omotenashi.” This term represents genuine kindness and hospitality towards visitors, and heightened awareness of individual needs, according to the article “Behind the Stereotype: ‘Japanese People Are So Polite and Nice!’”

While you might not find Japanese people as open and warm as some Americans, you will find them extremely considerate and polite. No matter the situation, Japanese people work for the good of everyone around them, whereas America has more of an individualistic “self-care” and “self-love” focus.

When visiting Japan, you will probably notice omotenashi in various situations like these:

  • Everyone will make space for you on a jam-packed train
  • Arguments and contention will never happen in front of you
  • If you lose your phone or wallet, it is very likely to be turned into the police
  • You will not hear bragging, criticizing or gossiping (of course, you might not catch onto that without a few Japanese lessons)

You will find that etiquette, rules, and manners are an integral part of life in Japan.

You will find that etiquette, rules, and manners are an integral part of life in Japan.

What else should I avoid in Japan? (Other faux-pas in Japan)

  • Avoid PDA (Public Displays of Affection). Since showing emotion is discouraged in Japan, public displays of affection are likely to make the natives around you feel uncomfortable.
  • Take off your shoes. Before you enter someone’s home, remove your shoes. It’s also customary to bring a gift to the homeowner.
  • Give and receive things with two hands. While it’s okay to hand your close friend something casually with one hand, it’s important to give and receive things with two hands when you’re having an exchange in a shop or with a stranger. Using two hands shows respect and cooperativeness.
  • Watch your chopsticks. Never put your chopsticks vertically into your bowl of rice, as this is a custom reserved for funerals. Use the chopstick holder next to your plate, don’t pass food from your chopsticks to someone else’s chopsticks, and don’t rub your chopsticks together.
  • Avoid “Japanese only” establishments. While they are few and far between, tourists can be thrown out of Japanese-only places. They could be restaurants, bars, or other places, but don’t worry—you’re unlikely to run into them if you’re sticking to places on main roads.

Try not to get too caught up in memorizing every “do” and “don’t” about Japanese culture. As long as you’re respectful and accepting of this new culture and you do what you can to reciprocate their accommodating nature, you’ll have a fantastic experience.

Malcare WordPress Security