Innocents Abroad: A Guide to Japanese Etiquette for Families Travelling with Young Kids

If this was 1897, my panic-buying instinct would be Mark Twain. Because reports of its death have been exaggerated. Here’s what I’ve accumulated so far in the lead-up to our Japanese holiday:

Not shown: the Guide To Japanese Etiquette I tactlessly gifted to my mother.

Not shown: the Guide To Japanese Etiquette I tactlessly gifted to my mother.

At a certain point I realised I had a choice between continuing to buy more stuff than I could reasonably pack and port (never mind poke a stick at – is that even allowed in Japan?) and taking a step back to ask, what they hey, B?

Here’s the truth: I was nervous about taking my loud, rambunctious children to a place renowned for manners and reserve. Simultaneously nervous, and looking forward to the opportunity to point out how nice things can be when everyone’s behaving themselves quietly. Then I realised my worries were based on cultural stereotypes, and if I’m going to worry (I am) I should at least base my concerns on solid truth, because then I can worry productively instead of just kind of walking around with a vague sense of unease, which is much less satisfying and involves too much shopping.

Elle of Life In Japan With Toddlers came immediately to our aid. She’s an expat lass married to her Japanese sweetheart, raising their three children in Saitama, near Tokyo. Our family put together some questions and she helped set our minds at ease (and gave us hints on when and how to achieve maximum success in the playground). I particularly took comfort from this:

Someone else in Japan might feel very differently than me, actually I can be sure of it. Often I hear people comment on the inappropriate behaviour of an adult toward their child in public.

…which reaffirms that there’s nowhere in the world you can please everyone, all the time, and that you have to learn to be happy with reasonable efforts, even if they sometimes fall short. But in the spirit of directing those efforts:

General Notes on Public Behaviour for Young Children in Japan

1. Can you tell us how kids are expected to respond when people of different ages speak to them?

Young children (under 6) aren’t expected to respond in a particular way to any age group. In my experience, Japanese people are very tolerant of, and kind to, young children of all characters.

2. Is it usual for kids to open conversations with adults? 

Yes, I think so. The older generation in particular love when kids chat to them.

3. What volume/activity level would you say is acceptable in public for children under six?

It depends on the place. For instance, children wouldn’t be very loud close to a temple or shrine, and it isn’t acceptable to play with the shrine’s paraphernalia. However, they are able to run around and further away from the religious building it is ok to increase volume level. A lot of the shrines have play areas for kids to enjoy, unrestrained.

4. How do local parents handle their children in public? How do they respond when their children misbehave in public?

It really does vary. You have some who continously monitor and comment to their children on how they should behaving. You have some who leave their children to their own devices. Most parents encourage children to be respectful of those around them.

When a child misbehaves publicly they are generally reprimanded publicly. There are parents who will shout at a child, there are even parents who will smack their child, but largely in my experience parents calmly and respectfully explain why their behaviour is inappropriate.

5. How do people react when a child is having a loud meltdown and what do they actually think? How does this vary by age of the child?

Sometimes people turn a blind eye, sometimes people try to help. I don’t think they give too much thought to it either way and I don’t think it varies with age.

6. Do kids sit or stand on public transport? 

They usually sit.

7. Is there anywhere kids don’t usually go (e.g. restaurants, museums, etc)?

The only place I can think of is nightclubs! Other than that, I have seen children everywhere, even at funerals and izakayas (Japanese bars).

Japanese playground image courtesy of Elle at Life in Japan with Toddlers

Image courtesy of Elle from Life In Japan With Toddlers

Hitting the Playground

1. What times of day are kids usually out and about?

Preschool starts at 3 or 4 years old here, depending on whether they are doing a 2 or 3 year course. So Monday to Friday you only see really young children in the morning, from about 10 to noon, preschoolers from about 14.30 and primary school children (6+) after 15.30.

2. Is it common for families to take toys to the playground? If so, what’s the general policy on sharing?

Yes. Children are taught to share any toys they bring with them. You particularly seeing sharing of toys in the sandpit.

3. How about sharing of public playground equipment? Short turns or long?

Yes. Usually short turns.

One thing I really like about Japanese parenting and preschool techniques is that children are taught to be kind, considerate and helpful to children younger than they are.

Older children, although strangers, usually help younger children to use equipment in a playground and will often play with them. Younger children refer to older children as “Onee-san” (Onay-san) which means older sister and “Oniisa” (o-knee-san) which means older brother. It is perfectly acceptable and almost expected that you call ANY boy or girl by these terms. You will hear this quite a bit in Japan.

Big thanks, Elle, and I very much hope that’s how other kids feel like referring to our children.

If you want a child-friendly view of the Kanto region of Japan, you should absolutely, definitely check out Elle’s blog. She’s friendly and answers questions and knows where to pick strawberries. To get you started:


Madhu from The Urge To Wander introduces us to Shichi-go-san, a Japanese coming-of-age tradition for young children, which gives an idea of when milestones occur for boys and girls.

If you’re travelling with more mature guests, you can find an entertaining series of posts on Japanese etiquette from an expat mother of teenagers over at Hey From Japan. Or there’s this video-enhanced blog post on Japanese etiquette from Inside Japan.

And on a broader note, The Anxious Traveller has her own take on hitting the sweet spot between your own, usual behaviour and the social conventions of the host culture for those feeling, well, anxious about it.

This post appeared first on Journeys of the Fabulist.