Japanese nightlife etiquette guide
Image adapted from: Chris Yang
The Japanese nightlife scene is anything but boring. A typical night out in Japan consists of a few rounds of drinking at different establishments. You start at an izakaya (居酒屋), which is a traditional Japanese drinking tavern. Then you hop over to various bars and watering holes for nijikai (二次会). And finally, you get to the third round, sanjikai (三次会), to party the night away at one of the numerous nightclubs.
But that’s not the end. Party-goers can choose to round off the night by sobering up with a steaming bowl of late-night/early-morning ramen, or keep the party going by hitting up a karaoke. It really doesn’t matter if you’re looking to discuss business with a client, or to just indulge in a night of party and revelry – there’s something for everyone.
Before you begin prowling the streets, here are some important Japanese nightlife rules and etiquette you must know when drinking with the Japanese. Else, you might just find your night ending with you running from the yakuza – if you’re still sober, that is.
1. Bring enough cash
Image credit: Lan Pham
While Japan is known for its futuristic technology and gadgets, most transactions are still done in cash. Some izakaya do not accept credit cards or issue separate checks, so splitting the bill can get troublesome if you don’t have enough cash on you.
Tip: If you’re a lightweight drinker planning on having a couple more drinks than usual, you might want to consider taking a cab home instead of sitting around for the first train at 5.30AM. Do pack extra cash for the taxi fare – an average taxi ride in Tokyo begins at around ¥400 – ¥700 for the first two kilometres, and increases by ¥80 – ¥90 for every 300 – 400 metres. There’s also an additional 20% late-night/early-morning surcharge for rides from 10AM – 5PM.
2. Expect an edible ‘cover charge’
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Expect a ‘seating charge’ in the form of a small appetiser called otōshi. It usually costs around ¥300 – ¥500 per pax.
These cover charges can quickly add up, especially if you’re pub-hopping. Places that don’t have this sitting charge will indicate so on signs outside the pub or online, so you’ll want to do some research before heading out. Never ask if they charge for seating at the door – it’s considered embarrassing in Japan and a no-no.
3. Make reservations if you’re going in groups of 3 or more
Many karaoke rooms and popular watering holes have limited seating space and are quickly filled up on the weekends and holidays. Call ahead to make reservations if possible. If not, you might have to wait in line or find alternatives. Most reservation numbers can be found on Google.
4. Don’t overstay your welcome
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Most izakaya are tiny and can only accommodate 10-15 customers at a time. Try not to stay for more than 2 hours, especially on a busy night. Don’t be too shocked if you are asked to leave to make space for new customers.
Many izakaya offer all-you-can-drink deals at a flat rate (usually ¥2,000) with a time limit of 2-3 hours – it’s also the amount of time you’re encouraged to stay for.
5. Tipping is not encouraged
Japan’s customer service is extraordinarily good, and you may feel obliged to tip. However, you’re not expected to do so, as it’s an unheard-of practice in Japan. If you try to do so, the bartender will almost definitely turn you down and that’ll only make things awkward for you and the bartender. Instead, just thank the staff for the excellent service you received.
6. Ask for recommendations if you’re unsure on what to order
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Smaller and more traditional izakaya tend not to have English menus. If you can’t read a word on the menu, simply ask “osusume wa nan desu ka?” (what do you recommend?) for the shop’s top recommendations. To really impress, follow it up with “kore onegaishimasu!” (this one, please!).
Check out our guide to more phrases for ordering food in Japan here.
7. Fill up everyone’s cup – except for your own
It’s considered taboo to fill your own glass when out drinking with others, be it your friends or business partners. Begin with the glass of the most senior person – in age or in status – before moving on to serve others. This applies even if you’re not drinking, so don’t leave any glasses empty. Instead, fill the cups of your drinking partners and wait for them to fill up yours.
This practice becomes less strict later on in the night when everyone loosens up a little, and you’ll often see people helping themselves to the drinks.
8. Don’t refuse drinks outrightly – drink green tea instead
When drinking with the Japanese, it’s impolite to refuse someone offering to top up your glass. When you feel like you’ve reached your limit and just can’t drink anymore, hold out your glass when someone offers to pour a drink for you – but leave your glass full and untouched. This is a polite indication that you don’t want a refill, and most Japanese will respect this.
Despite that, if you do find yourself with a group that’s out to get you drunk, politely turn them down and explain that you can’t drink anymore. Instead, order a glass of green tea or coke and continue to join in on the fun.
9. Clink your glass below your senpai
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Seniority in age and position is respected in Japan, so if you’re spending the night out with business partners, remember to position the rim of your glass under theirs when you clink them together, as a sign of respect.
As with the rule on not filling your own glass, this rule gets more relaxed as the night drags on, or when you’re out drinking with your friends. In that case, just raise your cup and yell “kanpai!”
An additional tip for businessmen – when someone presents you his business card, accept it with both hands and study it for a few moments. Afterwards, either set it on the table or put it carefully into your card case – not your wallet or pocket. Business cards are quite important to Japanese businessmen, so do show that you’re treating them seriously.
10. Acknowledge the bartender
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When you walk into a bar in Tokyo, be polite and greet the bartender with a polite “konbanwa” (good evening). It’s a simple gesture, but also an important one.
Many traditional bars in Tokyo are helmed by a master bartender – they’re highly-skilled and dedicated to the craft of mixology. There’s a certain air of formality to the bar and the bartender running it – they’re often not chatty with new customers. Respect that some of them won’t talk to you, and just soak in the ambience of the bar as you sip on that much-raved about shochu highball.
If you’re out with your friends, just grab a table away from the counter to enjoy your drinks while chatting to avoid disturbing the bartender while they’re working.
11. Don’t push your luck at non-gaikokujin-friendly places
Image credit: Matthieu Bühler
There are some Japanese nightlife establishments which will not accept gaikokujin (外国人), or foreigners. Most of the time, this is because it’s a tiny bar that only serves regular customers, or because the bartender doesn’t speak English and doesn’t want to go through the hassle of wildly gesturing just to get your order. These ‘Japanese-only’ bars can sometimes be found in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai, but they are a minority amongst the hundreds of bars that will welcome you with open arms.
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It’s easy to identify non-gaikokujin-friendly places – they’ll usually put up a sign in English stating so outside. On the other hand, English menus posted on the shop window or written on a board outside the izakaya are a clear ‘go-ahead’ signal.
12. Dress classy
Image credit: Heshan Perera
Most clubs have a standard dress code – no slippers. For men, no shorts and no tank tops, too. Instead, wear something stylish but casual. If you have tattoos showing, some establishments might request for you to cover them. Tattoos, while not such a taboo anymore in Japan, still have some stigma attached to them because of its cultural link with the yakuza.
Tip: Our advice is to dress in something trendy and versatile – think streetwear, like long pants and a long-sleeved t-shirt for guys. For ladies, dress codes are usually more relaxed and diverse. According to seasoned club go-ers, try wearing something comfortable and fun, like a black crop top and a pair of jeans. That’ll get you entry into most Japanese nightlife establishments – be it izakaya, bars, karaoke rooms or nightclubs – so you can continue partying round after round like the locals do.
13. Don’t BYOB (Bring Your Own Booze)
Image adapted from: Bundo Kim
Keep in mind that most establishments don’t allow patrons to bring their own drinks and food in from elsewhere. Doing so is considered impolite and will most likely deny you entry. If you’re caught sneaking in drinks, you could get bounced out.
Most places have all-you-can-drink deals to quench your thirst for all things alcoholic. Called nomi hodai, these deals often have a time limit of 2 to 3 hours.
14. Don’t get drunk
Image adapted from: Max Anderson
While downing shots of sake and highballs may be fun, it’s best not to overdo it. Public drunkenness is not a glamorous thing, though it is surprisingly common to see scores of salarymen passing out on the streets. Evidently, the streets of Japan are safe, even at night. While you’re unlikely to invite robbers, you’ll get plenty of disapproving glares.
Don’t ride the subway or taxi if you’re feeling nauseous. If you vomit in the taxi, you’ll be charged a cleanup fee. Throwing up on the subway is one of the most impolite and inconsiderate things you can do in Japan.
Sober up by hitting up a ramen stall, as the locals do. Many ramen stalls are open through the night and party-goers can be found slurping up hot noodles at the end of the night. If all else fails, head to a karaoke with your group of friends and sing the remainder of the night away. It’s the perfect way to slowly sober up, and end the night on a high note.
15. Important lingo to know
These are the top 10 key Japanese nightlife phrases that you must know to get by a night of partying. With any luck, you’ll get through the evening without making a cultural faux pas and let the yakuza leave you alone.
Download this infographic to refer to for your next Japan trip.
1. Good evening (Konbanwa)
In Japanese: こんばんは
How to pronounce: con-ban-wah
A polite greeting to anyone after 6PM; remember to greet the bartender!
2. Excuse me (Sumimasen)
In Japanese: すみません
How to pronounce: soo-me-mah-sen
Use this as a casual way to get the attention of the bartender, or when you’re jostling through the crowd of the club.
3. I’m sorry (Gomennasai)
In Japanese: ごめんなさい
How to pronounce: go-men-nah-sai
For when you accidentally step on someone’s white shoes in the club, or when you inevitably find yourself vomiting near someone. We reiterate, know your limits!
4. What do you recommend? (Osusume wa nan desu ka?)
In Japanese: おすすめは何ですか?
How to pronounce: oh-su-su-meh wah nun-dess-ka
Instead of pointing at random on the menu, ask the owner of the izakaya or bartender for their recommendations. That’ll help you clarify any doubt you have about your order, too.
5. This one, please (Kore onegaishimasu)
In Japanese: これ おねがいします
How to pronounce: core-ray oh-nay-guy-she-mahs
When you’re literally rubbing shoulders beside the locals in an izakaya, order dishes like a pro and get the conversation going.
6. One beer please! (Nama biru ippai kudasai!)
In Japanese: 生ビール一杯下さい!
How to pronounce: nah-mah-bee-roo yee-pa-yee koo-dah-sai
“Nama biru” literally translates to “raw beer”, which is the standard unpasteurised draft beer found in Japan. Again, order your drinks like a local salaryman and impress your fellow drinking companions.
7. What’s the price? (Ikura desu ka?)
In Japanese: いくらですか?
How to pronounce: yee-koo-rah-dess-ka
Touting in the nightlife districts is not uncommon, so beware of menus and signs that don’t list out the price. When in doubt, clarify the prices before ordering a drink or stepping into a club.
8. Can I have the bill, please? (Okaikei onegaishimasu?)
In Japanese: 請求書お願いします?
How to pronounce: oh-kai-kay oh-nay-guy-she-mahs
Use this to get the bill; don’t leave the venue before paying! Also, remember that cash is still king in Japan, so bring enough.
9. Do you have a plastic bag? (Binīru-bukuro wa arimasu ka?)
In Japanese: ビニール袋はありますか?
How to pronounce: bin-ee-roo-book-koo-roh wah ah-ri-mahs-ka
When you find yourself sick and unable to hold in last evening’s dinner anymore, ask around for a bag to throw up into. It’s embarrassing, but it’s much better than vomiting all over the subway floor – or someone’s shoes.
10. Cheers! (Kanpai!)
In Japanese: 乾杯!
How to pronounce: kan-pai
This is the most important phrase on this list. Shout it out with a smile to let your Japanese companions know that you’re having a great time.
Japanese nightlife rules and etiquette
Japan’s nightlife is incredibly diverse and fun, but take note of these rules and etiquette to have a safe and fun night. If you’re still able to remember these phrases by the next morning, kudos to you. Kanpai!
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