Visiting someone’s home in Japan is a rare event. I visited friends while was studying abroad in university, and we cooked dinner together and made dessert, or had drinking parties. I lived with a host family and I even visited the home of a staff member at the Japanese university I was attending. Now that I’m an adult, I don’t visit my friends’ homes when I visit Japan, but rather I meet them out at restaurants or karaoke or even Starbucks.
When my husband was a kid his mother didn’t often allow him to have friends over at his house, mostly because she was uncomfortable at having people over that she wasn’t very familiar with. In the US, people often have large groups over to their house for a party or a BBQ, even people they don’t know very well but who are friends of friends. In Japan, it’s not very common to invite people over to your house. A lot of this has to do with the fact that Japanese homes or apartments are often quite small, and so having even just a few extra people in the home can be uncomfortable.
So, don’t be surprised if you aren’t invited to someone’s home in Japan, and rather are asked to meet outside at a restaurant or coffee shop. However, on the off chance that you are invited to someone’s house, I wanted to review some basic etiquette rules for Japanese home visits.
1. Before You Go
Dress in a presentable manner. I think this should be self-explanatory, but since Japan is a place of fashion-forwardness, it might seem like your best gyaru outfit would be great for any occasion. Ghis might not always be the case. If you’re visiting someone older, they might not be as appreciative of the latest fairy kei styles as you, and so perhaps dressing more conservatively would be the best option for most first-time home visits.
Bring a gift. No matter what, you must bring a gift, as this is very important in Japanese culture. You are visiting their home, and so you should bring them something meaningful. No idea what to bring? Check out my omiyage suggestions! If you’re in a hurry, pick up a high quality food item that everyone can share, like a cake, or alcohol (if you’re 20+). Don’t forget to get a nice bag or wrapping for your gift.
2. When You Arrive
Arrive on time. In fact, be early. Punctuality is always in style. I’ve heard that it is best to approach the door 5 minutes AFTER the time you are supposed to arrive. This is to make sure that the person receiving you can complete any last minute preparations. I always arrive ON TIME, and my Japanese husband says this is fine ^^
Ring the doorbell, or knock twice. Knocking twice is the standard in Japan. When the resident opens the door, be sure to bow and greet them. Konnichiwa (during the day) or konbanwa (in the evening) are fine in most cases.
3. Entering the Genkan 玄関 or Foyer
When you enter, hand over your gift right away if it is perishable (refrigerated item, flowers, etc.), and use the phrase: Tsumaranai mono desu ga, douzo. つまらない物ですが、どうぞ。 “This is just something small, but please accept it.” Note: If the gift is not perishable, wait until you have entered the main part of the home to hand it over.
When the host invites you in, remove your shoes and then step up into the home. While entering, say Ojyama shimasu. お邪魔します。 “I’m going to trouble you.”
You might be asked to wear slippers while in the home, and you should always wear them. When you enter the restroom, there may be separate slippers for the toilet, and you should always change into those before you enter, and change out of them before you leave. You don’t want to track toilet germs into the rest of the house!
4. In the Home
When you have entered the home, the host will usually indicate where you should sit. If they allow you to select your own seat, you should typically sit nearest to the door. Once seated, it is polite to thank your hosts: Honjitsu wa omaneki itadaki arigatou gozaimasu. 本日はお招きいただきありがとうございます。 “Thank you for your invitation today.”
If your gift was not perishable, now is the time to give the gift. It is appropriate to use the same phrase: Tsumaranai mono desu ga, douzo. つまらない物ですが、どうぞ。 “This is just something small, but please accept it.” You should make sure to place the gift on the table so that the front is facing the host.
5. Eating and Drinking
You will most probably be offered food and drink, either a full meal or a lavish snack. Before eating, be sure to say: Arigatou gozaimasu. ありがとうございます。 “Thank you.” and Itadakimasu. いただきます。 “I receive this food/drink.” When you are finished, be sure to say: Gochisou sama deshita. ごちそうさまでした。 “I’ve had my fill.”
It is best to eat the whole portion if you are having a meal or a snack, to make sure not to insult your host’s cooking. If you are eating snacks from a communal dish, I usually try to emulate the amount that the host (or a friend) is eating. It’s best not to refuse a proffered dish, but if you absolutely can’t eat or drink something, it’s best to try to explain why (allergy, etc.). Most Japanese people will take care to present something they think you will be able to eat, but if natto is served and you absolutely can’t stomach it, apologize. Moushi wake arimasen ga, natto ga nigate desu ne. 申し訳ありませんが、納豆が苦手ですね。 “I have no excuse, but I just can’t eat natto.”
6. After the Meal/Snack
As a guest, you will be treated well, and usually will not be expected to help with cooking or with cleaning. As a guest at a close friend’s home, I usually offer to clean up. The kitchen in most Japanese homes is small, and it’s hard to fit many people in, so the host may decline your offer based on the fact that two people won’t fit in the kitchen. It’s best to respect their choice, but I make sure to offer a few times before accepting the final no.
7. Time to Leave
If you’ve been invited to someone’s home, it’s important to “read the air” (kuuki o yomu 空気を読む) and not to overstay your welcome. If you are visiting briefly and received a snack only, it’s appropriate to leave after an hour. If you have had a meal, you should probably leave around an hour after the meal has ended. You can also listen for clues, if the host mentions that they have plans or otherwise suggests that they need you to leave sooner.
Make sure to check the time (I’d recommend a watch, because checking your phone can be rude), and around the appropriate time, say: Soro soro oitomasasete itadakimasu. そろそろお暇させていただきます。 “It’s about time for me to take my leave.”
For less formal situations, like close friends, you can say: Soro soro shitsurei shimasu. そろそろ失礼します。 “It’s about time I excused myself.”
At this point, head back to the genkan or foyer, and put your shoes back on (as gracefully as you can manage – you might want to try slip-on shoes). Your host will go with you outside and you will say: Honjitsu wa gochisou ni narimashita. Arigatou gozaimashita. 本日はごちそうになりました。ありがとうございました。 “Today I ate well. Thank you.” Even if you just ate a snack or had a cup of tea, it’s important to say this. Further, you can add: Kongo mo douzo yoroshiku onegai shimasu. 今後もどうぞよろしくお願いします。 “Let’s continue this good acquaintance in the future.”
That’s it! Now you can return to your own home, and you will have made a good impression on your friends, colleagues, or boss!
These are the basics of visiting a Japanese house. Make sure to adjust the politeness level based on whether you are visiting a close friend (less polite is okay) or your boss (more polite please!)! Any questions or suggestions about visiting a Japanese home, let me know in the comments!