What makes for an authentic Japanese nightlife experience? Neon lights, hedonistic drinks, and the best sound systems in Asia certainly contribute, but to really experience Japanese nightlife requires embracing an even deeper concept: the culture. In Japan, nightlife is when you can shed your tatemae (建前, the social facade of public appearance), and embrace your honne (本音, your true feelings), to enter a state of lowered inhibitions and social connectivity. By understanding this, and other Japanese cultural idiosyncrasies, you too can live like a local and enjoy an authentically Japanese nightlife experience.
The bare essentials of culturally competent debauchery
Phrasebook or translation apps: You just need a willingness to experiment and play with the language. In other words, you just need to be okay with sounding like a 4-year-old Japanese child. So much of “tatemae” involves saving face; toss it back with the shots. I highly recommend you take this free Japanese course as a primer for your visit!
The best (and cleanest socks) you own. Shoes off is a common practice- even in some bars.
Go for the bow instead of the handshake. You don’t have to go a full 90 degrees; a nod of the head can often suffice.
If you have a significant other: PDA is taboo. Save the make-outs for dark alleyways (it’s a low crime rate here, so you’re safe).
Police have a right to question you and even search you, so keep your passport on you as it’s legally required if you are a non-resident.
With the basics in hand…
With the bare essentials above in hand, there’s no need to be shy. Try out some Japanese phrases! Whether it’s a British knock-off bar or an eclectic absinthe bar, you’ll find your niche and new connections.
- It’s legal and acceptable to drink on the street, but don’t eat on the street.
- It’s OK to yell for the bartender even when they aren’t in sight. Simply holler the Japanese phrase, “SU-EE-MA-SEN” (the casual pronunciation of the Japanese phrase for “Excuse Me”).
- No need to tip the bartender. It’ll make it awkward for both of you.
- Accept that some venues don’t allow foreigners. This is usually due to the type of establishment (sex club, or a small bar where the bartender doesn’t speak English).
- Give and receive business cards with two hands, and look at the front and back of the card when you receive it. It is a sign of respect.
- The word for thank you: AR-I-GA-TO
The standard gathering ground in Japan is a hybrid restaurant-bar called an izayaka (IZ-A-KA-YA). They often have all you can drink specials, and after a drink or two at a bar, you’ll more than likely meet people keen on helping you find one. They stay open very late.
- Time to show off those socks! Shoes aren’t allowed in a lot of izakayas, so leave them at the door.
- You may be invited to sit at another’s table, but do be wary if they are showing signs of “tatamae.” Engaging another’s table isn’t common, but isn’t unheard of. Simply say “KAMPAI!” (Japanese word for cheers) to start an introduction.
- Before you eat, you can impress your friends with a simple Japanese phrase (loosely equivalent to a “saying of grace” before a meal): it-ta-da-ki-masu.
- Be careful with how you place your chopsticks. Leaving your chopsticks upright and stabbed into the rice bowl is a funeral practice in Japan – it’s very culturally offensive. Simply placing them beside your plate when finished will suffice (more on chopstick etiquette…)
- If you order ramen, or any noodle dish, slurp those noodles as loud as you can. Slurping signals that the noodles are delicious! Additionally, you can add the Japanese phrase “OISHII” to signal that it tastes great.
- Don’t ask for a to-go box.
Additional Resource: Easing into Izakayas
Despite the aura of shyness, you’ll pick up from some Japanese, they know how to rock it when it comes to karaoke. In fact, for many groups of Japanese friends, their night out consists exclusively of karaoke.
- Western music is very common in Japan, and many Japanese- even with limited English- know the words to some hit songs.
- Don’t bring drinks into karaoke; they have unlimited drink specials for great deals and they will kick you out.
- Karaoke have somewhat hidden cameras, and the doors don’t lock, so save any hanky panky for the hotel. You will get kicked out.
Additional Resource: Karaoke (Enable Japan)
Up until 2015, you couldn’t legally dance in Japan. Police used “selective” enforcement of this most of the time, but luckily this law is gone. Still, some practices remain that it’s worth being aware of.
Smoking in most clubs is permitted. This means you will reek of cigarettes.
- No tattoos. Tattoos must be covered for almost any clubs in Japan. Even if it’s Buddha shaking hands with Jesus, it needs to be covered.
- No shorts. Some clubs are more laid back about this, but play it safe if you want to get in. Fancy clubs like Feria even have “jean rental” for the ill-equipped.
- By the time clubs starts filling up (between midnight to 1 am), you need to make a choice of your last train, a later taxi, or to party all night long.
Additional Resource: Tokyo’s Top Nightclubs
Train and Taxi Etiquette
Depending on how “authentic” your experience was, you may be severely hungover. While this hangover may pervade the morning, it pales in comparison to the connections and relationships you made; many of which may last far into the future. Facebook and LinkedIn are now prominent social media platforms in Japan, so you can easily keep in touch with your new Japanese friends. Maybe one day you will be helping them “live it up like a local!”
Tim Chard has a lengthy background working in digital, and is also a DJ and nightlife enthusiast. When he’s not planning his next trip to a music festival, Tim is busy running Ascenial, an eCommerce advertising agency that turns eCommerce businesses into 8 figure brands.