Tipping in Japan

Tipping in Japan is not culturally accepted, but there are other ways you can show your appreciation.

Tipping is stupid. If you need to watch a College Humor video in order to understand that, maybe you aren’t quite ready to step out into the world. Tipping in Japan is probably a bit different to wherever you come from.

Tipping in Japan: The Dos and the Don’ts

Actually there aren’t any Dos. Just Don’ts.

Japan is the most anti-tipping country on the earth – apart from maybe friendly neighbor North Korea. Servers here are paid above the minimum wage (like in any decent country) and do not need to factor the extra kindness-money into their day-to-day budgets.

While many (Americans) argue that tips are a way to encourage servers to give good service (a point that becomes moot when tips are essentially mandatory, like in America), this hardly matters in Japan because the service is already good. You will never come across a bored waitress with one thumb on her smartphone who is only half listening to your order, because standards for service are so ridiculously high to begin with.

Many complain that this results in a rather robotic experience devoid of all human warmth, but that’s not something you should be trying to fix with bribes. Read on to find out what to do instead.

Don't do this either, as people will think you're just walking out without paying.
Don’t do this either, as people will think you’re just walking out without paying.

What will happen if I tip a worker in Japan?

Many people like to claim that tipping in Japan is rude or offensive. It’s not. People in Japan aren’t stupid – anyone who recognizes the existence of other countries realizes that tipping is a thing and aren’t going to hold it against you for making a harmless cultural exoticism.

You may, however, put them in a bit of an awkward position. If you give your confused worker some extra money and walk out the door before they realize what is going on, they might take it to their manager who will insist that they chase you down the street to return it to you. No-one wants to be called a thief, after all.

If you’re working with someone who understands foreign culture and catches on straight away, you will probably just get a flat-out no, and a friendly explanation why.

Exceptions to this include places such as luxury international hotels or foreign restaurants with international wait-staff. (Hooters.)

Well what do I do instead?

If you want warmth from your server, give warmth to your server. Light their fire, and you can bask in their comforting flame. (What?) Basically, be really nice to them and they will appreciate it and be really nice back to you. Makes sense, right?

Interacting with strangers in Japan is usually a very formal, distant experience (at least in Tokyo). While many at the other end of the scale dislike the fake bubbly happiness of strangers in the States, the opposite is true in Japan. People in customer service, while incredibly polite and proper, will default to their talk-scripts and training when talking to you. This often results in them sounding rather like a broken record, as you watch the happiness escaping from them with every syllable that comes out of their mouth.

If you want to share a memorable experience with them, get them off script. Ask them what their favorite dish is, what their name is, where they’re from. Sure, it will get them out of their comfort zone, but it will bring most people a sense of excitement to have a conversation with a foreigner – and a kind one at that.

For wait-staff in Japan, simple gestures such as this one are unimaginably more valuable than throwing a couple of extra yen at them. In this city of cold, distant, polite conversation people crave a human connection – some people even pay good money for the service.

So go the extra mile to be kind to your server, and appreciate the smile it brings to their face.

Wrapping up

While tipping in Japan may not be culturally accepted, always remember that there are other, better ways of showing appreciation to your server.

Pay them with the exotic experience of a foreigner actually trying to make a human connection. Make their day with the most memorable thing that’s happened to them all week. Introduce a bit of love into their lives. Just don’t make them run after you down the street waving money at you.