Honestly, I shouldn’t have been laughing but I couldn’t help myself. I really do try to sympathize with the plight of visitors traveling abroad in foreign lands. This one, however, was just too comical. You see, right in front of my eyes, a scene was playing itself out that I had only heard mentioned in exaggeration. From what I could gather, a North American couple was making their way out of a Japanese restaurant. The pair was followed by a frantic looking staff member who was waving a couple of bills high above his head while hastily pursuing the two. Though he was doing all he could to capture their attention, his cries fell on deaf ears. After all, the duo didn’t speak the local tongue. While this scene might confuse those from many western countries, I knew instantly what had happened. They had gone and done something they shouldn’t have. They left a tip!
Anyone who isn’t living under a rock already knows that Japan is renowned globally for its impeccable “omotenashi” service culture. Nevertheless, I have a few qualms with how the rigidity of the roles interacts with those who don’t realize their underlying boundaries. That said, generally speaking, the quality and standard of service in Japan is FAR higher than those back home. As such, it often comes as a shock to visitors that tipping is almost entirely unheard of here. Moreover, not only is the practice not customary, tips are usually flat-out refused as described in the aforementioned anecdote. What’s a generous tourist to do if they cannot offer up cold, hard cash then? That, my friend, will require a bit of a long answer so go and make yourself nice and comfy.
Tipping at Restaurants in Japan
Let’s first take a look at restaurant culture. If you haven’t grasped this idea yet, tipping at such establishments in Japan is just not a thing that’s done. That said, many restaurants and izakaya (Japanese style pubs) do add service charges in some form or other. After all, your waiters and cooks have to eat somehow, right? Now this service fee might present itself in the form of a “late night service charge” at your typical family restaurant chain or what’s call an “otoshi” charge at an izakaya. Unlike in countries that have a custom of tipping though, the money from these extra charges almost never becomes a bonus in the server, chef, or kitchen staff’s salaries. Instead, it is simply a common way of eking out a bit of extra money to help keep the lights on and the premises clean.
How the hell do you thank your server then? Well, one big difference about Japanese restaurants is that tables don’t have set servers to begin with. You simply shout “sumimasen” (meaning excuse me) out loud or press the button on the table to summon any of the wait staff. Typically, whomever is able to respond the quickest will heed the call. Lack of tipping culture aside, this practice alone would cause a ton of headaches when it comes to gratuity. I mean who the hell should even get the tip when you’ve been served by as many as four different people. What’s more, great service is simply something that is expected in Japan. Simply put, it’s just as much a given as the fact that there’s air to breath. If you’re not going around expressing your thanks to trees, there’s no need to worry about giving a little something extra in Japan.
If you REALLY need to express your heartfelt gratitude, know that some chain restaurants keep a small feedback form holder on the table. Here, you are welcome to compliment the food or service. If your heart is set on going the extra mile, you could even mention a server by name with an added compliment or two. In addition to this, all restaurants appreciate positive reviews online. You know the drill here. Just log on to your favorite platform and leave a favorable review. Chances are you won’t likely be writing in Japanese yet the locals do pay a lot of attention to the details and ratings so try to mention your favorite dish or what made the experience special.
While the ground rules for restaurants and chain izakayas can seem somewhat fixed, smaller eateries are apt to vary slightly. No, these places don’t have a tipping system either but there are actually a few options for slipping a little something in. For example, at certain types of bars, bartenders can actually earn a small kickback off any and all drinks that customers buy for him or her. If your bartender is doing a good job keeping you entertained, consider buying them a drink. At the very, very worst, they get the chance to become a bit tipsy on the job for free. Either way, they will appreciate it. Oh yeah, and before you ask, it’s totally legal in Japan for bartenders to drink while on the job. Hell, I don’t think you even need a license to bartend but don’t quote me on that one.
Another bit of advice here, if you are planning on exiting soon, just go ahead and order that extra round of drinks. While doing so doesn’t patronize a single server, it does support the financial revenue of the entire establishment as a whole. Trust me when I say that it is very much appreciated and especially so at smaller bars and izakaya that are owner operated. Likewise, if you’re going to be in Japan for a while, the number one best thing you can do to show your support is to simply come back for another visit, ideally with a group of friends. While some owners would be initially put off by the sudden appearance of a roving band of rowdy foreigners, it’s certainly welcomed if you build up some report before bringing the party.
Before moving on, note that in many cases, the customer-business relationship is a two-way street. Don’t be surprised if you end up being the one getting tipped by joints that you visit regularly. Over the years, many of my frequent haunts have come to recognize me and have given me freebies such as a complimentary drink or a new sample dish to try. Hell, visit count aside, I get this reception more often than I care to admit during my travels throughout the countryside just for being non-Japanese! Then again, I do venture far off the beaten path and may be the first foreigner they’ve ever had.
Tipping at Hotels & Taxis in Japan
Call me Mr. Scrooge but I’ve never understood why the hell hotels and taxis require tipping in the West. I get the argument that the service provider is only taking home a fraction of what they are charging me but this in turn begs the question of who the bloody hell is taking the rest of the cut! Anyway, all biases aside, tipping just doesn’t happen in Japan, at least within the normal range of services. Other than in extreme cases, know that you simply aren’t supposed to tip. Note that this goes for house cleaning services in hotels just as much as it does taxi drivers and bell boys. If you absolutely must, be sure to leave any money in a clearly marked envelope but even then, your server may reject it. Don’t take it personally.
Of course, there are few exceptions to the customary rules that are important to keep in mind, especially when it comes to hailing taxis. Fares for a ride across Tokyo can often seem outrageous and leave you feeling short on money for a tip. However, the extra gratuities can be warranted when a particularly kind driver helps you out in a rough situation (e.g. when having to care for an intoxicated and near comatose friend) or aids in carrying a ton of luggage. In these cases, the easiest way to get your tip in there is to just tell the driver to keep the change. For example, if your fare is 4,300 yen, hand the driver 5,000 yen and tell him that you don’t need the change. This will make things far less awkward for both parties.
Tipping at Nightclubs in Japan
Seeing I used to DJ at the highest echelons in Tokyo for a number of years, I simply cannot pass up the chance to talk about the nightlife scene. While bottle service and VIP tables are definitely a thing here, you’ll be please to know that there’s no need to tip your server. Yes, there will be a compensatory gratuity added to your bill in the form of a so-called “service charge” but that money won’t find its way into any one individual’s pocket. Instead, if you’d like to show your thanks, there are a number of things you can do. For example, you can ask for an extra glass and pass it to your server. This is a simple but heartfelt way to show that you understand the local custom but also appreciate their impeccable service.
When it comes to the DJs and nightclub performers, a similar trick can also be deployed (sensing a trend here yet?). While they typically don’t get kickbacks off of bar sales, having customers who buy drinks can make that artist look like a juicy cash cow in the eyes of the venue. This can greatly increase their likelihood of being booked again and is one of the best things you can do to for your favorite artists. Also, should you find yourself a repeat visitor, one other thing you can do is to enter the club under the DJ’s guest list as this in fact DOES continue to their bottom line (I’ve written about how to do this in depth before so refer to this article). Many clubs operate on quota systems for their DJs so bringing the whole squad to an event is by far the best way to support your favorite performer.
Note that at times, there ARE tip jars on bar counters at nightclubs. Usually, you’ll see these at venues that cater to international audiences but just know that the money never goes directly to the bartender on call. If you feel you must tip a particular member, non-monetary means are the way to go. Either verbally express your appreciation or pony up and buy him or her a drink when ordering the next round at the bar.
Did I Go Too Deep on Gratuity?
While the above is only just the tip of a very large set of societal differences between Japan and the west, a TLDR version could certainly be useful. For those of you who aren’t interested in penetrating deep into cultural quirks or just want a recap, the important points to take away are as follows:
- Tipping is almost never expected in Japan and will often cause chaos.
- With some rare exceptions, do not tip directly with cash.
- Instead, focus on other ways to support the business or server.
- If you’re not sure what to do, just buy more alcohol to go around!
Keep the above points in mind and you’ll avoid the anecdotal comedy story that I began this article with. After all, few things look as silly as uninformed tourists committing major cultural faux pas!
Until next time travelers…