Flipping through any travel guide about Japan you will learn that Japan is a country where tipping is non-existent. Leaving your change on the table at a restaurant may result in the waiter chasing you down to give it back.
But in Japan there actually is a system of tipping that exists but is tangled in a mysterious system of formality that no one really seems sure of. In an interview with Yahoo! Japan, Nobuko Akashi of the Japan Manners & Protocol Association attempts to unravel this system so we can all know when and where it’s appropriate to tip in Japan.
The custom of giving tips in Japan is known as kokorodzuke. It’s rather well known that giving this to the nakai-san (staff) of a traditional Japanese ryokan (inn) can get you extra good service. However, you have to be careful how to give it, as Ms. Akashi explains.
“A tip is money that is given as consideration for receiving a service, so it’s given after the service is done. On the other hand, a kokorodzuke is given as a kind of greeting. It’s as if to say ‘thank you in advance for today.’ As such it’s given before the service.”
In addition to at the ryokan, wedding ceremonies and receptions are common times to give gifts of money to staff as well as the newlyweds. But how you do it is important too. Gifts of money to a couple on their wedding day are traditionally “wrapped” in a special envelope called a shugibukuro.
They can be rather ornate as seen above, so are they really needed for giving kokorodzuke to staff as well?
“Putting the money in a shugibukuro is a little much. Instead use a pochibukuro like used at New Year’s.”
So, while thanking someone in advance can sometimes come across as presumptuous in other countries it’s generally expected in Japan. Also, although tipping beforehand can come across a little arrogant and “greasing the wheels” in other countries, it’s the best way to go in Japan.
Or is it? Ms. Akashi continues:
“Also, giving a kokorodzuke to a hired emcee, friend who makes a speech, or boss can be seen as belittling them. In this case it’s best to give a monetary present as an orei (thanks) after the ceremony has finished.”
The tipping system is full of more special cases as well. For example, some people might give an orei to the doctor treating a relative who is seriously ill. However, this could be taken the wrong way and is not advised.
Also, tipping the staff of an unfortunate event such as a funeral is best done afterward as an orei.
Confused yet? Well, Ms. Akashi has a few more scenarios to throw on the seemingly random pile.
“Giving a kokorodzuke is governed by convention and unwritten rules, so it’s really difficult to know when and when not to do it. For example, I think tipping the movers is no problem.
Also, when having an event like a class reunion where you rent out an entire restaurant would warrant a kokorodzuke as a way of saying, “Sorry, we’re a huge inconvenience, but thank you.” It should be given to the place’s manager before the event. Giving a kokorodzuke to the party organizer is a good idea too.”
The good news for those of you visiting Japan is that you probably won’t get embroiled in weddings, funerals, and/or class reunions, so you won’t have think about this. For those living here, welcome to a confusing etiquette system than even Japanese people aren’t 100% sure about but have to deal with.
At least they don’t have salad and dessert chopsticks here.