Despite the fact that Japan is a modern and highly-developed country which has borrowed and adopted many aspects of the West, it still has tremendous and influential views on social behavior. Even now politeness and reticence in Japanese behavior are the fundamental elements of etiquette.
Of course it is sometimes difficult for a foreigner (or gaijin as Japanese call it) to adapt to Japanese customs and behavioral patterns but Japanese themselves do not expect gaijin to follow Japanese behavioral model precisely. In this respect Japanese are quite tolerant to gaijins and allow foreigners to behave in a way which will never be acceptable for themselves. However one should not abuse such tolerance: it is good just to observe simple universal rules of conduct accepted in your own country.
Below we dwell on main points which everyone must know not to make a laughing-stock of oneself in the eyes of a Japanese.
Thus a meeting or acquaintance begins with a greeting. It is common in Japan to greet each other with bows. Bow's depth and duration depend on social status of a person whom you greet. The upper the person stands on social ladder the lower a bow should be. For instance if you greet a big cheese it is necessary to bow lower and longer than if you greeted a person socially equal to you when you could confine yourself to a nod. Besides greetings bows also can be used to express one's gratitude or apology.
There is no tradition in Japan to shake hands during greeting. Japanese consider this as personal-space invasion so you should not first outstretch your hand for shaking. If a Japanese wants to greet you in such a "European” style he himself will outstretch his hand.
Next point is Japanese attitude to footwear. Japanese always take their shoes off when entering home as opposed to many European and USA people for whom this tradition may seem at least strange and for whom it is often hard to get used to it. Furthermore there is a rule to take shoes off in some Japanese companies. Employees and visitors are required to take their shoes off and put special slippers on. But this is rather typical for small businesses in rural towns where Japanese traditional lifestyle dominates.
There are special slippers in front of a restroom almost at every Japanese household. Thus if you want to visit a restroom you should take your ordinary house slippers off and put these special slippers on. After visiting the place you should change your slippers back not to make a laughing-stock of yourself. Of course none of Japanese hosts will take notice of this fact when you are in, but be sure they will be giggling while discussing your lack of knowledge of stuff that is obvious for them.
The most rigorous rule with regard to footwear – it is not allowed stepping on tatami in any footwear: nor house slippers, nor restroom slippers, nor shoes! In spite of Japanese loyalty to gaijin's behavior they will show no mercy if you step on tatami in footwear.
They say Japanese prefer to avoid straightforward gaze. You can easily notice your Japanese counterpart constantly taking his eyes off and trying to finish the conversation as soon as possible. Such opinion is ambiguous and has the reverse side of the medal because Japanese sometimes do say that a person has something to conceal if not looking openly into counterpart's eyes. Nevertheless for Japanese a stare shows aggressive behavior of the counterpart and to some extent it is considered indecent. It must be noted that a straightforward gaze is not a strict prohibition. However one should remember about this when communicating with Japanese.
Significant distinction that sets Japan apart from Western countries is behaviour in public transport. There is a rule not to let anybody have a seat in public transport (buses, trains, subways etc.) notwithstanding the age of a passenger. Even if an elder person enters the passenger compartment nobody moves a muscle to let him have a seat. And if you habitually decide to let an old woman have a seat you will probably run into a lot of thanks from her until you get off. The only thing you should pay attention to are special seats for disabled which are marked with a distinguishing sticker. Nobody is allowed to occupy such seats unless disabled or elderly people. Generally speaking they are doing much for disabled in Japan – corrugated rubber stripes on sidewalks, ramps near all public buildings and facilities and more.
If you have caught a cold there might be some troubles for you. The point is that Japanese do not blow their noses into handkerchiefs, they use thin paper napkins instead which you can get for free almost everywhere. Following Japanese etiquette if you have a cold you should sniffle until you get alone and only when you are alone you are allowed to blow your nose out. It is no laughing matter! Indeed sniffling at a business meeting or reception may seem strange but that is how cultural differences are displayed in various countries.