A Quick Course in Japanese Etiquette (Post 1 of 2)

Tokyo Crossing at Night Since the world is becoming flatter every day, there’s a good chance you will interact with Japanese clients in your career. What are the rules? The truth is there are none. As long as you are making an effort to be polite, you can usually get away with not knowing the specific nuances of most cultures.

In the meantime, however, here are a few lessons I picked up at a recent training with a senior executive who regularly travels to Japan for business.

Never, Ever, Never Be Late: In fact, always plan to be early. Japanese business execs are well-known for arriving five minutes ahead of schedule so they can enter at the precise time the meeting is to start.

Respect the Card: In America, we are accustomed to bending, tearing, writing on and otherwise abusing our business cards. But in Japan, this tiny bit of card stock is golden. For example, when offering your card to a Japanese guest, you use both hands (one in each corner) and ensure that the writing is facing the reader. Likewise, when someone offers you their card, you receive it with both hands and make sure to comment about something – anything – on it. Also, never casually or immediately put the card away into your pocket, purse, etc. Rather, you lay the guests’ business card face up on the table where you will be sitting and leave it alone for the duration of the meeting. If you have multiple cards, it’s acceptable to arrange them on the table according to seating order. Finally, when the meeting is over, you neatly tuck the business card away in a holder. (Yes, you will need a holder.)

Where to Sit? When going into a meeting or dinner, take your seating cues from the host. While it is customary for guests to be facing the door, exceptions are made now if the view is better on the other side. Evidentially, this goes back to ancient times when hosts would demonstrate they could be trusted by sitting with their back to the door. These days, even though it’s highly unlikely an army will barge into your meeting with Samurai swords, the practice has remained loosely intact.

In my next post, I will touch on some common things we do in the West when communicating that mean totally different things in Japan. Until then – jaamataashita! Translation: Sayounara.

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