How to Practice Business Etiquette in Japan

The etiquette system in Japan is perhaps one of the world’s elaborate. It involves every aspect of one’s life, with its strict codes of behavior governing daily etiquette and manners. Although the Japanese mostly adhere to these codes, it is not expected that people visiting Japan be familiar with them and would not be reprimanded. However, making an effort to be polite and to show at least some understanding of local customs can make life in Japan a bit easier.

Hierarchy and social standings – Japanese etiquette is based on a social ranking. For example, “me-ue-no-hito” (or “person whose eye is above”) are those of higher social standing such as a top ranking corporate executive, government official, or teacher. Meanwhile, “me-shita-no-hito” (or “person whose eye is below”) are those of lower social standing relative to the other person such as a corporate staffer, a government employee, or a student. Older people have higher social standing than younger people, and that the emperor and his royal family are considered “me-ue-no-hito” by all. This hierarchy is evident in speaking, such as the polite speech (keigo), regular speech, and casual speech, as well as male speech and female speech.

The “Giri” – The “giri” refers to one’s innate sense of duty, obligation, morality and the absolute need to return a favor. Everyone in Japan is bound by the giri, like a person’s bond towards his parents or towards his teachers and benefactors. It is also expressed by meeting one’s obligations and responsibilities as best as possible. Meeting the demands of giri is the same as defending one’s personal honor even under the most adverse circumstances, which includes taking suicide (for some Japanese).

Bowing – The practice of bowing is basic to Japanese etiquette. It is the way Japanese people greet each other, say farewell, express thanks, and even apologize. The Japanese can be particularly conscious of his or her personal space, which is why bowing establishes a comfortable and respectful distance between two people. Although modern Japanese have become used to the Western “handshake” as a form of greeting towards foreigners, they are very much appreciative when a westerner shows respect by bowing when meeting. The degree of bowing is determined by social status, bow deeper towards a person of higher authority. Typically, a bow is done at about 15 degrees of bending your body towards the front; the longer the bow is held the more feeling it evokes. When bowing as an apology, it must be as low as 90 degrees.

On the street – It is very common to see packs of tissues being given out on the street for free. Rule of thumb is that you should take one, as using a handkerchief for blowing one’s nose is a definite no-no. You may also notice some people wearing face masks while walking, especially during spring. Do not worry about an unannounced epidemic. It is just that they are protecting themselves against pollen inhalation. Meanwhile, eating on the street is considered impolite, even if you see people doing it these days. Spitting and urinating in public (mainly by middle-aged or drunk men) may seem obnoxious, but these do not necessarily raise eyebrows in Japan.

Basic table manners – A typical Japanese meal involves many different foods and sauces presented in little dishes. It is considered polite to pick up these small dishes and bring them close to your mouth, especially when eating soup and rice. The soup bowl (usually on you right side) is picked up and the broth is directly sipped from the bowl. Chopsticks are used to pick-up tofu, seaweed, vegetables, and other food items in the soup. The rice bowl (usually on your left side) is also picked up and brought near the mouth, using the closed chopsticks as a shovel. When dipping sauces are used, chopsticks are used to pick up the food, dip it into the sauce, and then you place it on the rice before eating it.

Basic restaurant manners – Upon entering a Japanese restaurant, bars, or inns, guests are given a wet face or hand towel called “oshibori,” which is used to freshen-up the face and hands before eating. After using, it is taken away by the hostess. There are no napkins at restaurants in Japan; that is why most Japanese carry handkerchiefs that they use during meals and place it on their laps. If you are having difficulty with using chopsticks, asking for a knife and fork is all right (especially if the restaurant serves Western food). Toothpicks are used in restaurants after eating, and it is all right to pick one’s teeth after a meal as long as it is done discreetly.

Slurping – Slurping is a double-edge sword. It is considered impolite, but if you don’t do it the chef would be insulted. Consider slurping when eating “ramen” (noodle soup), “donburi” (big bowls of rice topped with meat or vegetables), and on “miso” soup.

Saying grace – Before eating, it is important to say “itadakimasu,” which literally means “I shall partake” and serves as a kind of pre-meal grace. You could practice it by quickly saying “eat a duck he must.” Once the dinner is over, remember to say “gochisosama deshita” to show your appreciation for the meal.

Drinking – The Japanese may be quiet and reserved, but not when they are drunk. Drinking with fellow students or coworkers is almost a ritual in Japan, and considered the best way to break the ice as well as solidify relationships. However, the Japanese can get pretty rowdy when drunk, but all is forgiven and forgotten the next day. It is polite to pour other people’s drinks and then hold your own glass while your host or friend fills it. Upon toasting, remember to shout “Kampai,” which literally means “dry glass.” If you are invited out, it is common for your host to pay the bill.

Gift giving – There are many considerations in buying a gift for a Japanese person. In Japan, gift giving etiquette specifies when, to whom, under what circumstances, and what type of gift is appropriate to give. Also you should also take note how much the gift costs and how the gift should be wrapped. Traditionally, the Japanese do not celebrate birthdays or Christmas. Instead, give gifts to people you feel indebted to (like a business owner towards his customers, or a patient towards his doctor) during June’s Obon Festival (in which the gifts are called “oseibo”) and in December before the year ends (in which the gifts are called “ochugen”), not to mention during special occasions like weddings, gradutations among others. When presenting or receiving gifts, it is polite to hold the gift with two hands and bow respectfully at the exchange.

The “Omiage” – Another highly ritualized practice of gift giving is called the “omiage.” This is done by thanking someone for an invitation, paying someone a visit, and before and after taking a long trip. For instance, when visiting a friend or acquaintance in Japan, you should bring food items like a baked cake, rice crackers, or a beautifully-wrapped fresh fruit. Meanwhile, when visiting the office of a client, potential business associate, or government official, the omiage might be in a form of tea cups or laquerware and would be more expensive.

Visiting someone’s home – If you have been invited to someone’s house, remember to bring the omiage. Upon visiting, say to the house owner “Tsumaranai mono desu ga,” which is similar to “This is just a little something for you.” Before entering, take off your shoes by the “genkan” or hallway and put on the slippers provided by the host. If you have to use the toilet, you would have to change slippers again. Upon leaving, the host would usually say “Kondo asobi ni kite kudasai” or “Please come around my place sometime,” but this is only said just out of politeness. Visiting the house unannounced could be embarrassing to both of you.

Business cards – In business meetings, it is customary to exchange “meishi” or business cards but in Japan there is a certain manner of giving and receiving it. Business cards are given and received using both hands and each person bows at the exchange. Take note to present your business card written-side up and facing the person receiving it so that he doesn’t have to turn the card around and read it. After receiving a business card, you should read (or look as though you are reading) the card and make comments about the company or the address (it is some sort of “breaking the ice”). In keeping the card, it should be handled with respect and place in a special “business card holder” and not in your pocket or purse. When meeting new people in a conference or dinner setting, you should place your business cards in front of them on the table so that they can easily refer you by name.

Bathing – Communal bathing in Japan dates back for centuries and visiting one of its thousands of “onsen” (hot springs) or “sento” (public bath houses) can be a highlight of your trip. Like in any bathroom, you should wash yourself outside the bath before getting into the hot water and soak. You would notice that people usually scrub each other’s backs. Remember to bring your own toiletries and put your shoes and clothes in designated lockers. Bath houses are always separated by sex, but these days there are a few mixed bathing places that you could try.