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Biz etiquette


Unswerving cyclist
14 Mar 2002
Reported ny the NYT, Sept. 16, 2002:

Learning to Avoid a Deal-Killing Faux Pas in Japan


The after-lunch business meeting started nicely. The black suits from the New York public relations firm sat on one side. Across the table were the Japanese suits, prospective clients. Then, during the long pauses for translation, one mind wandered. The lead New Yorker started toying with the lead Tokyoite's business card. Then, almost unconsciously, a convenient corner found its way to the New Yorker's mouth, where a lunch morsel was lodged between incisors.

"I wanted to die; I wanted to get out of that office; I wanted to get out of that building," recalled Peter McKillop, who now works in Hong Kong for an American bank. "And he didn't stop. He carefully worked his way around. Upper and lower teeth."

No contract.

Yes, something as seemingly inconsequential as the mishandling of a business card can be a deal killer in Japan. In a traditional country where rules are often bent for foreigners, it pays to know that a business card should not be bent 窶 that this elegant, portable extension of the soul should not serve double duty as a toothpick. To be sure, much of business in Japan has become globalized. In Tokyo, A.T.M.'s, with their little bowing video bank tellers, increasingly speak computer English. Many American executives glide through their assignments here, learning only enough Japanese to interact with taxi drivers and restaurant waiters.

But there are limits to the cultural free pass that many Japanese extend to gaijin or foreigners.

Arriving in Japan without an ample stock of business cards is akin to arriving barefoot, and central to card etiquette is giving and receiving the card with a proper level of solemnity. Cards should be studied, not shoved in a pocket without a glance. David H. Satterwhite, a longtime resident who used to give intercultural business training, recalls meeting with a semiconductor executive from Texas who had returned from Tokyo. "She complained: `I was in charge of the delegation, and they wouldn't look at me, they wouldn't talk to me,' " he said.

"Well, she handed out her business card like a card player 窶 she whipped it across the table, stopping just in front of me," continued Mr Satterwhite, who now runs business conferences in Japan. Card etiquette also includes refraining from scribbling little identifying notes on cards, like "short," or "white shirt" or "glasses."

"For Japanese people, this is horrendous," said Kumi Sato, the American-educated President of Cosmo Public Relations. "We think, `Here's this gaijin, writing on our business cards because we all look alike to him.' "

The guiding principle in Japan, a society where 126 million people live in an area the size of California, is harmony. One manifestation of this cultural imperative is an elaborate repertory of bows for greeting people of various ranks and on various occasions. For Americans, steeped in 225 years of revolutionary republicanism, bowing is one abdominal exercise still left out of most aerobic videos. In Japan, they can get by by faking it, inclining their head with a nod and a little upper body motion. Escaping major bowing comes under the cultural heading of letting foreigners be foreigners, within limits.

"Foreigners are not expected to bow," said Andrew Horvat, a 30-year American resident here and author of an intercultural guidebook, "Japanese Beyond Words: How to Walk and Talk Like a Native Speaker" (Stone Bridge Press, 2000). "You are not expected to kowtow. You acknowledge the custom with a slight bow of the head."

Likewise, a nondrinking American banker who did a stint in Tokyo in the late 1980s says he got through after-work drinking sessions in the Ginza by passing his hand over his glass and saying kyokai, or church. As long as he kept everyone else's glasses filled, he was not seen as antisocial. But amiable smiles can dissolve into guffaws when an American raises his glass and cries out "chin-chin." Rather than shouting out "little boy's penis" at a corporate dinner, it is better to cry kempai, the Japanese equivalent of cheers.

On all occasions, it is best to gauge the group, to go with the flow. At a recent sake-tasting event at the Canadian Embassy, a Japanese Finance Ministry official was holding forth in English honed in Toronto and New York. A young diplomat from another embassy joined the group, introduced himself in flawless Japanese and skillfully used the appropriate formulas for showing respect. Yet the Japanese official brusquely shut him out, shifting his conversation to others.

"Good communications means the fulfilment of expectations, so, if you are with the Finance Ministry guy, who has been to the U.S., who has trained in English, turn it off," Mr Horvat said of foreigners trying to play Japanese. "By speaking English, you are going to meet their expectations that you understand that Japan is an international country."

A habit that smooths relations in all settings is modesty. Instead of simply declining a golfing invitation, for example, it is better to say something like, "Oh, but I am such a poor golfer that I would hold up your game."

Around Tokyo, some habits make life easier, some make it harder. In a blow for simplicity, there is no tipping in restaurants, hotels and taxis. On the downside, trash baskets are rare in the city, part of a legacy of the sarin gas attacks in the subway in 1995. Even so, Tokyo remains one of the cleanest cities in the world, with many smokers carrying around sealable ashtrays so they do not have to toss their cigarette butts on the sidewalks. The Japanese love of rule-making extends ruthlessly to the ubiquitous keitai or cellphone. Signs banning their use are frequently posted in restaurants, subways and bullet trains. And waiters are not shy about confiscating the devices.

In a nation where shoes often slide off and on as visitors go in and out of traditional restaurants, most homes and some offices, making sure your socks do not have holes is a smart precaution. On entering a house, visitors normally don a pair of slippers meant to protect polished hardwood floors or woven tatami floor mats. Often, hosts also provide separate slippers emblazoned with designs like a little boy urinating to use in bathrooms. Guests are expected to change back into the regular slippers before returning to the party. On a higher plane, absent-minded Americans should also excise from their vocabulary the words "China" and "Chinese" before visiting Japan. The cultural differences are profound, modern history is not happy, and the Japanese do not like to be confused with Chinese.

"When we hear clients who have just come to Japan saying, `Yeah, well we may not speak Chinese,' we know in our minds that they have not quite crossed over the ocean," Ms Sato said.

Mr Horvat, who is Japan's representative for the Asia Foundation, an organization that promotes Asian exchanges with the United States, says the distinction is more important than in Europe.

"If you confuse a Dutch person for a Danish person, it is no big deal," he said. "But in every language here, `Asia' is a loan word. Asia is a concept imposed on Asia by Europeans. This is not Germany and France, the gulf between China and Japan is vast."
hehe, not bad.

Modesty definitely is the key here. I speak enough Japanese to get myself in trouble but not enough to be perfect thereby inadvertently gaining points for being the stupid, blunt, brut gaijin ;)

@ cards
You are allowed to write notes after the party involved has left the room.
very interesting :)

the japanese people are extremely conservative regarding to etiquette...! 🙂
Yes, business cards should be handled with respect in Japan.
My boyfriend knows all about it, as he does business with them :)
Here are some rules, which are rules according to my boyfriend and general conventions:

=Printed both in Japanese and English
=offer card with the Japanese-side up, with both hands
=Read the card for a few seconds, put it in a card wallet
=Do NOT put the card in your pocket or write on it
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