Japan is unique for being a mishmash of futuristic technology and centuries-old traditions. Sure, you have districts like Shibuya and Shinjuku, whose sights and sounds are an assault on the senses. But you also have temples and shrines like the Senso-ji Temple and the Kanda Myojin Shrine, both of which are in the heart of Tokyo.
This eclectic mix of old and new also extends to the way business is done in the country. While some of the world’s largest tech companies are headquartered in Japan, this reputation is tempered by old traditions and practices that can catch international business travellers off guard.
On introducing yourself to new people 🤝
Upon introducing yourself to your business contacts, it’s customary to bow or shake hands.
If you’re going to bow, lean forward at a 45-degree angle as you state your name and position in your organisation. The other person will reciprocate this gesture. Be sure to look down and avoid looking up or at the person as you bow. For men, keep both arms along the side of your torso. For women, keep both hands in front of your lower torso (below the navel) as you bow.
If you’re going to shake hands, make eye contact and avoid using both hands, squeezing the other person’s hand, and shaking hands for too long.
Do not, however, bow and shake hands at the same time, as U.S. President Obama did when meeting the Emperor of Japan. The reasoning is that eye contact is considered respectful when shaking hands while bowing means your gaze should be on the ground.
It’s also a good idea to introduce yourself in Japanese even if you don’t speak it fluently—your counterpart will appreciate you for making an effort. A simple phrase to remember when introducing yourself is: “Watashi no namae wa (name) desu,” which translates to “My name is (name).”
A more casual version of this is to say: “(Your name) desu. Hajimemashite.” This means, “I’m (name). Nice to meet you.”
On exchanging business cards 📇
By now you probably already know about the ceremony-like exchange of business cards in Japan. But what you might not know is how it’s done exactly.
For starters, business cards should be stored in a cardholder to keep them in mint condition. Your cardholder will also keep any business cards you receive from the people you meet—stuffing them unceremoniously in your pockets is considered rude.
When presenting your business card, hold it with both hands and pinch the top corners with your thumb and index finger. Your information should be facing the other person to make it easy to read. Bow as you present your card and introduce yourself.
Take a brief moment to admire your business associate’s card and say something nice about it.
On using chopsticks 🥢
The general rules of good chopsticks etiquette still apply when dining in Japan.
- Don’t point at another person using your chopsticks.
- Don’t wave around your chopsticks.
- Never spear your food with chopsticks.
- Don’t dig around in a communal dish with your chopsticks
However, there are also a number of etiquette rules specific to the country.
- Don’t pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks (Hiroi-bashi) and don’t stick your chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice (Tate-bashi). Both resemble acts during funeral rites.
- Don’t lick your chopsticks (Neburi-bashi) to get that last bit of sauce from a dish you liked.
- When eating out, it’s rude to rub the disposable chopsticks together. This implies the restaurant gave you cheap chopsticks.
- Many restaurants in Japan provide a holder for reusable chopsticks. Place your chopsticks on the holder if you have to take a break from eating and after finishing your meal. For disposable chopsticks, place them back in the wrapper they came with.
On socializing over drinks 🍶
The Japanese are also famous for blurring the lines between business and drinking culture. Many salarymen know that the real conversations happen at the nearest izakaya (a casual Japanese bar) after work, when the alcohol has melted away their inhibitions and they’re free to voice their feelings and opinions, even with their supervisors around.
In these outings, junior members are responsible for pouring and ordering drinks for their seniors. As a visitor, you may be invited as an honoured guest, so these rules need not apply to you. You can, however, reciprocate this gesture of hospitality by pouring a drink for your associates. In this case, be sure to hold the liquor bottle with both hands when pouring.
Another rule to remember is to not drink your glass until everyone has a drink in their hand. Wait for your associates to raise their glasses and join them in saying kampai (cheers!).
On being a guest in someone’s home 🏡
If you’re lucky enough to be invited to someone’s home for a home-cooked dinner, remember to take your shoes off once you’re through the door. The Japanese consider “outside” shoes unclean; for this reason, they’re replaced with “home” slippers at the genkan—a part of the entryway for changing shoes, hanging coats, and keeping umbrellas.
This no-shoes-inside rule also extends to some public spaces like shrines and temples, as well as some schools and hospitals.
It’s also observed in ryokans (a traditional Japanese inn) and onsens (Japanese hot springs). In these places, slippers can be too harsh on the floors made from traditional tatami mats. Make sure you wear clean socks with no holes.
Put your best foot forward in Japan
Understanding the culture and knowing your manners goes a long way towards impressing your Japanese associates. But if you’re guilty of a faux pas, don’t beat yourself too much about it. Japanese people tend to be extremely polite and understand that most travellers are simply unaware of their customs.