A frequent flier's views on flying and travel

Not In Japan

Do’s and Don’ts in Japan…

Every country of course is unique, and has social customs and habits that visitors and people doing business there may not be aware of. Japan is no exception, and for Westerners who may not have had a lot of exposure to Asian customs, there are some practices you need to know about in order to avoid some of the more common social faux-pas that many people make.

The first of these starts even before you arrive in Japan, especially if you are exchanging Email with a business contact, a hotel, or even a tour guide. You will quickly notice that in every Email sent to you, you are being addressed as “name”-san. This is a non gender-specific nicety, roughly meaning honored. Where Westerners make one mistake is in not replying using the same –san suffix. Anytime you reply or send an Email you should use the –san honorific.

The second mistake is in using the –san and including it in your own name. You simply do not call yourself “-san”. Not ever.

Chopsticks are as common in Japan as coffee cups are in the USA, and you really should take the time to learn how to use them. Even if you are clumsy, the fact that you are trying is very important. There also is a bad habit with chopsticks that you must avoid. Never point at or towards someone with your chopsticks. I don’t know how many times I have seen someone at a dinner get involved in a conversation, and start gesturing with their hands (like they would at home). But they still have chopsticks in their hand, and the result is they are pointing the sticks at their hosts. This is a very rude gesture in all of Asia. Don’t do it!

Who sits where is a really interesting aspect of Japanese society, and cuts across every level from business to personal and family life. I’ll use the example of seats on a train, but the same basic rules always apply. The most favored seat is the one on the aisle, facing forward. This should always be given to the most senior or respected person in the group. 2’nd seat is the aisle, facing backwards. 3’rd is the window facing forward, 4’th is the window facing backwards. At a dinner or in a social situation, the aisle (or easiest entry) is given to the most respected person.

You can gain a lot of status by offering the best seat to your Japanese friend or associate. In many cases they will politely decline, and insist that you take this seat. A bit of polite “no please, you” back and forth is expected, but in the end if they insist, then take that seat. You reciprocate by insisting that they take the next best seat. This seat picking game can be a lot of fun actually, especially when everyone has had a bit too much sake…

In a business meeting many American businessmen have been led astray by the Japanese habit of nodding their heads politely when you are talking. I have worked with people who thought that the head nodding meant that their audience was agreeing with them. No, it does not. It just means that they hear you, are listening, and please continue. It absolutely does not mean that they agree.

“No” is also an interesting issue in Japan. You never want to put your host or contacts in a position where they have to reply with something as black-and-white as a “Yes” or “No” reply. Culturally the Japanese try to avoid telling you “No”, and will go to great lengths to avoid this. A good rule of thumb is that the longer and more complicated the answer, then it’s really just a very polite way of saying “No”.

Another funny quirk about Japanese meetings is that the most senior, respected, and powerful person at the meeting, is almost always the quietest. His (or her) underlings will be the ones doing most of the talking and making presentations. If you are not sure “who is who” at a first meeting, the more silent, the higher the rank.

Bowing as a gesture of respect is of course universally known around the world as a Japanese custom, and most of us have at least some familiarity with it. There’s no need to go overboard and to overdo the gesture. But a short quick bow is also almost as rude. When you bow to someone in Japan, usually at a first meeting, make it sincere, but not theatrical. Watch your hosts, or the people you see in the street or at restaurants, and copy their bow.

Exchanging business cards in the USA and Europe is so trivial we don’t even consider what we are doing. I know that I often get a business card, look at it really quickly, and put it away somewhere. In Japan, the exchange of cards is a very important aspect of any business or social meeting. No meeting can even start until all the cards have been exchanged, and there is a definite protocol to follow. When given a card, you should read it carefully and slowly. Then while still holding it, thank them (hopefully in Japanese!) and bow back to them. While at a meeting, leave the business cards you have collected on the table in front of you for as long as the meeting lasts.

How about a smile? Can’t go wrong with a smile, right? Wrong. A proper smile in Japan is what we would call a closed-lip smile, you don’t show your teeth. This is not as important for men as it is for women, and the younger generation does not follow this practice as much as their parents did. But if you are ever in a situation in which you are meeting someone’s parents, a very senior executive, or anyone who is ‘elderly’, just remember to smile without showing your teeth.

Japanese characters and writing are simply out of reach for most casual visitors to get a grasp of, and nobody in Japan is going to expect you to read or write in Japanese. But it is a sign and gesture of great respect to at least learn how to speak the basic phrases you will use every day. I would start with the Big-5

Hello, Good-Bye, Thank-You, Good Morning, Good Night

And you will get a lot of extra credit (in Japan this is ‘face’) if you also know the Japanese names for some of the key food items.

Overall, I love going to Japan. I love the people, the food, and the scenery. The length of their civilization has added so many layers of complexity to their culture that it could take a lifetime to really explore and explain.

Just hope some of these tips are helpful to you.

2 comments on “Not In Japan

  1. Augustus Caesar
    February 7, 2014

    Nice advice. May I add the cultural aversion to the cold. When you have a cold, wear a surgical mask to stop spreading it. Also blowing your nose is public, is a big NO.


  2. capnaux
    March 2, 2014

    Arigato gozaimasu, PaxView-san! There’s a few I didn’t know…I’ll keep that in mind for my next trip. Nihon-wa, watashi no ichiban suki-na kuni desu!


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This entry was posted on February 4, 2014 by in Passenger thoughts and tagged , , .
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