Japanese Etiquette: A guide to the unique culture of Japan

Japan is widely known to have a very unique society, especially when it comes to Japanese etiquette and even more so when compared to its neighbouring countries in North East Asia. It can be quite difficult for Westerners to understand these differences and usually, as long as you act polite and respectful, a Japanese person would not expect you to know all the ins and outs of their culture and what is classed as Japanese etiquette. However, there are some simple insights that can help anyone trying to break into the business world in Japan and ensure you will make the most out of any experience with a Japanese company.

First Impressions

Japanese etiquette is highly important when it comes to first impressions. The first impression that you create when meeting a prospective Japanese business partner is crucial to the success of the whole relationship. In Japan, tardiness is considered impolite, and often Japanese people will arrive early with the general view that it is much better to be too early than too late, punctuality is a large part of Japanese etiquette. So, if you think that you might be running behind even by just a few minutes, it’s best to let them know.

When meeting someone for the first time, it’s important to know the custom of giving and receiving business cards, as this interaction will establish how the person views you and create an affiliation which leads to trust. If you are given a business card, ‘meishi’, Japanese etiquette requires that is to be presented in both hands with the face up. The polite response is to take the card in both hands and read it carefully before putting it away neatly. Commenting on the card will also go a long way. A big cultural faux pas would be to stuff the card in a back pocket and sit on it, throw it away or write on it in front of the person. This is an easy mistake to make, so this a custom of Japanese etiquette to be careful of.

The society in Japan is very hierarchical with a strong emphasis on age, with the older person being superior. It is traditional Japanese etiquette to refer to each other by the person’s surname plus the suffix ‘san’, and remembering this will pleasantly surprise the person you are meeting.

Honour

Courtesy is a good word to remember when visiting Japan or meeting Japanese people; Japanese society is very honorific, and the idea of ‘face’ and loss of it is an incredibly important part of Japanese etiquette, almost to an extreme level. If you are associating with a Japanese person, anything that causes you embarrassment or loss of face would also affect them. The language used by the Japanese will be polite and tempered and it is not normal for them to use aggressive or assertive language. When dealing with a difficult situation, it is Japanese etiquette to stay calm as this will help to resolve any problems sooner.

Meetings

Typically, Japanese etiquette suggests that the purpose of a meeting in Japan is to affirm your relationship and endorse prepared work rather than discussing new ideas. New proposals will often not be accepted in the meeting, so don’t panic if you feel you aren’t getting anywhere. Usually, many of the associates will attend, particularly if you are not that familiar with each other. It is traditional of Japanese etiquette for the most senior representative to talk and the junior associates to remain silent, although this is now changing to match the increasing need to speak English in business relationships.

Don’t worry about getting an immediate response to the ideas that you bring to the table as this is not typical of Japanese etiquette. Whoever you are meeting represents their whole company and therefore will need to return to their colleagues and discuss extensively. Japan is a consensual society where everything must be viewed meticulously, which can create a slow process that other countries are not used to. The idea behind this way of conducting business is that when the respective parties are ready to go forward with an idea, it will have been so extensively planned that everything will then move very quickly and effectively.

Language and Relations

Japanese is linguistically very different from both English and other Indo-European languages and therefore can be difficult to grasp. Structurally, Japanese is the opposite of English, you’ll find that simple sentences in English become quite long when translated into Japanese, and vice versa.

There is a concept relating to Japanese business arrangements that the relationship comes first and the business will follow.  The Japanese traditionally have social events after formal events, and there are several different layers to these. The idea behind this piece of Japanese etiquette is to create a more relaxed and personal atmosphere to build trust. These social interactions can also be very fun and give you a chance to sample traditional sake or Japanese beer with locals who know all the best ones.

Things Not To Do

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there are a few things to avoid doing in Japanese company that are culturally very different and go against Japanese etiquette. Don’t blow your nose in public; the Japanese will instead sniff. This is quite difficult for westerners to get their heads around as the opposite is polite respectively, but in order to avoid awkward stares, this is a good rule to follow. Furthermore, slurping when eating noodles and soup is considered polite, showing that you enjoy the food. So you can forget your grandma’s rules about making noise when eating and relax. Swearing is not part of the Japanese language, instead, they would express disrespect in different ways. It’s not natural for them to openly express disrespect to others, although unfortunately Western swear words are making their way into young Japanese culture, particularly the media.

If you keep in mind these Japanese etiquette rules, they will help you make the most of this wonderful country and reciprocate the respect that is already present within Japanese society. If you are looking to discover more on Japanese culture and tradition, why not take a look around the Atelier Japan website where you can find an exquisite range of traditionally handcrafted fans, tea, pottery and jewellery.