Japanese etiquette screencast

A narrated slideshow on Japanese etiquette - greetings, seating, bowing versus shaking hands, exchanging business cards, the san-thing, Top 10 Things NOT to do, socialising, gift giving and hosting Japanese visitors

Welcome to this e-learning course on Japanese etiquette.

[Slide 1] Etiquette is extremely important when you work with Japanese colleagues, because it’s such a deeply ingrained part of Japanese culture—not only among business colleagues, but even among members of families and circles of friends.

[Slide 2] Yes, Japanese people will make allowances if you don’t know all the rules of Japanese etiquette—but the more you know, the more easily you will be able to build strong working relationships with your colleagues.

[Slide 3] Today we’ll be covering the following topics:

  • How to cultivate personal relationships with your Japanese colleagues
  • What to do when you meet Japanese colleagues for the first time
  • Exchanging business cards
  • A few basic Japanese greetings you can use at work
  • Tips for making social occasions a success
  • How gift-giving works, and what pitfalls to avoid. 

[Slide 4] When you first meet new Japanese colleagues, whether on a business trip to Japan or in your own office, keep in mind that although you’ll be working on tasks together, your main goal is to build a good relationship with them. That means a personal relationship—good rapport, trust, a personal bond.

[Slide 5] You will find that Japanese people rarely discuss personal matters at the office—they reserve those topics for social times, which is why getting together with them outside of the office is so important.

[Slide 6] But in the workplace, too, from day one you can show them that you are sincere and reliable, consistent and mature.

The top ten worst things you can do, from the standpoint of relationship-building with your Japanese colleagues, whether you’re in Japan or in your own country, are:

  1. Be sarcastic—it’s just not a part of Japanese culture and won’t be taken well.
  2. Make fun of a Japanese person or custom—your Japanese colleagues are likely to take it personally.
  3. Speak negatively about your company
  4. Embarrass a Japanese person—losing face is one of the worst things that can happen. It’s much more important to save face for the other person than to show that you are right.  
  5. Get into an argument or play devil’s advocate (in other words deliberately take up a contrary position) —because conflict is generally viewed as harmful to relationships.
  6. Break a company rule—this shows a distinct lack of team spirit and responsibility.

[Slide 7]

7 Be late or change appointments at the last minute—Japanese people hate surprises, good or bad, and punctuality with both deadlines and meetings is of the utmost importance for Japanese 8. people. Punctuality actually means being 5 or 10 minutes early.

8 Complaining is frowned upon—people are expected to have a good spirit, and bad moods are generally considered taboo—you should cultivate a cheerful and cooperative demeanor at the office.

9 Make negative comparisons between Japan and other countries—this too maybe taken personally even if it isn’t meant in that way.

10 Expressing appreciation whenever it is appropriate-- beyond the degree that we may be accustomed to—is essential.

[Slide 8]

When you meet Japanese colleagues for the first time, should you bow or shake hands? What should you say? How and when should you hand over your business card?

In most of these matters the rules is, follow the lead of your Japanese colleagues. If they extend their hands, which they probably will, you can shake hands with them. Do not be alarmed however if you are greeted with a limp handshake—shaking hands is something that many Japanese business people who have not spent much time abroad are still not accustomed to.

[Slide 9]

If your Japanese counterpart bows, you should bow too. The normal first-meeting greeting type of bow is about a 30 degree angle. Deeper bows are for more formal situations, and lighter bows are more casual—that’s what superiors may use to greet subordinates.

[Slide 10]

Exchanging business cards is a kind of ritual in Japan. A person’s card is a symbol of who they are, so cards are handled with utmost respect. Knowing how people rank in relation to oneself is very important in Japanese culture, and cards contain this important information. The card exchange between two Japanese people is a carefully choreographed balancing act of card holders and cards—you don’t have to engage in it as deftly as they do, but it’s a good idea to pay attention to a few details.

First, you should have a card holder, rather than keeping your cards in your wallet or pocket. If you can put your name in Japanese on your cards, all the better. Have plenty of cards with you.

[Slide 11]

Offer your card with both hands, holding it by the corners with your fingers and offering it with the text facing them as they receive it.

[Slide 12]

Accept their card with both hands. Look at their card, then look at them again to show that you have registered who they are, their rank and title. Don’t shove their card into your pocket or write on it—this would be taken as disrespectful. And if you want to, it’s never a bad idea to leave their cards on the table in front of you to refer to during your meeting.

[Slide 13]

Japanese names are traditionally written with family name first, and given name last. You should make sure you’re aware of how they have written their names on their cards—many will put their names into Western-style reverse order to avoid confusing you. Unless specifically asked to do so, you should avoid addressing a Japanese colleague by his first name (that’s reserved only for intimate friends and spouses in Japan)—instead call them “Mr. Yamada,” “Ms. Takeuchi,” or the like; when you get to know them better you can use their last name plus “-san,” which is a generic term that means Mr. or Ms.

If you want to introduce yourself in Japanese, you can say Hajimemashite, which means “nice to meet you.” And then your name: Acme Wire no Smith desu (“I am Smith of Acme Wire”).

[Slide 14]

Yoroshiku onegai shimasu means something like “thank you in advance for your cooperation.”

Call those you meet by their last name plus “san,” but don’t add “san” to your own name.

If they insist more than once that you call them by their first name, you can.

[Slide 15]

Here are a few more useful phrases:

  • Ohayō gozaimasu, good morning (used until about 10 AM).
  • Konnichi wa, good day or good afternoon. (noon until the end of the workday)
  • Konban wa, good evening.
  • Dōzo. Please. Go ahead. (when offering an object, a seat, or motioning for someone to go through a door first)
  • Dōmo. Thank you. (very informal, for small gestures)

 [Slide 16]

Arigatō gozaimasu. Thank you

Kinō wa arigatō gozaimashita. Thank you for what you did for me yesterday

Sono setsu wa dōmo. OR Kono aida wa dōmo Thank you for what you did for me the last time we met.

Sumimasen Excuse me. (e.g. when you have bumped into someone), sorry to have troubled you (if someone brings you a cup of tea)

[Slide 17]

When you share a meal with Japanese colleagues, you can say oishii desu ne (“delicious!”) or oishikatta desu (“that was delicious”). Kanpai is “cheers!” (Don’t use the Mediterranean “chin chin”—this will cause you embarrassment). Itadakimasu means “bon appetít.” And gochisōsama deshita means “Thank you for the delicious meal.”

[Slide 18]

Meals and other social get-togethers are important occasions to deepen your personal relationships with Japanese colleagues, to get to know them as individuals.

Use this time to build rapport with your colleagues—do not bring up work subjects yourself.

 [Slide 19]

On the other hand, the relaxed atmosphere in these situations may help Japanese people to feel comfortable talking about work issues in a more frank way.

You can follow their lead and discuss it if they bring it up.

[Slide 20]

When chatting with Japanese colleagues, certain topics will make them feel more comfortable than others. Japanese people will enjoy talking to you about subjects like their hobbies, where they’re from in Japan, and anything having to do with their personal experience at the company.

They enjoy talking about their children, but less so their spouses—this seems to be too private a realm for them to want to discuss. You can discuss Japanese culture, or movies, or your positive observations about Japan.

[Slide 21]

It’s best to avoid any topic having to do with World War II, or Japanese politics for that matter, or scandals at Japanese companies. Don’t bring up frictions between Japan and other countries, or make unflattering comparisons between Japan and other countries.

[Slide 22]

Remember that Japanese people feel that what's discussed during social occasions should not be repeated later.

So when you see your colleagues at work the next day, though you can thank them if appropriate, don’t mention any events, conversations, or antics that may have occurred the previous evening.

[Slide 23]

Because hierarchy plays such a central role in all social interactions, seating arrangements are a delicate matter. Whenever possible, whether in the office, in a car, or in a restaurant, let them show you where you and they should sit.

If you are visiting them, you as the guest should face the door, or have a window or artwork behind you—the same applies if you are arranging seating for a meeting you are hosting with Japanese visitors.

[Slide 24]

When you visit Japanese colleagues in Japan, or host them at your office, gift-giving will undoubtedly occur—in Japan gifts are not exactly “optional” or “extra.” They’re an intrinsic part of all social relationships.

[Slide 25]

If you go on a business trip to Japan, the proper etiquette is to bring a gift. Rather than bringing separate gifts for individuals—which carries the risk of offending someone, or selecting the wrong kind of gift for that rank of individual—it is best to bring a “group” gift that is edible, something that can be shared at teatime, such as chocolates (except in the summer because they will melt), sweets, cakes or biscuits.

[Slide 26]

Ideally your gift should be from your area, and wrapped nicely. Sets of four of anything are considered bad luck because the word for four in Japanese, shi, also means “death.” Bring extra gifts just in case.Present gifts using both hands. And don’t open any gifts you may receive in front of your hosts.

[Slide 27]

When you host Japanese visitors at your office, remember that taking care of guests is a deeply-held value in Japanese culture. Attention to detail in serving others is an expression of kokoro, one’s spirit or thoughtfulness. When your Japanese colleagues visit from Japan, it presents a wonderful opportunity to deepen your relationship with them.

[Slide 28]

There is an expression in Japanese associated with the tea ceremony that means “One time, one meeting” (ichi go ichi e). Every encounter with another person, particularly between a host and a guest, is a unique opportunity that will never come again, and should be treasured.

[Slide 29]

When you host Japanese visitors, your goal should be to think of everything they might need in advance, so that everything happens smoothly before they even have a chance to think of what they might need. That means offering to meet them at the airport, and dressing a bit more formally to express respect. A senior person should come out to greet visitors, and they should be offered coffee or tea when they arrive. To avoid confusion for your guests, speak slowly, and have an agenda and any other written materials prepared well in advance of their arrival.

[Slide 30]

Having a Japanese version of your company brochure is nice too. Many Japanese like to take smoking breaks, so showing them when and where they can do that will be welcomed. You can take them out for a meal—they will particularly enjoy a local specialty, or seafood, but you should avoid heavy, very spicy or greasy food.

You can also prepare small gifts—something like pens or T-shirts with the company logo are nice. They should be wrapped and handed individually to each person, preferably at the time when they arrive and present their gifts to you. Don’t buy any special gifts for particular individuals—just give the same gift to everyone.

[Slide 31] Japanese etiquette might sound complicated, but it all comes down to what the Japanese call omoiyari, or kokoro—thoughtfulness. When you hold out your business card so that it looks upside-down to you but the other person can read it right side up, you are putting yourself in her shoes. Polite greetings express a welcoming, respectful attitude. Etiquette is not just for outsiders or strangers—it is present in every layer of Japanese life, and the more aware of it you are, the more you will be able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Whenever you do that, you’ll be doing what’s “appropriate,” without giving it a thought. 

[Slide 32] (photo credits)