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Traditional Japanese Practices

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Japanese Culture Tips

Modern Japanese business practice has been very influenced by Europe and North America. However to a large extent but still retains some traditionally Japanese practices. Below we introduce you to some of the more pertinent concepts and what they mean.

"(O)jigi", or bowing in English, is probably the feature of Japanese etiquette that is best-known through media and TV. Bowing is considered extremely important in Japan, so much so that, although children normally begin learning how to bow from a very young age, companies commonly provide training to their employees in how to execute bows correctly Basic bows are performed with the back straight and the hands at the sides (boys and men) or clasped in the lap (girls and women), and with the eyes down. Bows originate at the waist. Generally, the longer and deeper the bow, the stronger the emotion and the respect expressed. Bows can be generally divided into three main types: informal, formal, and very formal. Informal bows are made at about a fifteen degree angle and more formal bows at about thirty degrees. Very formal bows are deeper.

"Meishi" are the Japanese equivalent of business cards. They have a special meaning and to receive a business card without due care and attention can be seen as a personal slight. The correct way to present meishi is hold at the top corners with the lettering facing the person receiving the card. The receiver should then take the card by both lower corners, read it carefully and place it somewhere safe. When exchanging meishi the individual of lower status will pass their card first, and the individual of higher status will pass their card second.

"Keigo" is a polite style of Japanese used frequently in business when talking to superiors. Keigo (literally "respectful speech") is used to show respect or humility in the face of people you are unfamiliar with. It is often not taught in schools or at home so many businessmen receive lessons when they enter a company.

"Uchi/Soto" means, roughly, Inner/Outer and refers to your relationship with a particular group. In Japan status is conferred not only vertically, i.e. superior and subordinate, but also horizontally, i.e. those with whom you are familiar and those with whom you are not. The group dynamic is a very important one and when you first meet anyone you will immediately take up the position of outsider, soto, even if you are from different branches of the same company or work in the same field. You should understand the distance that you are shown as a sign of respect, and not think that your hosts are being cold to you. The position of soto does have some advantages over that of insider, uchi, for instance you are given more leeway in your behaviour and are not expected to follow the same strict rules as someone who is uchi.

Silence is very important in Japan. Though you may feel uncomfortable, try to analyse what sort of a silence it is, whether it is a respectful silence or an upset silence. There is a definite connection between silence and wisdom. The Japanese character for Knowledge combines the characters for losing and mouth, which goes to show that the Japanese consider people wise who refrain from speaking. As the old proverb goes, "better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove any doubt".

Gifts in Japan are given to show appreciation of a favour done for you or to establish a sound business or personal relationship. Gifts should be something from your country and of a reasonably high quality, preferably with a special significance to your company or local area and not made in Asia. Gifts should be wrapped in "business colours" like dark greens, greys, blues and browns, but avoid white as it symbolises death. Gifts should be given and received with both hands, as with meishi. Remember that to your business partners the gift you give and the way that you give it reveal a lot about your character and your attitude towards business.

Meals in Japan traditionally begin with the phrase "itadakimasu" (literally, "I receive"). The phrase is similar to the phrase "bon appétit," or grace, used in the case of some individuals, at every meal. It is said to express gratitude for all who had a part in preparing the food, and in cultivating, ranching or hunting edible food of plants and animals. 

About the Author

Neil Payne is Managing Director at the London based consultancy Kwintessential. For more information on their services please visit Japanese Translations

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