Japan, as a nation, prides itself on having some of the most gracious people in the world. Its culture is very rich, and its customs are so involved that this expat guide can only begin to explain the intricacies of how Japanese interact with one another.
Expats are typically “excused” from the use of “keigo”, the language’s expression of honorifics, as this can take many years of Japanese language study to master. But with that said, there are a number of customs that expats should be aware of and make use of immediately.
The act of gift giving in Japan is well ingrained in the culture and there are plenty of situations that call for some form of this. Expats will likely be most exposed to the concept of “omiage” where colleagues returning from a recent trip will bring souvenirs (usually food from the location just visited) into the office for all to share. Expats are not obligated to partake in this tradition, but doing so will certainly communicate that you have appreciation for Japanese culture. When visiting someone’s home for example, flowers are always a nice gift, as is nicely presented food. Many of the larger department stores offer pre-packaged gifts just for this purpose, and some English speaking staff will be able to guide your purchasing decisions when given details on your specific scenario.
Within the business world there are a variety of other customs that should be followed as an expat working and living in Tokyo, beginning with “meishi” (the business card). Japanese view their business cards as an extension of their bodies; accordingly, you should treat all business cards received like you’d treat the person providing the card to you. When providing your business card, provide the Japanese side up (presuming your business cards are bilingual) and the text facing them so that they can read the text as they receive your card. You should give and receive each business card using both hands and with a slight bow – this is the Japanese equivalent of a handshake. It is generally best not to extend your hand to offer a handshake unless the individual you are meeting does so first. When receiving business cards, place each on the table in front of or just to the side of you – do not put them away. You should also leave the business cards alone, i.e. do not play with them during the meeting, write on them, or otherwise disturb them from the place you initially put them down. Once the meeting is over you can place the received cards in a jacket pocket or briefcase, for example, but never place the cards in your back pocket.
It’s well known that Japanese people do not often provide an outright “no” and may often take months to arrive at certain decisions. New expats have a habit of being aggressive when it comes to negotiations, and by and large this can be very counterproductive – stalling negotiations indefinitely. When conducting business with Japanese people, keep in mind that discussions can be lengthy, but rewarding just the same. While many business decisions are made in the conference room, some Japanese favor doing business over a meal or entertainment – be that a few drinks at a traditional bar, or perhaps something more casual. In the end, the relationship you have with a counterpart is far more important than the location where you meet for negotiations.
When visiting someone’s home, or dining in certain traditional restaurants, you will need to remove your shoes. All homes in Japan have a “genkan” (entrance) area where your shoes are removed before entering the home. Often you will be provided with slippers to wear, the exceptions to this are rooms containing tatami mats where socks or going barefoot is all that is allowed.
Each situation you will encounter in Tokyo, and across Japan, will likely have its own customary rules. These rules range from the fairly obvious (e.g. try to master the use of chopsticks early on) to the seemingly obscure (e.g. where to sit in a conference room, stand in an elevator, or sit in a taxi – much of this is based on seniority). At the end of the day, Japan’s customs are so intricate that even the Japanese people forget or haven’t learned (as is the case with some in the younger generations) what is required for a particular situation. But if you can make it a point of learning and placing into practice some of the more common customs (like those offered above) it will go a long way in impressing upon your audience that you care about the way things are done in Japan.
For more information on customs in Japan you can refer to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Customs_and_etiquette_of_Japan