Japan was closed to the West for many years before the middle of the nineteenth century, and it remains a uniquely individual culture. Travelers for both business and pleasure should learn a few points of protocol before visiting Japan, as this will add greatly to the success of a trip. Here are some important tips for visitors to the Land of the Rising Sun:
• The country is an archipelago consisting of almost 7,000 islands, but the four largest islands (Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku) make up most of the land mass, which is slightly larger than Germany. The official name of Japan is Nippon, and the largest capital city is Tokyo, home to 2 million people. With 125 million people, Japan is densely populated, and that population is 99 percent literate. April is one of the best times to visit, as that is when the cherry trees are in bloom. June and July are the rainy months, and summers in general are hot and humid. October and November are also good months to visit.
• Gaijin is Japanese for "foreigner" or "outsider." This is how you will be viewed, no matter how closely you develop friendships with the Japanese.
• Age = Respect: The Japanese see age as a sign of wisdom. The rule here is always be respectful when meeting older Japanese people, no matter their rank or place in society.
• Appointments: Being on time is important. Breakfast meetings are unpopular, as the workday in Japan does not begin until 9 a.m., especially in Tokyo where heavy traffic should be taken into account for arriving at meetings on time.
• Arranging the Meeting: Business meetings in Japan need to be scheduled weeks in advance. For the initial meeting, it's important that you meet with individuals who are on your same level. High-ranking executives are usually introduced as the relationships progresses. Once a meeting has been set, send a list of the team in order of hierarchy, including full names and titles. Prior to the meeting, mail a copy of the agenda and items for discussion.
• At the Meeting: The Japanese are more concerned with maintaining harmony and avoiding embarrassment than they are with achieving sales and high profits. Hierarchy is extremely important, and seniority is always acknowledged. When in a group setting, never refer to a failure on the part of Japanese. If a mistake has been made by a Japanese business associate, take the blame yourself; everyone will admire you for it! Along the same lines, Kenton (modesty) is a virtue. Avoid praising your own abilities. Japanese are known for denying the importance of their accomplishments; it's considered gracious for others to do the same. Lastly, avoid speaking directly about money; leave the financial details to be worked out at a later date. Remember: the relationship comes first, the deal, second!
• Bowing: Bowing is a sign of respect and humility, not subservience. Generally, the person of lower rank bows first and lowest. A proper bow is extended from the waist. For men, hands should be at their sides; women's hands should rest on their thighs.
• Business Card Protocol: In Japan, failure to prevent a business card at a first meeting can show a lack of interest. Always carry an ample supply, with English on one side and Japanese on the other. Make sure you verify that the translation is accurate. Protocol dictates that the person of lower rank presents his card first. The words sempai (senior) and kohai (junior) are used to express hierarchical relationships in both business and education.
• Chopsticks: The Japanese feel that silverware leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth, so learn to use hashi (chopsticks) before you go to Japan.
• Culture: The Japanese have a strong sense of national pride, and they value discipline, self-control, and harmony. They view themselves in terms of family, religion, village, university, company, and ethnicity more than as individuals. Hierarchy governs all relationships, not the idea that everyone is equal.
• Dining: A traditional Japanese breakfast includes rice, seaweed, pickled vegetables and dried fish. Portions of food in Japan are often smaller than those in Western culture.
• Dress: Japanese business dress for men consists of suits and ties. In general, business attire is conservative and expensive. Tuxedos are not worn for formal occasions.
• Gift Giving: The Japanese are enthusiastic gift givers. In a business environment, it's always safe to give small gifts, such as pens, paperweights, or items with your company logo. The gift should be presented to the head of the Japanese group. Avoid giving anyone combs or anything in sets of four or nine, which signifies death. Gifts should never be wrapped in black, gray, or white paper, which are funeral colors. Japanese do not usually open gifts in front of the giver.
• Interpreters: They can be expensive but are essential. Most Japanese interpreters are women. Ideally, you should hire your interpreter in advance, but if not, check with your hotel's business center for assistance.
• Names & Greetings: The Japanese use their surname first, followed by the given name. However, they normally introduce themselves to Westerners using the Western style of introduction. Often, given names will reveal gender, such as ko (Akiko) or e (Akie) for females and o (Ichiro) for males. The suffix san is added as an honorific (as in Tanaka-San) and is the equivalent of Ms. or Mister.
• Shoe Protocol: If you see shoes lined up in the entryway of a restaurant or any other venue, remove yours and align them with the rest. Always wear socks or hosiery that you'll be happy to be seen in. Slippers will generally be provided for walking around inside and should be used. In traditional restaurants, guests are seated on the floor. Men should sit cross-legged; women should kneel or tuck their legs under them.
Lisa Mirza Grotts is a recognized etiquette expert, an on-air contributor, and the author of A Traveler's Passport to Etiquette. She is a former director of protocol for the city and county of San Francisco and the founder and CEO of The AML Group (www.AMLGroup.com), certified etiquette and protocol consultants. Her clients range from Stanford Hospital to Cornell University and Levi Strauss. She has been quoted by Condé Nast Traveler, InStyle magazine, and The New York Times. To learn more about Lisa, follow her on www.Twitter.com/LisaGrotts and www.Facebook.com/LisaGrotts.