On a recent business dinner of 20 tourism professionals in Japan, I represented the lone American. We sat on the floor on straw mats, sipped saki, and enjoyed good conversation that went far beyond travel and tourism. By the evenings end, my perceived conservatism of the Japanese businessperson loosened as did their collars as we easily found common interests. In short, everyone had a good time. However, as the foreigner I would have liked to been aware of a few subtle customs before meeting my hosts. The following is a list of my mistakes that will probably ingratiate you to your host and show that you took the time to learn another culture. Here are a few opportunities to learn from my mistakes.
Whether visiting a private home or a public restaurant, visitors will take off their shoes before entering. I found this a little awkward at first, because I am so accustomed to tracking in dirt with me. However, it became quite comfortable. Of course, consider socks that have not developed toe revealing air vents. There is also a word on lace-up shoes. Don’t! For a night out on the town, or a day visiting tourist attractions that may require shoe removal, consider slip-ons, sandals of loafers.
Bring business cards
I discovered business cards are important, especially for a Westerner. They are used as a way of introduction, the reason is twofold. First, due to the significant language difference, a Japanese host will want to read a foreign name in order to pronounce it. Expect to repeat you name slowly a couple of times for your host for clarity. The second reason is many will actually use the business card in future business – a good thing. It is also more likely they will remember you when you need to use their card. Socially, cards tend to be presented rather than slid across the table. This mini-ceremony is done formally with two hands held at the upper end of each corner. I recommend bringing a stack of cards with you at all potential gatherings. Please note that Japanese business cards, as well as the rest of Asia, usually have their cards printed into language. Japanese on one side and English on the other. So in case you get a kanji riddled card and are confused by it just flip it over for your English translation.
Bring a small gift
It is the thought that counts. The gift does not have to be much: refrigerator magnets, a postcard, a company pen. Visitors will receive the same at business gatherings of all types. A small trinket from your originating city is most appreciated. Again, these were presented, and frequently, to my surprise, gift wrapped!
Yes, toilet shoes! I bristled at the prospect of having to use a public restroom in my socks. I discovered I had nothing to worry about and no re-lacing was required. Expect to find multiple pairs of slippers waiting at the bathroom entrance. Frequently, they will say on them in English, “toilet shoes.” While for the most part, Japan and its restrooms are spotless, there were a couple occasions when I was completely grateful for having slippers waiting for me at the door.
In subsequent meetings, I found these small attentions to detail made me look like a respectful and savvy traveler, who explored Japan’s culture before making the trip. No one will expect that you will know these cultural things. However, when you do, your host will be impressed and put you further along the path of a successful business trip.
Written by Devin Galaudet
Photography courtesy of JNTO