In both a business and private context, there are a few things best not done in Japan. Should you inadvertently or unavoidably perform any of these acts, the consequences won’t be life-threatening, as being a foreigner (gaijin) in Japan is usually sufficient excuse in itself. However, fore-warned is fore-armed, with the prospect of a smoother visit.
The Japanese are not a touching or gesticulating kind of people. You might see a child receiving a hug from a parent or grandparent, but otherwise any kind of show of affection in public is uncommon, and hence better avoided. This includes holding hands, walking arm-in-arm, a friendly slap on the back, or flinging of the arms about to emphasise a point. Bowing is the usual form of greeting and farewell in any situation, but shaking hands will occur in a business setting also.
Audible nose-blowing, outside of the bathroom or toilet, is not done, and only tissues used for the purpose. Handkerchiefs, if carried, are used to mop the brow in the warmer months. Consequently, throat clearing followed by swallowing is a common practice for anyone who has a cold. For such people, wearing a surgical mask is acceptable.
In the home
External footwear is always removed before entering any private residence, and many public buildings as well. Slip-on kinds of shoes are hence the most popular for normal everyday use. Slippers provided in the toilet must not be worn outside this room. Bathing, in a private home or any public bathing place, has protocols that must be followed, primarily to wash then remove all soap before entering the bath.
Chopsticks are used with most kinds of food, except curries. Food should not be speared to pick it up. When selecting an item from a shared container, the reverse end of the chopsticks can be used. Noise can be made when eating noodles, but not with other dishes.
In the office
The seating arrangements in a business meeting are understood and precise, with the most senior people closest to the door. The exchange of business cards is an important and quite ritualised procedure, handing over usually accompanied by a bow and announcement of company name and family name. At a meeting, cards are left on the table, usually until the meeting’s conclusion, then placed inside a folder with other papers, wallet, or business card holder. They must not be defaced in any way, such as by writing on or stapling, and if put in a pocket, this should be in a jacket, not trousers, and definitely not trousers back pocket.
After work or a meeting
An invitation to socialise after a meeting or day’s work should be readily accepted. There will be plenty of food and alcoholic beverages, but it is inadvisable to become intoxicated, although some degree of inebriation might be detected in others.
With an extensive railway national network plus highway buses, along with subway systems in many cities supplemented by bus services, there is for most people no need to drive when visiting Japan. Admittedly, use of a car can open up many other travel and visitation opportunities, but so much is accessible by public transport it would only be for people who have specific interest or destination in mind that a car is relevant. Without the ability to read kanji, car travel can be problematic, especially on expressways. Within cities and expansive urban areas it can also be slow, with maximum speed limits set at 30, 40 or 50 kmh. Country roads are generally 50 kmh as well.
© Copyright 2015 SJ Peterson