Looking the part, being appropriately attired for the occasion, is very important to the Japanese. They want to show from their appearance they are ready and willing for the task at hand, and they naturally judge others on their appearance, as much as any other relevant factors. Consider the following scenarios:
The business meeting
Alvin is something of a free spirit, but a very capable person. He has advanced technological skills, and with a father who’s a dentist, while still at university turns his abilities to designing dental equipment. The father sees real promise in the products Alvin designs, and proposes they establish a dental equipment business. Alvin wants to quit university and concentrate on his real work, but his father makes graduation a condition for stumping up the funds for the business.
The business prospers, and within ten years has about fifteen employees. Alvin goes into some personal debt to buy out his father’s interest, a mutually satisfactory arrangement enabling the father to promptly retire. An overseas research and study tour shows Alvin there might be prospects of introducing his products into Japan, and some further research undertaken for him by JETRO, for a fee, confirms this.
JETRO also assists in seeking out a prospective business partner for the local market, and information is sent to a distributor that specialises in handling technologically advanced products in the medical and dental fields. They respond positively, and offer to travel to meet Alvin and inspect his manufacturing operations.
Alvin’s premises is primarily a workplace, but a quite presentable reception/meeting area is hastily fashioned out of an open storage space near the entrance. Although this appears a very good opportunity to strike up a business relationship, Alvin feels calm and assured. Having his entire working life never applied for a job or attended any kind of job interview, he has always dressed casually in the work environment. In his mid-thirties, he has retained below shoulder length hair, which he ties up in a bob at work. In reality, he has never had to fit in with anyone else’s standards of attire or general appearance, and the thought of doing so never crosses his mind.
At the appointed hour, two be-suited Japanese gentlemen knock on the front door. At first glance they look like separated Siamese twins, their immaculately dark blue suits seemingly cut from the same roll of cloth, stiff white-collared shirts, and ties of a slightly lighter blue. On closer inspection it can be seen that the suits and ties aren’t exactly the same.
They formally greet Alvin, who has opened the door, and one announces in very good English they are here to see a gentleman called Alvin, the owner of the business. They look around, expecting to see an equally formally dressed man approaching them. Alvin smiles, and introduces himself as that very man. Slightly taken aback, the two Japanese in turn force a smile and greet Alvin, offering their hand which Alvin in turn shakes.
During this process, one of the suits glances at the other, a disapproving look already formed on each face. In unison they produce a business card out of matching leather cases and hand them to Alvin, who unsuccessfully searches through his pockets for something to offer in return. He promises to provide this later.
Alvin, who has always exuded an air of confidence in business dealings, is beginning to feel ill at ease and out of his depth with these highly professional-looking businessmen, who Alvin realises might well hold the key to the future prosperity of his business.
For their part, the Japanese men are wondering whether Alvin is genuinely interested in establishing a business relationship with them, as from his outward appearance, and actions to date, he hardly seems serious about it. At this stage they’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, and closely monitor how events unfold as the meeting progresses, to gauge whether Alvin and his company are worth persevering with. The quality and worth of the products are of course essential for the trading house to take them on, but being able to establish a trusting long-term business relationship with Alvin is also very important, and they need to be convinced Alvin sincerely wants this too.
The matrimonial announcement
Norman worked very hard for seven years after graduation, had a couple of serious relationships, acquired some worthwhile assets, then decided to get away from it all and do some travelling. He didn’t get any further than his first port of call, Japan. Upon arrival, he decided to seek out work teaching English, which progressed within a year to setting up his own small school soon with a burgeoning student base. He began making a real effort to learn the language, and circumvented the visa problem by regularly making quick trips to nearby locations in Asia.
One of his first students was Sachiko, mid-twenties, well qualified but in a dead-end job, and against her will under increasing parental pressure to find a husband. In fact her parents were actively involved in this task, making use of the wide family network to find suitable candidates for her, the traditional Japanese spouse-finding method known as O-miai. Sachiko’s interest in improving her English was prompted by her overseas travel bug, but upon meeting Norman was sustained more and more by the prospect of seeing him each week. As the one-to-one lessons progressed, so did their friendship, and after a year they decided to marry, upon which the tuition fee was waived.
Sachiko’s parents suspected something was afoot when she flatly refused to meet any more possible suitors, and admitted to the until then secret friendship with Norman. At first her parents were aghast, expecting their only daughter to be soon whisked off overseas. But Sachiko’s determination won out, and the parents duly agreed to meet the offending foreigner. A date was set for him to visit their home, and formally announce his desire for Sachiko’s hand in marriage.
Norman carefully selected the kinds of gifts that are usually handed over on these occasions, which included a large vase with an iris design, a dark red lacquer ware food container with a number of internal compartments, and a set of high quality summer placemats and drink coasters (it was late spring at this point). These had all been Sachiko’s suggestions – of course she was still living with her parents in the family home and well knew what kinds of items would be well received.
The day of the meeting was a Sunday, when Norman’s last class was held in the early evening, but on this occasion the class continued its discussion past the usual finishing time, causing Norman to arrive at Sachiko’s home fifteen minutes after the agreed time. The greeting he received was frosty, at best, despite his profuse apologies. The atmosphere warmed as the gifts were handed over and unwrapped, and after about half an hour it seemed quite convivial.
Norman had especially learned a few relevant phases, in the most polite form of Japanese, which he made sure of using as he somewhat nervously worked his way through his memorised announcement of his deep desire to marry the delectable Sachiko. Not that he in any way used any word that hinted this was what he really thought of her, rather his carefully scripted words included descriptions of Sachiko that she herself knew would go down well with her parents and had fed to him, particularly as most of them reflected very favourably on her upbringing. Obviously, this carefully choreographed presentation was the product of a joint conspiracy.
After almost one and a half hours, Norman was ushered out of the house by Sachiko’s father, Sachiko remaining discreetly and coyly behind with her mother. Norman knew the meeting hadn’t got off to the best of starts due to his lateness – he was well aware of the value placed on punctuality in Japan – but felt that his presents and speech, plus the general contents of their chatting and the efforts he’d made in their own language, had warmed the parents to him. Naturally this would never be to the same extent as if he were Japanese, but such is life.
He had no sense of smugness, but was quietly confident they’d accept him into the family. This mild feeling of ebullience evaporated two days later when Sachiko turned up rather stony-faced in his classroom for her weekly lesson.
She blamed herself, but it was too late now. Nevertheless, she believed her parents would show a sufficient amount of understanding and tolerance: the first thing they’d asked her after he departed was why wasn’t he wearing a collar and tie, and suit, this degree of formality obviously required as a sign of respect to them on such an auspicious occasion. In retrospect, Norman recalled the father had been so attired, and the mother well-dressed also. This was a significant faux pas, and Norman knew he had work ahead of him to make up for it, but the situation was by no means irretrievable.
The tennis players
Arthur, in his late thirties and still single, was much travelled in Europe but not the Orient. He decided to rectify this oversight by taking a trip to Japan. Through friends and contacts he was able develop an itinerary that included a number of stay-overs in private homes, so he made some effort to learn about any protocols that should be observed in these cases.
This research stood him in good stead – no nose-blowing in front of others, especially at the meal table, removal of footwear in the entrance before entering the house, removal of slippers before entering the toilet and leaving the special toilet slippers there, making sure all lather is removed before entering the bath, and so on. He even learned a few phrase for internal house use, such as itadakimasu (before eating), oishikatta (after eating), ippai (I’m full) and others. This all went down well – he was even commended on how quickly he’d become acclimatised to life in Japan, including his mastery of the use of chopsticks.
Arthur’s last homestay was set to be with a childless couple about his age who lived in a small town near Hakodate, the capital of the northern island, Hokkaido. This couple was particularly hospitable, and as both spoke English quite well Arthur quickly felt very much at home. On the afternoon of his first full day they invited him to join them for a hit of tennis at the local club, which comprised two bitumen courts. The idea was to just have a casual hit, then if they felt like it, American doubles, swapping partners.
Of course Arthur hadn’t expected to play tennis during his trip, but had suitable shoes and was able to put together an outfit that was comfortable enough. Even though it was all just friendly and casual, and the couple rarely played tennis, they wore proper tennis outfits that appeared quite up to date and fashionable.
As it was a very small town, the courts were within easy walking distance. Unlike virtually everywhere else Arthur had visited in Japan, there were few cars on the roads and equally few people about. It really seemed to be a sleepy hollow with nothing of the hustle and bustle he’d encountered elsewhere.
After about twenty minutes of back and forth hitting, four other people, two males and two females, probably late twenties, arrived to make use of the other court. Arthur immediately noticed that all of them also were fully decked out in the latest tennis fashion, and each had a shiny new racquet, yet they were all pretty average players.
There were no spectators, no passers-by, no actual competition, no formal structure of any kind, yet they all had the full regalia – branded tennis outfits, with wrist bands, the women and one of the other men a head band each, plus branded tennis sports bags for their gear, with water bottles. Arthur had a strong sense there was a moral to this story, in relation to the character of the Japanese, but he concentrated on showing that he could play.
© Copyright 2014 SJ Peterson