Guest Blog: Doing Business in Japan – the Business Card Exchange

Preserving Harmony and Hierarchy:

We have established two major facets of Japanese society: importance of the group over the individual and the philosophy of harmony between all things. In order to preserve this harmony, derived from their Shinto beliefs, the Japanese tend to communicate indirectly in what some may call high-context communication.

High context communication means that the real information is embedded in the context in which the communication occurs, going beyond the words, reading all facial expressions, and body language. The Japanese tend to be very vague, because over explaining implies that the other party knows nothing about the subject of discussion. This ambiguity allows the Japanese to maintain harmony, by not stating the obvious, and encouraging others to be aware of how the other party is feeling. For example, right before saying “no” outright, a look of uneasiness usually passes on our faces. The Japanese, in order to avoid this outright rejection, use euphemisms, such as, “This project sounds very difficult,” which is meant to say “no” in a gentle manner, but also encourages you to figure out why they are not interested. It is meant to save “face” or embarrassment.

One way you can “save [your] face” is to understand the order (hierarchy) of Japanese society. While conducting business in Japan, it is best to know as much as possible about the people with whom you will be meeting. Japan has a strict hierarchy in their business or organization and those titles are meant to be used and recognized. One way to show respect for a person of high rank is when you first meet.

Usually, when you meet a Japanese business professional, you exchange business cards: meishi (meh-she). This is an important ritual in Japanese society – it reflects humility, hierarchy and face. Bring a lot, preferably with a Japanese translation on the back (company, title, name, contact info-in that order), because you will give one to everyone you meet. They should be in pristine condition, for they are seen as an extension of you, and the Japanese consider their meishi as an extension of themselves. When presenting meishi, use two hands and hold your card facing your Japanese colleague, and with a slight bow, eyes looking downwards, exchange cards. The bow indicates humility and respect for someone of high rank, acknowledging hierarchy – as a side note, the depth of the bow is determined on the status of your colleague, the higher in rank, the deeper the bow, and vice versa.

Don’t forget to smile, it will show sincerity. Once cards have been exchanged, read it carefully, attempt to pronounce names, so that they may correct you if necessary, but do not write on it! When storing the received meishi, place them in your left inside jacket pocket (closest to your heart) – it is a place of honor. Conversely, do not place received meishi, whether in a wallet or not,  in your back pants pocket…ever! This is a huge sign of disrespect.

Now to begin the business meeting…

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