So You’re Going to Japan…

Businesspeople and others unwind after the workday. Tokyo. 2010.

In a little less than three weeks I’m set to take corporate clients to Japan on a business trip.  Below is some of which I’ll be coaching these first-time-to-Japan travelers (a couple of the company’s corporate officers) on.  The lists are not exhaustive.  And much of this is as much “art” as “science,” but it’s extremely important to be aware of.  Japanese people are very patient and forgiving and allow for the fact that someone new to Japan likely won’t have all social mores “down pat,” but first impressions are important, no matter where in the world one goes.

Protocol – a few Dos and Don’ts

Do – Be mindful of your shoes; see if others are taking theirs off and go with the flow.

Do – Be mindful of your voice: Westerners’ voices can ‘carry’. You’ll stand out enough as it is.

Do – Use any Japanese words and phrases you may know or pick up . . . and savor your experience.

Do – Pay attention to who the “boss” is in meetings and pay deference to that person.

Do – Bring gifts (“omiyage“) for your hosts and those with whom you’ll be meeting. For true VIPs/Companies, I like coffee table books: nice- looking and flat, for relatively easy packing. For more on gift-giving.

Do – Accept gifts and anything given to you with two hands. Look to see if it’s being offered with two hands and receive in the same manner.

Do – Pour drinks for others and let others pour for you. Feign surprise at this little ritual — everyone else does.

Do – Bring plenty of business cards (“meishi”) with an English and Japanese side.  Use two hands when presenting and receiving these, too.

Do – Call your bank &/or credit card company(ies) before leaving and tell them you’re traveling to Japan and your travel dates. Otherwise your card could be declined in Japan: that first transaction in Japan will look “suspicious” to the credit card company. It’s happened to me and others!

    And  . . .

Don’t. . . assume the person standing next to you can’t understand English.

Don’t – . . . go to open the taxi door: it will automatically open for you!

Don’t – . . . stick your chopsticks vertically into your bowl of rice and leave them there. That’s only done at funerals ( ! ).

Don’t – . . . use idioms if at all possible. While it’s true that you can lead a horse to water but can’t make it drink and that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, translating these into Japanese, or finding the idiomatic equivalent is not worth the trouble.

Don’t – . . . be shocked by a cleaning lady in the Men’s Room while you’re in there doing your business. Don’t comment on it when you return to your meeting (you’ll look like a rube). Act like it’s no big deal because in Japan it’s no big deal.

Don’t – . . . tip! It’s not done! Not to the bellboy, not to the taxi driver, not to the waiter or waitress.  It’s. just. not. done.

Don’t – . . . pack your backs to the brim! Leave some room for when you bring home gifts and nick-knacks you’ve bought along the way.

Packing for your trip . . .

It’s a long flight. Fellow traveler. 2010.

Be Sure to Bring:

*  A couple good books for the plane.  The movies are too often rather horrid and, depending on where you start out, 10-13 hours is a long, long, time on a plane.

* Also for the plane:  one of those little, inexpensive personal reading lights you can clip onto your book.  When they put out the lights for the movies your overhead seat light can illuminate the surrounding seats like a football stadium’s arc lamps.  I try to be a considerate seat mate.

*  Visine, or your eye-drops of choice.  Your eyes will ache and be red after the trip.  Tokyo can be smoggy.  Not anything like Beijing’s smog soup (with the viscosity of 30-weight motor oil), but irritating to the eyes nonetheless.

*  Imodiom or equivalent anti-diarrhea meds.  The water’s fine and the food’s not “heavy,” but just the stress of traveling can upset the  stomach.

*  Comfortable shoes.  You’ll walk more than you usually do.  This applies to business travelers as well as tourists.

*  Plenty of solid deodorant.  Westerners often don’t smell good to Japanese (many contend to the comparatively high amount of meat in the typical Western diet).  And most of Japan’s extremely hot and muggy in the summer.

*  Patience and open-mindedness.

Intracountry travelers. Shinagawa Prince Hotel. Tokyo. 2010.

  1. Thanks for your great overview. Personally I stress two points: Enough business cards and cash. I cannot remember how many times foreign business visitors run out of both. Not every hotel allows money exchange. Further not having a business card to exchange can make the start of a business meeting rather difficult.

    All the best from the very hot & humid Tokyo,

    Sibylle Ito

      • letsjapan
      • July 11th, 2011

      Dear Sibyll,

      Thanks and excellent, fundamental advice. I didn’t want to get into the money thing because (1) it’s different for different people and (2) it’s a LOT better and easier to get cash with the ATMs, and more places taking Visa, than it was just 10 years ago (let alone 20!). Oh how I remember the days of getting the stacks of travelers checks signed, then countersigning them over the course of a trip, hoping to catch an open bank (good luck!), etc. I still carry travelers checks and get them cashed at Narita/Kanku, and maybe at this or that hotel or bank mid-trip; I just don’t carry as many/much as I used to.


  2. Here’s one travel tip that “used to” work for me, one that you might or might not want to consider adding to your list (depending on the prohibitive airline baggage fees and carry-on baggage rules):

    Take an empty light-weight sports duffle bag that you can flatten and pack it in with your luggage. Once you reach your destination, you can use it to accumulate all the gifts and nick-knacks in it. That way on your return journey, you don’t mash ’em up with your clothes and stuff; might be able to bring it on board as carry-on; will have an exact dollar/yen value to the items….in the event the airline loses it, etc, etc. This method used to work brilliantly for me when I traveled to the “third-world”, where things used to be so much cheaper than they are State-side. Might not work for your travel to and from the first-world. Good luck and happy travels!

      • letsjapan
      • July 13th, 2011


      Great advice and, in fact, I’ve done that, too. Or I’ve bought a little duffel bag at my destination to use as either a return-trip carry on or as another checked back. In fact, right now I’m in South Ala visiting family and the bag I’m using right now, a medium-sized duffel bag, is one I bought for next to nothing at a small, dusty, very informal shop in the heart of Colaba, Mumbai, in spring of 2008, a 5 min walk from the Taj Hotel and the Gateway of India!

      Anyway, thanks for the advice.


  3. Really good post Richard. I loved this one:

    Don’t – . . . use idioms if at all possible. While it’s true that you can lead a horse to water but can’t make it drink and that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, translating these into Japanese, or finding the idiomatic equivalent is not worth the trouble.

    So true! Talk about digging a hole for yourself if you try!

      • letsjapan
      • July 13th, 2011

      Heh heh, you’ve lived the life, Honor. You know of what I speak!

      All kind things…


    • paige
    • July 14th, 2011

    I have so many quirky tips, but one of my favorites–carry an empty water bottle on the plane — any open drink can then be poured in without having to keep your tray down if you want to sleep, etc. Okay, on…e other. When flying, drinking electrolytes is better than water — after going through security, pick up a sports drink or bring sports drink powder in case there is a security confiscate.

      • letsjapan
      • July 14th, 2011

      Thanks, Paige!

      One of the things I like about the Comments section of this site is that for posts like these they allow other experienced (even much more experienced than me!) Japan residents, whether current or former, to add to, to supplement, whatever I write or try to elucidate. Anyway, it makes the post in-its-entirety richer and more comprehensive.

      So, again, thank you and いつもどうもありがとうございました。


    • Scott
    • July 15th, 2011

    Good advice, you cover a few things that aren’t mentioned in the usual Japan guides, especially the comfortable shoes part. I can relate to this from personal experience. My first ever visit to Japan was a week long business trip in Tokyo, with pair of recently purchased smart shoes – bad idea! They cut my feet up so badly, and since as a first timer in Tokyo I spent a lot of time walking around lost. Make sure your business shoes are comfortable and broken in before you go.

    If I may add my own additional tip it would be Do – Be observant. Take a moment to observe others and you can quickly learn the correct way to behave or thing to do in any situation.

    • Andrew
    • July 26th, 2011

    Great list of advice for the first timer in Japan. Though I would add somethings about not freaking out when they see their first Japanese toilet (the control panel can be a bit intimidating especially for those who can’t read it), for business men perhaps a quick aside on hostess bar etiquette and/or karaoke, on taxis remind them not to try and close the door either as that breaks a super fragile mechanism which the cabbies are ever so happy to overcharge to replace, a few words on the more exotic Japanese foods (it is not just sushi found on the executives plate in Japan), how to drink responsibly with your Japanese hosts so things don’t get too wild, train etiquette (like don’t talk on your cell phone on the train and don’t mind the salary man with the big book of sketchy porn sitting next to you). All in all though I really like the concise way you put it all together and am sure that the group you will be taking over will be able to use it and will appreciate the heads up. Japan can be a very alien place for someone who has never been there (and in many ways still is for those who have spent years there). This is a very good idea and I am sure it will serve your group well.

    • Andrew
    • July 26th, 2011

    Another tip you may want to share with your group is on the subject of money. Checking with their bank before they leave to see if they can use their card at ATMs in Japan (most will not work, although surprisingly a few banks’ cards actually will these days) and if not that they either bring cash or use the CITI bank locations in there to pull cash (there is one in Shibuya near the 109 and I think Asakusa, or perhaps it was Meguro…in any event easy to google) from a foreign account (also remember that they only allow up to 50,000 yen per day). Things in Japan can be expensive and while credit card acceptance is getting much more common than it used to be it is still problematic enough to pose a problem for travelers there. Also perhaps a reminder that Japan is still a remarkably cash based economy (especially at night spots) so it is important not to assume that you can put the tab at the end of the night on the company card but always carry a cash reserve exceeding what you spend out to be on the safe side. There are a number of very good tips given by the group here, I look forward to seeing what else people add to the list!

  4. 7-11 ATMs work for foreign ATM cards and credit cards. There are now some in subway stations, too – and my local York Mart supermarket (owned by the same company).

    Watch out for ATMs that close from 6pm on Sundays for “maintenance”. 7-11’s (and Shinsei’s) don’t, I do know I sometimes have trouble getting money with my Shinsei card from other systems’ ATMs with on weekends.

    Here are the hours of operation – Visa/Plus is 24 hours, others shut down for a while (less than an hour) around midnight.

    According to Japan Guide, other convenience stores’ ATMs don’t accept foreign cards. There are links to the stores’ websites on that page so you can check them if necessary.

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