So You’re Going to Japan…
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 . . .
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.