The Japanese are very understanding when foreigners inadvertently trample across social conventions and corporate niceties. But obeying as many of the rules as possible – whether in the boardroom or the bathroom – will go a long way towards impressing hosts or smoothing the passage of a business transaction.
Among the most quintessential of all Japanese pastimes will be a visit to an “onsen,” or hot spring resort, either as part of a holiday or as a gesture from a business colleague after a hard day around the bargaining table.
Japan has elevated taking a bath to a social event. After stripping off in the locker room and concealing one’s modesty behind a towel about the size of a handkerchief, a visitor to an onsen takes a stool before a mirror, tap and array of liquid soaps and shampoos. After a vigorous lather and scrub, often numerous times, one proceeds to a selection of pools. Some are cold, some are hot, some are scalding. Others contain water with minerals that are reputed to ease minor ailments.
Onsen can be outdoors or indoors, up a mountain or overlooking the ocean, private, communal and even – occasionally – mixed. But wherever they are, don’t get soap in the water and keep the water clean for other bathers.
Meanwhile in the world of Japanese business – the motto “Business is war” indicates how seriously they take it – much importance is placed on punctuality and smartness.
It may sound like common sense, but never be late for a meeting, wear a suit with a tie and never forget an ample supply of business cards – handed over and received with both hands, a shallow bow and placed carefully on the table in front of you for the duration of the meeting. It is considered dismissive if a business card is simply tucked away in one’s wallet and put in a back pocket.
Even if the meeting is not going as planned and the deal looks like it is falling apart, resist the temptation to raise your voice. Smile and nod – losing one’s temper is the ultimate loss of face.
Once the working day is done, business is likely to continue more informally in a restaurant and, later, in a bar. Give in gracefully to the requests to perform “Let it be” in the karaoke joint.
The rules for off–duty businesspeople and travellers converge at this point and are likely to start with beer. The key thing to remember here is to not pour from the pitcher for yourself, but to top up the glasses of the rest of the group and then allow one of them to fill your glass.
“Kampai” is the toast to remember – not, remember, chin–chin, which is a Japanese child’s word for a part of the male anatomy.
Once the meal commences, never leave your chopsticks stuck in the food in the bowl as this is a part of the traditional Japanese funeral rites and will elicit horrified looks from all present. I know this from personal past errors.
Staying with chopsticks, do not be surprised at the gasps of admiration for your mastery of these utensils, even if you are in fact wielding them like the conductor of an orchestra. The Japanese tend to go in for flattery of their guests but it’s not insincere in the least.
Try to ignore the loud slurping if you are in a restaurant that is serving ramen noodles as this is the accepted way to eat the dish – and great fun for children who have always been told to never slurp their meals.
Diners will have been required to take their shoes off when entering a Japanese–style restaurant (this is important to remember when entering a Japanese home as well), but never make the error of wearing the plastic slippers that are provided at the threshold of the toilet back to the dinner table. It will only lead to more looks of horror.
One more tip; try not to blow your nose in public: beat a hasty retreat to the toilet.
Visitors to Japan often express concern at the minefield of potential social faux pas that they are stepping into, but the important thing to remember is that a smile, a dip of the head and a contrite “sumimasen” (“sorry”) will smooth over every eventuality.
Edited by : Bill Hurley