JA Connection logo. Customs, Culture, and Etiquette

When Meeting People


As we all know, Japanese bow when greeting each other. The Japanese people are becoming more Westernized and bowing is being replaced with handshaking. It has been suggested by some that foreigners should not attempt to bow because we look silly and usually do it incorrectly.

If you want to bow, here are some pointers on how to do it.

First, you must determine how far you are going to bend based on your status level compared with the person you are bowing to. The deeper you bend, the more respect you have for the other person. You do not need to necessarily bend way over, just bend deeper then the other person. If you rank yourself higher than the other person, do not bend deeper than they do.

If you watch Japanese bowing to each other, you may see them continuously bowing because they need to correct the depth of their bow. Sometimes you will see very old women almost bowing completely over as a humble sign of respect for the other person. Then the other person will do the same and things will continue from there. Sometimes it can be amusing to watch. Just watching how Japanese bow first before trying it yourself is a good idea. Get a feel for how it is done.

Here is how it is done.
1. Place your arms straight down at your sides with your hands flat against your legs.
2. Now bend from the hips keeping your back as straight as possible.

It has been said that bowing is bad for your hips because the way it is performed. This may be true and perhaps there are many Japanese people with bad hips but this comes after many years of bowing.

What to Say

When meeting people for the very first time, it is common to say, "Hajimemashite" which translates to "Nice to meet you."

On a more humble note you can say, "Hajimemashite, dozo yoroshiku." which means "Nice to meet you, please give me your regards."

You would then want to follow up with your name. So it would go something like this, "Hajimemashite, John desu."

Business Cards

When presenting your business card you should typically hold it with two hands so that the recipient can read the card as you are presenting it.

You can then say, "Meishi o dozo." which means "Please take my business card." or yet more simply, "My card."

When you receive another person's business card you should take a couple of seconds to look at it. Do not just shove it in your pocket without looking at it and especially never put a business card in your wallet and then sit on it. All of that is considered disrespectful.

I suggest leaving the person's business card neatly on the table (if you are in a meeting) this way you can always refer back to it quickly for the person's name. Japanese names are not easy for foreigners to remember unless they have much experience in speaking or dealing with Japanese people.

If you are not in a place where you can set the card down neatly, simply place it in the breast pocket of your shirt or another safe place.

Business cards are very important in Japan. They can also be very powerful. If you are going to meet a very important client and you did not have an appointment, you may be able to get in if you already have the person's business card. If you have the person's business card already it means that you have met the person before and thus it may be OK to see him again.

Business cards are not given out as freely as they are in America.

Another powerful example is a case I know of where a foreigner was with a very high ranked executive and they were out drinking. When it came time to return to his hotel, the subways were closed and the foreigner did not know how to return nor did he have enough money for a taxi. The executive simply signed his name on the back of his own business card and gave it to the foreigner. What the foreigner then did was take a taxi back to his hotel and simply presented the business card as payment for the fare! The taxi company would then present the business card back to the executive's company with the fare noted and payment would then be made.

Addressing People

When addressing people you always add "san" to the end of their name. It basically translates to "Mr.", "Mrs.", "Ms.", or "Miss." You never add "san" to your own name.

Typically Japanese call each other by their family name. Their given or first name is reserved for family or close friends. Again, Japanese people are becomming more Westernized and use of their given name is becoming more common. Another trend with Japanese that deal with foreigners a lot is to take a foreigner name as a nickname.

In the Home

Some older Japanese homes do not have doorbells. Thus when arriving at someones home you may have to slide open the door yourself instead of knocking and waiting outside.

While you are opening the door and entering you should say in a loud voice, "Gomen kudasai." This roughly translates to "Please excuse me, is anyone home?"

The entry to the Japanese home always has an area called a "genkan" for taking off your shoes. Japanese people never wear their street shoes in their home. They are removed and replaced with slippers. Each family has a supply of slippers for family and guest use.


Something to Never Do

First of all, something to never do is to stick your chopsticks ("hashi") in your bowl of rice and leave them there. It may seem like a great place to keep your "hashi" if you need to leave the table for a second or two but it is a very big no no.

It is common after a death in the family or on the anniversary of a death to set out a bowl of rice for the departed loved one. A pair of "hashi" are then placed into the rice as a sign meaning we are waiting for your return.

Be sure to never do this as it can be a very sensitive area.

Other Do's and Don't's

It is OK to make slurping noices when eating your japanese noodles. Actually it is expected. Most foreigners are taught to eat quietly and find it difficult to break from this. However, after a while you learn to start sucking in the noodles as the Japanese do.

Some Japanese meals are typically of a sharing nature, meaning that each person does not necessarily have their own designated meal. You may be taking a little food from the serving plates and placing it in your own small bowl or plate. If you need to take food from the serving plates with your own "hashi", you should turn the "hashi" around and pick-up the food using the end that was not just in your mouth.

Taking a Bath

Japanese bathrooms never have a toilet in the same room as in many Western homes. This is because the Japanese bath is not like the Western bathtubs. The Japanese bath has a shower and a bathtub in the same room. However the shower is the room itself and the floor has a drain.

First you clean off using the shower. Then making sure all the soap is rinsed from your hair and body, you then enter the bath.

The bath is simply a place to soak for a while. It is filled with very hot water, much hotter than foreigners are acustomed to. The bath is a place to relax after a long hard day of work.

Be sure that you have cleaned and rinsed yourself very well before getting in the bath because the bath water is used by everyone in the family. When you are done with the bath, you should replace the cover in order to conserve energy and preserve the heat for the next person.

Depending on the number of people in the family and the time of year, the water in a Japanese bath is changed once every one to two days.


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