5 secrets of Japanese business cards etiquette and meetings

busines card

It will be nearly 6 years that I am living and working in Japan. For some is short time, for others long. But I think it is just enough to evaluate the first experiences and observations. Although I think I have quite an extensive international business knowledge and experience – Japan is my 7th country I am living in, there is no other country that I have made as many mistakes as in Japan! Before moving from Europe to the other side of the world, I have refreshed my knowledge about cultural diversity, business manners and all possible things you need to know about Japan and Asia.

Now, after those few years, I can say that most of the things I have learned about Japan were a huge generalization. Don’t get me wrong! I am not saying that all of that was a lie. I would rather say that life hardly ever goes in line with theory.

One of the BIG things in Japanese business is business cards etiquette. I have heard so many tips and advice from my colleagues how should I do such a simple thing as handling my business cards – they even wanted me to practice this ceremony! They made such a big deal of it, that before my first meeting I got so stressed that I couldn’t take out my card from the card case. And actually it was a quite good lesson too, but about this later.

I think the problem is that as foreigners we are so overwhelmed with all cultural customs we are told to remember, that we are forgetting that on the other side there are also people. People very much like to us. And if there are already meeting with us, it means that they are aware of cultural differences and they will not expect you to be perfectly “Japanese”. But of course you will be given an extra credit if you will try… and be successful in it.

However, if you already here, there are a few things that you actually should know and should makes you look better in a front of your Japanese counterpart. So let’s start!

1. Have your business card translated to Japanese

Although some Japanese business people speak English, it is always easier to read in your own alphabet. So if only you have a chance, try to translate at least your name and position into Katakana. Remember that Japan has a hierarchical culture, so it is very important, that your counterpart will understand your position in the company.

2. Have a nice card case

People judge you as they see you. Japanese are very much detail oriented and they do pay attention to the aesthetics – though looking at most of the salaryman I would question that. When you are handling your cards you keep a card case under your business card, so if it is dirty or old, it is visible and might not give a positive picture of you.

3. How to do this

Just handling is not that difficult. Depending on how “Japanese” you want to go, it gets more difficult. And to make you feel better, even Japanese are getting confused sometimes.

First, make sure, you can easily take the card of your case. Look at my example above. Sometimes cards stack and trust me, you don’t want to make everyone waiting just for you… Usually slip out the top 3 cards, so it would be easy to reach them.

You hold your card in both hands, with Japanese side top, turned front to your speaker.

Simple, right?

But now it gets more complicated. Who goes first? On what level do you keep the card? Above or under your counterpart’s card? To do it correctly you need to know in advance who you are meeting.

  • The senior (highest ranking) people exchange cards first. The same goes for the visitors
  • Lower level person will place the card lower than the one with a higher rank. If you are unsure of the positions, eventually you can do it on the same level.
  • Usually the visitor will introduce themselves first or the lower ranking person.
  • After the self-introduction bow slightly. But remember it is not a Hollywood movie. Do not bow to your knees! Try to do something like 15 degree.
  • Rather try not to turn back to your partners. If you need, try to go backward.

4. Take your sit… carefully

You did it! Well done! And now what? You need to take place around the table. And honestly speaking this is another splinter in the finger. You are lucky if you entering the room with your host as they will most probably show you your sit. However what to do if you are asked to wait in the room for your host?

The easy rule is…

  • Host always sits close to the door, visitor will face the door.
  • The senior person will sit in the middle of the table in the front of the other senior counterpart. Eventually the highest ranking person will take the head of the table.
  • The higher ranking people will sit closest to the highest ranking person, and the rank will decrease as you travel toward the opposite side of the table.
  • You should not sit before you are asked to do so.

5. All the cards on the table!

You are almost there! You exchanged the business cars, you introduced yourself and you found your place around the table. Is it all? Can you just get down to your meeting? Nearly! As the last thing, remember to place the business cards you have just received in the front of you on the table. Place them in the sitting order. It will also help you to know, who you are speaking to. Do not write on them, do not fold them, do not put them into your packets. Though honestly speaking, I have never ever experienced that in any country, but let’s say it just in case…

So is it really so difficult? Hmm no, not really, though I must admit you need some practice with it. And if you really what to do your best… learn how to introduce yourself in Japanese. Those are just 3-4 sentences, but they can help you impress your business counterpart if you wish.

A story to share

Once I was attending the business meeting between American Congressman and his people and Japanese Corporation. I was very much impressed how much time my Japanese colleagues spend preparing to this meeting including practicing (!!) the whole process. The practice included meeting guests in the front of the building, going to the VIP elevator – and since the elevator was too small to handle everyone they had to solve the problem of how the rest of the people will appear at the same time in the front of VIP elevator when guest will reach the desired floor. Also entering the room, sitting and gifts giving was practiced. Full perfection! Well, almost 😉

During the Japanese business meeting, most probably you will be offered a green tea. I think in almost 95% of the business meetings I was attending, the tea was served in a plastic cup, which really surprises me, knowing about the Japanese tea ceremony and its etiquette. But well… nothing is perfect 😉

Some tips for Japanese

Above I listed few tips for foreigners willing to do business in Japan. But very often we forget that Japanese also need some tips how to deal with us.

1. Do not underestimate us

I have observed quite a few times, that Japanese have a tendency to underestimate us, foreigners in terms of knowledge about Japanese culture, at the same time not paying too much attention to your culture.

If you know you are meeting with a foreigner try to discover a little bit about his country prior to the meeting. We also would like to know that you are serious about us and our business.

2. Do not treat us with less respect that you are treating your Japanese counterpart

Once, I was attending a business event in Japan. A gentleman made his business cards especially for this event. I was just leaving the event together with my colleagues, already with my coat in hand, when he approached me. He introduced himself briefly handling me his business card. The way he did it, was nothing like described above. Though I didn’t mind that part. What almost offended me, was that in the middle of my sentenced he noticed my colleagues and turned to them saying “Oh please take my name card (Japanese-English expression), as I am going to through them out anyway.” And he pushed his card into everyone’s hand. Trust me, it did not leave a good impression on us what so ever!

What is the most important take out from this post is…

Remember, life is not black and while. Do what your instincts tell you. Observe and act accordingly. And remember we are all just humans!

How was your first exchange of business cards in Japan? Do you think it is difficult? Do you have any stories to share?

Ganbatte! 頑張って!

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