The corporate culture at RocketNews24 is pretty casual, but before I joined the team I spent several years working in the service and hospitality sectors. As a country that takes both work and etiquette very seriously, it’s probably not a surprise that Japanese business etiquette has a detailed code of proper conduct, all in an effort to foster an atmosphere of mutual respect and smooth cooperation.
Still, even for some people born and raised in Japan, the list of dos and don’ts can feel a little too long, and those who’d rather not have to stand on ceremony compiled a list of their own of the top 10 Japanese business manners young adults could do without.
Men’s interest internet portal Web R25 conducted a poll of 200 males between the ages of 20 and 39, presenting them with a list of 12 points of traditional Japanese professional etiquette and asking them to choose the three they found the least necessary. Each respondent’s number one pick was given three points, while his number two and three choices received two points and one point, respectively. When all the scores were tallied, the result was the list below.
10. When visiting someone else’s office, having to wait until the host says “Please, have a seat,” before sitting down (46 points)
Actually, that sort of seems like common courtesy, regardless of whether you’re a visitor to someone’s workplace or a guest in his house.
8 (tie). Seating higher ranking and lower ranking participants in a meeting in the proper positions (55 points)
This complaint about seats, though, is a little easier to understand. Japanese society is often concerned with relative status in social relationships. Obviously, higher-ranking employees are considered higher status, but so are guests, those with more experience, and those who are simply older. The above diagram shows the proper place for each one to sit (with the entrance at the bottom left and “1W being the person with the highest status), but there are different rules for different room layouts, as well as trains and taxis.
Having to calculate whether Mr. Tanaka has the third or fourth highest status in the group, and thereby where he should sit, is one headache many young workers could do without.
8 (tie). Taking off your coat before entering the building of the office you’re visiting (55 points)
If you’re conducting business in the colder part of the year, orthodox manners dictate taking off your coat (but not your suit jacket) and folding it over your arm before entering the building, rather than stopping inside the lobby and blocking the way of employees and other guests.
7. Formal greetings and closings for business correspondence (71 points)
For personal letters in Japan, you can start with he/”to” and finish just as simply with yori/”from.” For business, though, old-school logic says you’ll need to bust out the decidedly musty haike/”Dear Sir or Madam” and keigu/”with humble regards,” as well as a handful of other traditional phrases.
6. Getting onto the elevator in the proper order (98 points)
At first, this might seem like it’s as tricky as the seating arrangement issue, but in practice, it’s so largely based on common sense that it’s sort of surprising it finished in sixth place. People of higher status (which includes guests) get on first, which seems pretty natural, in that it’s polite to let other go before yourself. The lowest ranking person gets on last, an takes up a position near the control panel to press the buttons or hold the door open.
5. Knocking three times on the door before entering a room (113 points)
No one is saying they should be allowed to just barge in without knocking, but it’s the three times that respondents seem to think is unnecessary. Just a single knock feels a bit too authoritative, though (more “I’m coming in!” than “May I come in?”), and four could be a little excessive in some people’s opinion.
But why three instead of two? Apparently traditional etiquette holds that two knocks is for checking if a bathroom stall is occupied. We’re not sure if the reduced count is because time is of the essence in that situation, but nevertheless, the survey respondents seemed to think that even if they only knock twice before entering a meeting room, it’s unreasonable for others to think they’re announcing a desire to poop on the conference table.
4. After exchanging business cards, leaving your counterpart’s card on the desk instead of putting it away immediately (134 points)
Japanese business cards have their own whole system of etiquette. One of the trickiest points is that after receiving someone’s card, you shouldn’t be too quick to tuck it into your card holder or briefcase, because that would show that you’re brushing aside that person’s identity instead of giving it the respect it deserves.
On the other hand, leaving the card sitting on the table for the whole meeting is also rude, as it implies you’ve forgotten about the card entirely. As such, it’s important to put the card away before the meeting starts winding down, and a common piece of advice seems to be to match your timing to that of your counterpart, which becomes a pretty useless strategy when he’s doing the same thing.
My advice? Leave the card until the meeting gets going in earnest, then deftly slide it into your holder while everyone else is looking at documents, writing notes, or distracted by your pointing and shouting, “Look, there’s a bear stealing copy toner!”
3. When being served tea while visiting someone’s office, having to wait until they take a sip before you do too (148 points)
Upon arriving at a client’s office, you’ll likely be served a cup of green tea. As a matter of fact, serving tea to visitors is a common task for lower-ranking employees in companies without dedicated receptionists.
But while it’s a nice touch of hospitality, gulping the tea down as soon as it’s placed before you makes it seem like you’re more concerned with the free drink than your counterpart’s business or the subject you’ve come to discuss, so it’s customary to wait until he takes a sip before bringing your own cup to your lips. In the meantime, you can bolster you patience be bearing in mind that Japanese tea is often served scalding hot, so you probably wouldn’t be able to drink it right away without burning your tongue anyway.
2. When exchanging business cards, placing your own card below your counterpart’s (203 points)
Again, the logic behind this rule isn’t too hard to follow, since placing your card above your client’s, and thus blocking it out of your line of sight, does make it seem like his card isn’t important to you. But what happens when both of you are committed to putting your card on the bottom? You end up with an impromptu business card limbo competition.
1. When seeing a client off, having to keep bowing until the elevator doors close completely (220 points)
As we’ve talked about before, at classier stores in Japan, it’s common for the staff to walk customers out after ringing up their purchase. There’s a similar custom at place in business-to-business situations, but if your office is on, say, the 15th floor of a skyscraper, you’ll accompany your visitor to the elevator instead of the front door.
Rather than just leave him standing there alone, you’re supposed to wait until the elevator comes before saying good-bye, which ends with a deep, respectful bow. But since you want that to be the final impression you leave your client with, you have to keep bowing until he boards the elevator and the doors close.
Again, the logic behind doing things this way is pretty sound, but the problem is judging exactly when to go into the bow. Too late, and you won’t achieve the proper angle at the hips to convey the appropriate respect. Too soon, and you’re left in an uncomfortable posture while your counterpart gets an awkwardly long view of the top of your head.
After a while on the job, most people eventually get the timing down, but until they do, this bit of Japanese business etiquette can be a pain in the neck, as well as the lower back.