Learning the Japanese Culture
As the CEO of a multicultural company, I enjoy travelling the world, immersing myself in different cultures and truly understanding what makes them unique. I recently travelled to Japan for an industry conference, and I want to give you a glimpse of what I learned about this fascinating country.
Because English is commonly spoken in Japan, you can find a local (usually a businessperson) to help with basic translations on just about every corner. You can also use Google or Microsoft translator for your basic street communication.
For business matters, you can hire a professional Japanese translator or interpreter. Or, you can connect to a telephonic interpretation service for more complex communications. If your host provides an interpreter, beware! They could be spying on your private conversations and not necessarily translating in your favor. Make sure your translator or interpreter is neutral, especially when having conversations about legal or contractual matters.
Business etiquette is very important in the Japanese culture. For example, did you know that the Japanese keep their hands under the table during a business meeting or job interview? Or that emotions and random topics are not appropriate during business conversations?
When it comes to exchanging business cards, you should hold your business card with both hands. Place both thumbs at the lower corners of your card. If you’re offering the business card, you should bow slightly as a sign of respect. You can also expect a bow as an expression of thanks when a credit card is handed back to you.
Also, it is a nice gesture to present well-wrapped souvenirs for key stakeholders of your business meetings. No detail is too small. Careful attention is paid to the appearance of gifts, meals, bathrooms and overall comfort.
The Japanese public infrastructure is beyond compare. Major freeways are complicated tunnels under downtown Tokyo. Taxi drivers have white gloves, spotless uniforms, synchronized meters, credit cards machines, GPS devices and video cameras. And, bullet trains efficiently transport thousands of people daily.
Taxi drivers operate under highly ethical guidelines. In fact, Uber fans will be disappointed to discover the service is banned in Japan. It is considered illegal because drivers don’t have taxi licenses.
Because taxi drivers are not fluent English speakers, be ready to hand them a piece of paper with your destination address in Japanese. Or, get a local to explain your destination.
If you’re travelling by train, you’ll find courteous and helpful staff at the terminals, as well as Japanese professionals who speak English fluently. They will go above and beyond to help you.
The train stations can be an overwhelming experience. They are crowded and your tickets are usually issued close to your departure time, so there is no time to get lost. Some international travelers use a Tokyo Metro app to figure out the elaborate transportation network.
Don’t be surprised by the “women only” wagons that ensure women’s travel safety. Being a naive and curious westerner, I chose to enjoy my ride with the male Japanese travelers.
Japanese people are very helpful and will go above and beyond to help. For example, at the train station, we asked a group of Japanese businessmen if we were at the right terminal. When they realized we weren’t, they left their terminal and ran with us to the right gate. Overall, people are respectful and there is no pushing or shoving.
The Japanese are extremely process-oriented and are well prepared for just about any situation. For example:
» Umbrellas are perfectly placed outside hotels in case it rains.
»Train station personnel have handouts with instructions to common questions.
» Taxi drivers have benches and lots of tools for special requirements during trips.
» Taxi doors open automatically, but only after you pay. Typically only the door on the right side of the taxi opens because it is dangerous to exit from the left side.
Ensuring health safety
Why do so many Japanese wear surgical masks? Based on a conversation I had with a local Japanese resident, they are common because areas are crowded and diseases can be transmitted easily. People who are sick try to avoid infecting others. Seasonal allergies are also a major concern.
The air in Japan is very clean, unlike in India and China. Japanese go the extra mile to make sure they are protected. In fact, hotels and taxis use air purifiers. However, I was surprised that public restrooms do not have hand soap to stop the spread of E. coli or other easily spread germs.
Another interesting fact is that after the 1995 poison attacks by the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult, Japan no longer has trash cans in public areas. Japanese carry their trash and dispose of it at their home or office.
Japan is perhaps the cleanest country in the world. In restaurants, you’re expected to clean your table. The streets are also impeccable – no potholes or trash can be seen anywhere. I wonder what Japanese people think when they visit U.S. cities like New York, which are riddled with potholes and trash.
Minding Your Manners
A rule of etiquette in Japan is not to tip for service. Your credit card receipt does not have room for tips and restaurants do not require them. Why? The Japanese pride themselves in their work and don’t expect a tip for something they are expected to do well. That is why you find so many stores selling candy and flower arrangements. People trade a lot of souvenirs. For instance, I went to a small Japanese restaurant and tried to tip the woman. She not only returned our tip, but also gave us candy to show how much she appreciated our gesture. The only people who accepted a tip was a tour guide and the bus driver.
Japanese people are soft spoken and quiet. Even though Japanese are extremely hospitable, their emotions are well controlled. My Latina emotional range would need to be tamed if I moved to Japan.
Bowing is also part of the culture. The proper way to bow is with the back perfectly straight and the hands at the sides for males or clasped in the lap for females. Longer and deeper bows signify the level of respect. You’re expected to bow to people who rank higher than you. At the table, the person with the highest rank sits at the head of the table. So, if you’re traveling to Japan for business reasons, I highly encourage you to research and fully understand the nuances of this business protocol.
Dressing to Impress
Japanese people like to dress with expensive wool suits. Women commonly wear pants or skirts with a nice wool jacket. The predominant color is either black or dark navy in the business world. Japanese businessmen are very conservative. Formal business wear is the key. Shoes are perfectly polished and women don’t typically wear high heels. Women’s dress typically consists of dark pantyhose, flat shoes or shoes with 1 to 2 inch heels.
The food portions are extremely small and nothing like our Texas-sized meals. Reservations are highly encouraged in advance by many restaurants and walk-ins are not appreciated. And, sugar lovers will be disappointed to discover that sugar substitutes are limited to Sweet and Low.
Bathrooms Japanese Style
Squat toilets are common in Japan. Imagine a toilet in the ground with bars attached to the wall to hold onto. These squat toilets are not easy to get used to. I remember being in India with a traditional Indian dress and it was a big challenge trying to manage the tail of my long dress while trying to aim correctly at the hole. Add a pair of high heels and a long dress, and it becomes a huge challenge.
During my stay in Japan, I learned that the Japanese toilet industry is very sophisticated. Companies such as Toto Ltd. and Panasonic manufacture toilet seats that go on top of western toilets and are accessorized with music and relaxing sounds, deodorizers, bidets with different pressured sprays, and even heated toilet seats with a remote control. Prices for these sophisticated seats start at $1,000.
I enjoy traveling around the world and learning about different cultures. An important part of translating is not only knowing the language, but also understanding how the native speakers think and what they believe. My trip to Japan accomplished that, and so much more.