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How to properly handle a business card in Japan

Business cards in a Japanese context are important. Bring them. Receive them. Respect them.

Going to do business with a Japanese person? Learn how to handle business cards and how to follow business card etiquette.

Note, Japan is changing. Some companies are adopting Western business mannerisms, and Japanese who are overseas may take the “when in Rome” approach. Therefore some of these tips will not apply all of the time. However, those are still the rare exceptions. Most Japanese businesses and businessmen are traditional. Until you know who you are dealing with it is best to keep these tips in mind when doing business in Japan or with Japanese people.

The No Punches Pulled Executive Summary
When in Japan for business be sure to have plenty of business cards with you and store them in a business card case. When you receive someone’s business card treat it with the same respect you would treat one of that person’s treasured possessions that they have just handed you. Carefully watch what the other person does with your card for cultural cues on how you should handle theirs. It is possible to not only ruin a first impression, but also to personally offend someone by mishandling their business card.

View over Osaka from the top of Umeda Sky Building.
View over Osaka – Imagine the number of business card exchanges!

Seniority Matters, Learn the Dance
When you walk into a meeting in Japan with Japanese people normally everyone will stand up to exchange pleasantries and business cards. Normally it is expected that the highest ranking people from each party will exchange cards together first after being briefly introduced by a lower ranking person from the visitors group who already knows the hosts.

For example, say you are the highest ranking manager on a work trip and are visiting a new customer in Japan. You are accompanied by a lower ranking coworker who knows Japan and who perhaps was in charge of setting up the meeting so was in touch with the customer before your visit. When you enter the room, your coworker will try to identify the highest ranking counterpart on the customer side, and there will likely be a lower ranking person on the customer side doing the same thing in regards to your group. Once they have figured it out, which only takes a few seconds, someone will introduce you to the highest ranking person on their side and you will exchange business cards. Then, the number two person on your side will exchange with the same highest ranking customer, and so on, until everyone has been introduced to the highest ranking person. From there things often get a bit random until everyone in the room has exchanged cards.

Thanks for the free image @reshot_hq!

What I am I supposed to do with this card?
I was once with some Americans who had come to Japan for work and I was their host. I took them out to a fancy dinner at a place that I frequented and near the end of the meal the owner and chef came around to say hello and introduce themselves. This was in a part of Japan that doesn’t get many foreign guests, so the fact that I had brought other foreign friends in was sort of a big deal. Greetings and bows were exchanged, and of course, so were business cards. After we left the restaurant my friend looked at me incredulously and laughed, “What are you going to do with the chef’s business card?!” It was clear that he would never need to call or email the chef, he already had the shops card, he couldn’t speak Japanese and the chef didn’t speak English, so what’s the point?

Pragmatically there may not be a point. It’s a piece of paper that has someones name and contact information on it. You already have the same information in an email signature in many cases. However, in Japanese society, a meeting with someone in a professional environment is simply not complete without a business card exchange. One is expected to take that business card and use it to remember the person that you met.

The Second Meeting (Or is it the first…?)
You are expected to remember when you have previously received someone’s business card. One of the many embarrassing things one can do in a business setting with Japanese people is to pull out your business card case and prepare to exchange cards with someone with whom you have already exchanged cards with in the past. Even if you only met the person once in the last 6 months, it is still considered to be an insult if you have forgotten that you have already exchanged cards. It is equivalent to forgetting that you had met the person.

This is how a Japanese counterpart will interpret this unfortunate mistake.

  • They didn’t make an impression on you the first time you met.
  • You made no effort to remember them the first time you met.
  • You must not have spent any time reading their business card, or if it looked like you did, you were faking it.
  • You have forgotten that you had already met.
  • You didn’t remember their name or face.
  • If the person is more senior than you the negative impression will be enhanced.

The only time a Japanese person you have already met will offer you their business card a second time is if something significant on the card has changed. Then, when the cards are exchanged one person will often be heard saying that “oh, nothing has changed at all though, I’m still in the same (low) position.” Or, they will at least say something to indicate that they do in fact remember that you had already exchanged cards, they just wanted to give you another. They will make it clear that they realize you have already exchanged cards.

Pro Tip: If you often find yourself in Japanese-style business settings make a habit of asking your colleagues if there is likely to be anyone in the room you have already met. If there are, remember that, and instead of pulling out a business card greet them with a big smile and ask how they’ve been. You will instantly earn kudos.

Watch and Learn
As is often the case, the best way to figure out how you’re supposed to act is to watch and mimic. If after you exchange business cards if you sit down at a table, note what your counterpart does with the cards they have received.

The most traditional thing to do is to lay all of the cards for the people at the meeting face up on the table in front of you in rank order. This is only done in the most formal settings. It is normally not appropriate to stack all of the cards you have received on top of each other. It may be OK to put the card into your front shirt pocket, but watch what your counterpart does and and follow.

Card Incoming! Now what?

How Should I Receive the Card?The best place to store a business card you have just received is in a front short pocket.

Here’s a random list of things you should NOT do.

  • Don’t let the person see you put a business card you just received into your wallet or a pants pocket. 
  • Don’t spill anything on someones business card. If you do, apologize profusely and ask for another. Do not give the old one back.
  • Don’t hand someone your bent or dirty business card.
  • Don’t fiddle with someone’s business card.
  • Don’t let the person see you put their business card into a stack of other cards on your person.
  • Don’t let the person see you write on their business card.
  • Don’t fold business cards.

Business card culture in Japan is deep and has so many rules. Hopefully this article helps. Again, the best thing to do is watch and learn. Don’t do anything you haven’t seen your counterpart already do.

Good luck! Have a great business card life.

If you want to see some videos on business card exchange etiquette in Japan, search for “名刺交換” on YouTube.

This humorously highlights the contrast in Japanese and American card handling etiquette.
This is funny. When you pass the card to someone higher ranking, keep yours lower.
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Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka

I finally made it to Sumiyoshi Taisha after years of visiting Osaka. It was never on my radar as it’s a bit out of the way from the city center, but now that I’ve been there I wish I had gone sooner.

A friend of mine recently moved to the Sumiyoshi Taisha neighborhood, which was my excuse for finally visiting.

Sumiyoshi Taisha is the main shrine of all the Sumiyoshi shrines in Japan. On new years and during festivals the shrine attracts huge crowds. I would love to check it out at that time some day.

There is an iconic taiko bashi bridge that is steep and round. Taiko is Japanese for a round Japanese-style drum, and the bridge is shaped like that, hence the name. The bridge is one of the most memorable locations on the grounds. Grab a photo.

住吉大社 : GFDL,Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.1 Japan License
Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka
Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka
Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka
The grounds are quite large and spacious. Great place to take a walk or wander around.
Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka
Omamori at Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka
Omamori (Good luck charms) left at the temple for luck
Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka

The legend behind the good luck omamori here is unique. You try to find power stones yourself from inside of this stone fence. The stones actually have characters written on them in calligraphy ink. Once you have found a set of three stones with the characters 5 五, large 大, and power 力 (godairiki) written on them, you can bring them and purchase the omamori sack to put them in. Then you hang it up for good luck. Finally, you’re supposed to then write characters on stones yourself, and toss them back in for others to find. Pay it forward!

Sumiyoshi Taisha is on the way to Kansai International Airport. Maybe you can swing by as a last stop on a visit to the Kansai area! Enjoy!

Links:

Shochu Culture with expert Stephen Lyman

Do you want to really geek out on Japanese Shochu? Check out these two videos featuring Stephen Lyman, America’s leading expert on Japan’s national distilled spirit: shochu.

Deep-Swig of Shochu Culture with expert Stephen Lyman
Japan Society NYC – Shochu: Japan’s Best Kept Secret

Shochu is a nice, distinctly Japanese drink. Like whisky, different shochu labels have memorably different tastes and qualities. You can drink shochu on the rocks, split with warm water, with seltzer water, you can even do hot water and put an umeboshi into the glass.

As you’ll learn in Stephen Lyman’s videos, shochu is almost exclusively produced and consumed in Japan. Most shochu is made in Kyushu, and much of it is from relatively small distileries. Exploring the world of shochu might be fun! Give it a shot.

Drinking in general is not good for your health. However, among all the possible alcoholic beverages you can consume, Shochu isn’t the worst. In fact, Stephen documented his weight lost results when switching to a “shochu diet.” Apparently shochu has far fewer calories than other drinks. Another plus of shochu is that it is normally cheaper than whiskey or sake. A nice bottle of shochu, in Japan, will rarely exceed 4000 or 5000 yen. Very good bottles can be had for about 3000 yen. Very reasonable.

Still curious? Need more shochu info?

Interview with Stephen Lyman on Nomunication.jp: https://www.nomunication.jp/2019/06/18/kampai-samurai-stephen-lyman-shochu/

Wondering which Shochu were introduced in Stephen’s (@shochu_danji) interview with @jjwalsh? Here they are!

An Interview with Shing02 about his memories of Nujabes (Seba Jun)

Shing02 : “Nujabes” との出会い 〜”Luv(sic)” 制作背景

One of my all time favorite musicians talking about his memories of one of my all time favorite musicians.

If ya know ya know… Shing02. Nujabes.

Links:
E22: Shing02’s works. Tons of free MP3s, and bilingual lyrics.

Nujabes [Wikipedia]

Nujabes feat. Shing02 – Luv (sic) Parts 1-6

The story of Luv (sic) as written by Shing02 [Reddit].

Another interview where Shing02 introduces himself, and talks about the origin of his stage name, Shing02.

Shing02 : 自己紹介 〜名前の由来

I had never heard of this ニート東京 channel and Instagram @neetTokyo. Def check it out if you’re into Japanese music.

Handa Matsuri 2004

Summer 2004 I went to a pretty interesting Japanese festival called Handa Matsuri. It actually takes place in Kamesaki ( 亀崎). You can get there in about one hour from Nagoya. I have to say I am lacking details on the history of this festival, but that can be found elsewhere.

Handa Matsuri Dashi
The float at Handa Festival in Kamesaki.

During this festival enormous dashi are pulled through the town. Many festivals in Japan use omikoshi, which are like giant portable shrines… dashi are like omikoshi, but they are on wheels and five times as tall. People can ride inside them, and during this festival, each dashi has their own song that was being played on drums and Japanese flutes from the inside. I went to the festival with a Japanese friend who grew up in the area. There were five dashi’s used. I hear that in a larger version of this festival, which only happens once every five years or so, all thirty dashi from around the area are gathered for a special event which takes place in another city. That would be a sight to see!

Handa Matsuri Dashi Close-up
Locals moving the dashi.

My friend told me that the men from the town are usually assigned to one dashi group a very young age. As the boys grow older they will move through different tasks associated with the dashi. The tasks vary between pulling the dashi with ropes, riding inside the dashi and playing an instrument, to pushing the dashi from behind, or controlling the turns. During a festival all of these roles are important for manipulating the Dashi and putting on a good performance. Apparently recently most youth have been picking up and moving to the big cities, so there is a bit of a generation gap forming between the participants (observation from 2004). There also seem to be rules so that only families originally from the town can participate in the dashi related events. Lots of retired gentlemen…

Handa Matsuri Dashi
Handa Matsuri – Not often that you see dashi by the beach.

The main attraction to Handa Matsuri, is that this particular area is the only place in which the dashi are pulled out into the ocean. The final rush down to the water was impressive, as I mentioned, these dashi are huge and the men really got them moving at a good clip. At times it didn’t even look like they would be able to stop them in time. I heard that there have been accidents where one dashi was overturned.

It was a really was a cool festival! If you’re ever in the Aichi prefecture area around golden week, be sure to look it up.