Your Japanese Business Card

The exchange of business cards, meishi, is an essential part of Japanese business etiquette. After a person has introduced him/herself and bowed, the business card ceremony begins. You should be aware of Japanese Business Card Etiquette.

Offer the card with the Japanese side facing upwards toward the recipient. Offering the card with both hands will demonstrate greater respect. If there are several Japanese, you will find that cards are presented according to rank, with the highest ranking individual presenting his card last.

The Japanese expect you to take the time to carefully read and memorize all pertinent information. Business cards are considered an extension of the individual - not just a tool to help you find somebody after you have met them.

Below are several common errors which should be avoided when exchanging cards:

  • Do not stuff the card into your pocket like a Kleenex. That would be considered extremely rude. Take your time to read it and then put it into a business card holder.
  • Do not make notes in blank areas of the card
  • Do not bend or damage the business card in front of its owner. This is considered a direct insult.
  • The card should not be cribbed to reconfirm the owner's name. This is considered extremely poor etiquette.
  • There is no excuse for running out of business cards on a trip to Japan. Keep in mind that you may have to hand out as many as 40 or 50 cards at a larger meeting - and you may also have to give your card twice to the same person - for the sake of etiquette.
  • Do not carry your cards loosely in a pocket. Carry them in a distinctive business card case.

Initially, the card will announce your identity and corporate affiliation. In fact, business cards offer their owner such a degree of credibility that government officials will often sign their name and the date on the back of the card to guard against fraud. (However, it is considered bad etiquette to write on a business card in front of a Japanese person).

The card serves the important purpose of identifying your position within the corporate hierarchy.

Translation of Business Cards into Japanese

Japanese and American companies are not structured the same way. Accordingly, it is impossible to find a precise equivalent for an English title in Japanese. An accurate translation will take into account the actual functions of the position as well as the relation of that position to others in the organization. This information is essential for the Japanese so they can feel that they are treating you with due respect.

The Japanese characters will enable your host to pronounce your name correctly and will also demonstrate your appreciation of this important custom. The Katakana writing system has become standard usage in Japan for foreign language business cards. Foreign names and addresses have to be transliterated into Katakana's phonetic symbols. And today, where the English language and English titles are quite well understood by most Japanese in a business setting, it may be advisable to simply transliterate titles like "Vice President," rather than trying to find an equivalent that does not exist in the Japanese corporate structure. If the meaning of the title can be translated, it is preferable. However, it rarely works to translate just the words - the meaning and status of a title will undoubtedly get lost. This is where a highly skilled and culturally aware translator can make a significant difference.

The Japanese Writing System

There are three types of characters which are used in written Japanese:

  • Kanji - Imported from China around 600 A.D., these intricately ornate pictographs represent words or parts of words. There are over 2,000 different kanji characters commonly used in Japan.
  • Hiragana - The complexity of the system led to the development of auxiliary phonetic symbols known as hiragana. Today, hiragana are used for grammatical word endings and for words of purely Japanese origin.
  • Katakana - These phonetic symbols were developed by Buddhist priests in the ninth century. Katakana is primarily utilized for writing foreign loanwords, most of which are English. Katakana has become the standard character system used for foreign business cards that are translated or transliterated into Japanese.

Formatting of the Japanese Business Card

Traditionally, the vertical set-up was used for Japanese business cards. The horizontal layout has become the norm. Addresses are in a different order than in English. The country appears first, then the state, the city with the zip code in front, then the street address.

Some General Tips on Japanese Business Etiquette

  • The Japanese believe that surface harmony must be maintained at all costs. This will explain frequent confusion when Japanese business people do not raise objections at meetings.
  • In situations of conflict, the Japanese will try to "save face" for themselves and, often, for their adversaries as well. Open confrontation and discussion of opposing opinions are not appropriate and are perceived as a Western misdemeanor.
  • Japanese behavior is often motivated by a strong sense of obligation - especially to the firm.
  • The Japanese society is very homogenous with most people sharing the same background and habits. Non-verbal signals are strong and often escape a non-Japanese person completely. Non-verbal signals are also a potential source for terrible faux pas. Study at least the most important ones prior to a trip.
  • Cooperation and the group are more important than individual action, authority, or initiative. Individual initiative is rare. This means that a presenter should address the group as a whole and not single out individuals as is common practice in Western cultures. This can be perceived as threatening.

Courtesy Diana Roland
Author of Japanese Business Etiquette
President, Rowland & Associates, Inc.

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