Cultural faux pax in Japan

bowingThe traditional Japanese greeting is the bow. The way you bow depends on your status in relation to the person you’re meeting – generally the higher their status, the lower you bow. Foreigners are not expected to know all the subtleties of this system, but not bowing at all would be seen as rude.

Japanese business people always exchange business cards (meishi) when meeting for the first time, so make sure you have a plentiful supply when doing business in Japan or with Japanese people elsewhere. It’s polite to give your business cards to people using both hands, and to examine their cards carefully. Treating business cards with disrespect by stuffing them in your pocket, making notes or doodling on them, or even using them to pick your teeth is a major faux pas.

In Japan people are reluctant to say no or to admit that they don’t know something. Instead they will say things like “That would be difficult” or “We will have to consider that”. The Japanese word hai, which may be translated as “yes” in your phrasebook, actually means “that is correct” so don’t assume that people are agreeing with you by saying hai. It is also used to show that people are listening to you while you’re talking, which can be off-putting if you’re not used to it. They’re not trying to interrupt you.

If you visit a Japanese home or a traditional inn, you should take your shoes off and wear slippers inside. There’s usually a separate pair of slippers for use in the bathroom which should not be worn elsewhere.

You usually have a wash before getting into a Japanese bath, which is a place to relax, and make sure you don’t get soap in the bath water.

When eating out with Japanese people the host usually pays, though other members of the group will try to do so. You pour drinks for other people, not for yourself. If you don’t drink alcohol, you can avoid seeming antisocial by keeping everyone else’s glass filled and saying kyokai (church) when people try to fill yours.

If you meet Japanese people who speak English well, it’s best to speak English with them even if your Japanese is fluent, unless they invite you to speak Japanese.