Thursday, July 24, 2008

Gentleman in Japan

Japan has a well-deserved reputation of deep traditions and subtle social rules. Westerners on a private or business trip in the country are sometimes petrified by the possibility of committing an unforgivable offense. One should not worry, as Japanese are very tolerant of etiquette mistakes by foreigners. A basic knowledge of Japanese lifestyle will certainly help, but it is not necessary to master every etiquette rule. The most important is to show an open mindset and respect for the people you meet and the customs of your host country.
Manners aim at making social life easier by preventing avoidable personal conflicts and ensuring one does not become a nuisance for others. This starts with a clean body and appropriate appearance. My English teacher gave us a very useful piece of advice before a key oral examination: “take a shower in the morning, and wash your teeth before speaking in front of the jury”. This is especially true in Japan in summer, when the humid heat makes the crowd unbearable. It is also impolite to blow one’s nose in public, so you should head for the restrooms.
Dress should be adapted to the context. This should not be hard as Japanese people mostly wear western clothes. You should just remember that people usually dress-up more than in the west for office work and for ceremonies. A suit and a tie, preferably in plain color, will be perfectly suitable. “Casual Friday” is not enforced everywhere so you should enquire before bringing your jeans to the office. In universities and research labs, you may dress in cotton trousers and a shirt or a polo shirt. Between students or on week-ends, whatever clean clothes will be OK, but you may want to choose plain colours to blend more easily in the crowd.
Good manners start with abiding the rules, which are more seriously enforced than in some western countries. You should abstain from lighting a cigarette in a non smoking area, use your phone in a “silence” zone, cross at red lights or overtake other people while standing in a queue. If your Japanese acquaintances suggest that you respect a custom or a minor rule, you should show your flexibility by apologizing and abiding the rule, without challenging its soundness. By doing this, you will learn more on local customs. If you complain, your Japanese colleague will explain wearily that “This is the way things are done in Japan”, and you will feel uneasy. Abiding the rules is also compulsory in the only activity in daily life when one can kill at all time: driving. The “highway code” is the first book on good manners. You should be aware that in Japan, pedestrians and cyclists share the same space on the pavement. Both should be careful, and pedestrians should avoid sudden change of directions. Punctuality is key to good manners, especially in Japan when no tolerance is made for late arrivals, be it for business or a private appointment. You should build a realistic schedule that will allow you to be always right on time.
In all countries, a gentleman listens carefully. Many westerners have the habit of interrupting their counterparts to show they are smart by making an exciting comment. This is considered extremely bad manners in Japan, and in many other countries, so you should refrain from doing that. If you do not speak Japanese, you should be extremely patient while speaking English, as the locals may not feel comfortable communicating in a foreign language. You should ensure you speak slowly and clearly, while avoiding colloquial expressions that are often hard for foreigners to understand. You’d rather say “Rough estimate” than “Ball-Park figure”. Jokes are often poorly translated, so you should favor easy to-understand humour. Dirty jokes should be avoided at least when everybody is sober and ladies are present. Some foreigners develop an ‘almighty’ feeling in Japan, as they speak decent English, have blond hair, are praised by their Japanese colleagues and are taller than most people. If this happens, you should avoid bragging and being arrogant, as this is considered vulgar.
During private conversations, you should avoid discussing controversial topics at all cost, especially if you are convinced you are right. It is not very smart to discuss, even with close Japanese friends, about awful war crimes, Whale hunting, or some marginal and perverted local lifestyle, often inaccurately reported in western media. Even if your point of view was correct, nobody wants to be taught lessons by a foreigner. This is true in all countries, but especially here, as social harmony is praised. If you start discussing such as topic, you will mostly create an embarrassed silence. But some people may start an argument with you, and you may land yourself up in trouble, as on most topics, European, American and Christian history is not cleaner than the rest of the world. You should rather ask your acquaintances to explain one aspect of Japanese life. At least you will learn something, and everybody will be delighted that you show interest for the country.
Nothing so far was specific to Japan, but some basics about the country lifestyle may come handy. The first rule enforced with no exception is that shoes should be taken off when entering all private homes, but also in temples, sports locker rooms and Japanese style rooms in restaurants. Areas forbidden to shoes are always elevated. If you are not sure, you should ask. A “shoes OK?” in English while showing your shoes will be understood everywhere. Even for a business appointment, you may end up in a restaurant where shoes should be taken-off, and you should always wear clean socks without holes. Mocassins are more convenient, but shoes with lace are perfectly acceptable.
If you stay in a private home or go to a public bath, you should follow local customs: wash yourself thoroughly outside the bath, and wash the soap off completely before entering the bath. You should not empty the water after your bath as it may be used by other people. This rule does not apply to your personal bath in a western style hotel where you can play with soap as much as you wish.
Meals are the core of social life, and the time where most etiquette mistakes can be made. But again, a few simple rules are enough. Japanese people eat with chopsticks, but perfectly understand that you may not master their use. The best thing to do is to ask for advice and try your best, even if it does not work perfectly at first. Japanese people value more the effort, the famous « gambaru » (がんばる) or « do your best » than the final result. As some point, you may want to ask for a fork and a knife, which are available everywhere, explaining that else, the dinner may be too slow because of you. Passing food from one person’s chopsticks to another’s is taboo in Japan, as it is part of the funeral rites – family members pass the bones from one person to another with chopsticks. Rice is eaten blank, without adding sauce in it, but you may ask for “furikake”, a mix of spice, if the rice is too bland for you. You should never forget to thank warmly your hosts at the end of the meal. Most of the time, your host will pay the bill, but it is more polite to enquire and propose to pay.
It is perfectly acceptable if you cannot eat some food at all, and you can explain it to your Japanese hosts, so that they adapt the schedule. It is always better to warm in advance and discreetly. The strangest food for westerner is raw fish: “sushis” and “sashimis”. If you do not want to try, you may invent a fake medical reason for avoiding them. But you should certainly try local food. Most Japanese food is pretty standard stuff, with fish, meat, and vegetables cooked in a sour and sweet Soy sauce (醤油, Shoyu). You do not have to like everything. Some ingredients such as Natto (納豆), sticky fermented soy beans with a cheese smell, are disgusting for most Japanese people, but if you try even once, it will be really appreciated. Drinking alcohol is the way social bonds are created, so you should always participate in drinking rounds. Your neighbours will make sure your cup is always full. If you do not want to drink much, or at all, just taste alcohol with your lips, leave your cup full and order a glass of water. Everybody will be grateful you did you best to follow the custom.
Exchanging gifts is common in professional and personal life. It is acceptable to offer even gifts worth a few euros. A small pack of shortbread or some toffees will be very much appreciated. You should make sure the wrapping is elegant, and you may want to offer a renowned brand, as it will always be welcome. You should not praise your own gifts, but giving a few precisions on them if asked for is OK. When you receive a present, you should enquire if it is OK to open it before actually doing so: the local custom is that gifts should not be opened in public in order not to embarrass people who can only offer low value gifts. For every present you receive, you should make sure to offer back a gift of around half the value, but this can happen much later, for example during your next trip to Japan. During weddings, you should offer cash in an appropriate envelope, with bank notes always in odd numbers. For someone who is not a close friend 30.000 Yens (185 Euros) or even 15.000 Yens (93 Euros) are enough. The envelope should be given in the dedicated stand near the party hall.
Let’s mention last that Japanese etiquette is based on « gentlemen first », the opposite of what most western countries practice. European ladies should not be offended that they will sometimes come after men. And gentlemen should be ready to come before the ladies. The best approach is probably to offer Japanese ladies precedence, and many of them will be delighted to accept. If they refuse several times, you should accept to go first to cut the conversation short, and to avoid making a shy Japanese lady uneasy.
In a following story, I will try to give some advicee about being host to Japanese people in the west.
You may want to check also this story with more details on how to work with Japanese people.


Gnarf said...

An interesting article with good practical advice. Cheers!

Stephen said...

Thanks for this article. I hope to put it to use soon. :)

Geeklawyer said...

I'm curious. I have heard it said some mistakes are *not* forgiven even if by westerners who are ignorant. This mostly seems to relate to footwear and tatami mats? For example wearing outside footwear on a mat? True?

I am in Japan on holiday and I love it here.

Uchimizu said...

Hi geeklawyer,

indeed, Japanese people will not accept people walking inside with their shoes. Apart from that, you should be careful not to enter a bath dirty or with soap on your body. Those are I believe the two rules you should really know.

You may also want to avoid eating while walking, which is considered rude, but would probably be tolerated for a foreigner.