Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Japanese guests in Europe

Last month story gave a few pieces of advice to westerners visiting Japan. I gathered in this story tips about the reverse situation: Japanese acquaintances coming to Europe for a personal or business trip. This is more delicate, as you are the host and responsible for the success of the visit: it is not enough just to be open-minded and adapt to the environment. This time, you have to take appropriate initiatives so that the stay of your guest is a success.

You probably have to organize a meal. You may hesitate between receiving them at your home or in a restaurant. Opening your house may be a way to show someone you already know that you consider him as a friend. If are living in the countryside, your friend may be impressed, and even embarrassed by the size of your garden, as flat land is very expensive in Japan even in remote areas. You may want to explain that it is not always expensive in Europe, where 10.000 square meters of agricultural land can often be bought for a few thousand euros.

With a Japanese person you are not intimate with, I believe a meal in a restaurant is preferable: Japanese people do not often invite for a meal at home as most apartments or houses are small, so your hosts may feel uneasy that they cannot return your invitation. As a general rule, it is better avoiding a Japanese restaurant, as offering a foreigner his own national food is considered bad taste. With a few exceptions, it is better to avoid foreign food, as large Japanese cities often have better foreign restaurants than most European cities. This is especially true for Italian and Chinese food. However, you may want to try an Indian restaurant in UK, or a North-African or Lebanese restaurant in France, as those are managed by natives from the country, and the food is authentic. If you know your host has already been in Europe for a few days, he may want his stomach to “have a rest” and eat a Japanese meal. If so, it is likely your host will drop a few hints. In that case, you will make a point of careful of choosing a true Japanese restaurant, not the sushi-Yakitori eatery at the street corner. Japanese Internet forums will have more information about the best places to enjoy a real Japanese meal. It may not be easy to find one in small cities though. In Paris, most of them cluster near “Rue Saint-Anne” nearby the Opera.

Japanese people are often gourmets, so you should choose a place with good food: you should stick to a reputable and well-known place, the kind that has been in the gastronomical guides for the last 30 years. This is preferable to the latest trendy restaurant where more emphasis is sometimes put on the decoration than on the food. Japanese people will appreciate restaurant rooms in old buildings, as this is very rare there. In France, “Brassseries” will do the trick: “La Coupole” or “Le Train Bleu” in Paris, “La Brasserie George” in Lyon or “La Brasserie des Beaux-Arts” in Toulouse.

If your hosts are eager to taste good food, they may not appreciate meals that is « too colourful » or with a too strong « taste ». They may not want to sample offal, but may stick to plain meat or fish. Most Japanese people do not eat raw oysters, which is unexpected in the country that invented “sashimi”. Meat with a strong taste like game, mutton or lamb may be too aggressive to some Japanese palates. Some Japanese people can barely survive without rice at each meal, so you may want to choose a restaurant where rice is served. Some Japanese people, especially men, do not enjoy wine, so it is better to choose a place where drinking beer is acceptable. Cheese may, or may not be, appreciated by Japanese people. You should not insist if your host abstains from eating them. Goat and cheep cheese may also be too smelly.

You shall book a table in advance, as it would be very unfortunate not to find a table when you arrive. If your host just arrived from Japan, you will have dinner as early as possible, as he will be tired by jet lag. He will not find it too early if you start eating at 7pm or even earlier, which is common in Japan. You will ensure that your host can come to the restaurant: the best would be to pick him at the hotel, or go directly with him from the office, as he may not feel at ease in English or the local language, and could be afraid of taking a taxi or the subway alone, especially on a first visit. If you cannot pick him, you may help him a lot just by booking a taxi and writing the address on a piece of paper, or buy a subway ticket and explain the trip to him. Once in the restaurant, you may have to explain the meals, as our chefs often use supposedly elegant but very obscure sentences for the meal names. You may also want to choose the meal for your guest, and check that your selection is OK for him. You will explain that meals are eaten one after another in most European countries, while everything is often put on the table at the same time in Japan. Meal size is usually smaller in Japan, so your guest may not be able to finish all the food presented to him even if he really enjoys it. Some Japanese men do not enjoy sweets, so you may want to ask your male hosts if they wish to finish the meal on a sweet flavor or only with a coffee. You will make sure the glass of your host is always full of wine, or order new pints of beers, and you may want to order some bottled water too.

The duty of a host is to ensure a pleasant conversation during the meal: if you know your guest has a hobby, you can start discussing it. You can also ask questions about Japan to show your interest of the country, or about your host family. You may want to explain briefly the history of the city you are in, and sights worth seeing during spare time. It is perfectly acceptable to speak about work, but this should not be the first topic to come in the conversation. Your host will probably speak-up his mind much more freely than in the office. Anyways, the most important thing is to let him speak, and not try to impress too much with your intelligence and your culture, which would be bad manner. You also express your opinions with some reserve, and accept that your interlocutor’s point of view, while different, may be as interesting as yours. In case you are inviting a person from the opposite sex for a business meal, I would strongly advise against ambiguous attitudes that can be understood as seduction. If you are interested anyways, you will probably impress much more by being slightly distant. You may want to know that in Japan, it is often the lady who shows her wish to go further by subtle hints in her speech and attitude.

A small personal present will be appreciated; it is common in Japan in many situations. You may want to offer a nice pen, or some find foods or alcohol. Do not be afraid of classic presents (Scotch whisky, Porto wine, foie-gras…), and put attention to the wrapping, which will be almost as important as the content. I believe you should avoid offering a necktie, but if you do, you should choose classical design and sober colors. A lady will always appreciate good jam or chocolate, but you should never offer perfume, as it is too personal a present, and some western perfumes do not match with Asian skins. At the end of the meal, you will not split the bill. You will excuse yourself for a moment and discreetly go to the counter to pay. Your Japanese guest will probably insist once or twice for paying, but you should refuse, and say that anyways, it was not that significant a present. After the meal, if your guest still has energy, you may want to have a glass with him in pleasant surroundings. This is what Japanese people call “Nijikai”, and is a privileged time for confidences. When you are finished, you should make sure your host can go back to the hotel by bringing him back or at least ordering him a taxi and explaining the address to the taxi driver.

You may have to organize some tourism for your Japanese acquaintances: they may want to see the most famous sights, and will likely be very well documented. Do not be surprised if they ask to see cute villages or small museums. They may also enjoy very much having a drink at a terrace, or visit a street market. You may also want to bring them to the countryside, where vast landscapes and animals will impress them. In any case, your hosts will want to bring back souvenirs for family, colleagues and friends. You should plan for a visit to the souvenir shop selling local craft or delicacies, with enough time to buy an appropriate gift for the impressive list of recipients they have in their mind.

This is the end of this small series on manners but also on the way to work with Japanese people. Those are of course general pieces of advices, but I believe they may come handy in most cases. Other people will have different experiences, and may offer slightly different recommendations. You should always seek different opinions when available, and in any case adapt to the context by using your common sense.

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