Travel Etiquette: Japan and Business Cards

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Japan is well known for being a country where work has an extremely important place in society. It is also a well-known stereotype (that’s true) that the Japanese will work long work weeks with long working hours. Businessmen exchange business cards with their basic contact information on it. In Japan, however, a business card is so much more. 

Meishi Koukan

In Japan everyone has business cards from children to adults. Upon meeting a Japanese person for the first time, one of the first things you are expected to do is exchange business cards; this ritual is known as meishi koukan.

A meeting will always start is an introduction followed by a polite bow. If you are not familiar with Japanese culture, you do not need to worry too much about the level of the bow, just do what seems natural. Side note: Japanese culture places an importance on honoring your superiors. The level of a bow reflects the level of respect for them and will affect which form of Japanese conversation to use (honorfic keigo, humble form, polite teineigo form, etc.)

After you bow to the person you are greeting, you will typically exchange names, shake hands and then present one another with your business card. The business card should be held with two hands, and turned towards at he person it is being given to. You want that person to be able to read your card as it is passed to them. Take a moment to review the information on the card and then bow once more.

A card should never ever be thrust into a pocket right away. That is one of the most disrespectful things you can do. If you are sitting at a table, place the card on the table so it is out and visible. Are you sitting on a chair? Place the card in a visible position, maybe it’s on your leg, or a side table. A lot of foreigner’s don’t realize this. 

How do you know who should go first? The person with the more importance, more seniority or highest rank should go first. You need not worry about much else after this. AS long as you follow these tips you will be in good shape.

Image from the Gaijin Pot Blog

What to Put on a card

All of this is up to you and I would advise you to be creative. My host family in Japan had a picture of their two dogs on one side of their business card and on the other side had their names, e-mail and phone number. I’ve had Japanese friends who have bilingual cards, others who have their car on it and one with a picture of a banana. Your card is thought to be an extension of you and reflects your personality. If you are conducting a business meeting, you may want to stay more traditional. 

Once you have your cards, invest in a holder for them. It goes a long way in keeping your cards clean and making you look professional. Clean cards are expected among the Japanese. A dirty, wrinkled or torn card is thought to reflect the type of person who gives it to another.

Final Thoughts

If you are traveling to Japan, unless you are going to a meeting, you probably won’t have to worry about having business cards at the ready. With that being said, you never know what situations you will enter into and I encourage you to have a healthy amount to take with you. It never hurts. I never thought I would need them myself, but I ended up using some of the few cards I brought with me to give to other exchange students and Professors when I was in Japan. Hope this helps you! Until next time, happy travels!