Japan is a country and culture entirely of its own. Its inhabitants are unfailingly polite, ever-helpful and honestly quite odd at times although in a very good way. And one thing that defines Japanese culture is its meticulous attention to detail. There are procedures for EVERYTHING and all steps need to be followed to the T. For example, let’s take a look at the business cards protocol.
If you’ve grown up in a Westernized country, most likely you’ve seen stacks of business cards on store desks, or been handed one out of your mechanic’s pocket only to forget it at the bottom of your bag, and discover it again at some inconvenient time covered in crust and old restaurant mints. Business cards are reserved just for that – business. The average person never has and never will spend a small fortune on gold-embossed, inch-thick cards (slight exaggeration) to hand to people who will most often not keep them. Not so in the country of the rising sun!
In Japan almost everyone has a business/name card – office workers, students, teachers etc etc. And there are a few extremely important things to note lest you offend someone with your less-than-refined Western manners:
1. Where to keep them
Cards should be keep above the waist at ALL times, in a special CARD HOLDER. For ladies, this means handbags and for gentleman, your chest pocket. It is considered extremely rude to hand someone a card from your pants pocket.
2. How to exchange cards. There is a very specific protocol for exchanging business cards:
a) Grip your card holder in both hands (above the level of the waist!) with one card placed on top of it. Make sure the card is facing the person because heaven forbid they would need to turn in around in order to actually read it.
b) Introduce yourself, then as you hand your card over, slide it ever so slightly forward to make for an easy retrieval.
c) Let the receiver read your name and title, and confirm the pronunciation with you. After which you may say, ‘Yoroshiku onegai itashimasu’, which basically means ‘Nice to meet you’, as you bow slightly.
d) There also exists the ‘simultaneous swap’ for those who love the thrill of risk. Beware, there are many moving parts here. Hold your card in your right hand (facing the person!), and card holder in your left. As you hand over your card with your right hand, your left thumb lifts to allow the other person to place their card on your holder. Put your left thumb down to hold the card in place. Both of you will then complete step c) one after each other.
3. Extra rules
a) The person who is visiting, or who is less senior, should introduce themselves and present his/her card first.
b) Cards should NEVER be exchanged over a table or sitting down. Both persons should be standing with approximately a metre in between them.
c) Always make sure you keep about 20 cards in your holder to prevent embarrassment at running out of cards.
d) Do not keep cards in pants pockets or handbags where they may get dirty and crumpled, unless you’d actually like to offend someone. Handing over a dirty, crumpled card = disrespect. Simple.
Overwhelming right? That’s what I thought too. Although it must be said that no one would expect a complete foreigner to abide by this protocol. However, if you did, the Japanese would be extremely impressed. And as they are generally quite shy and difficult to crack, attempts at speaking Japanese and following cultural procedure (no matter how unskilled), are very much appreciated and go a long way towards opening them up.