Oftentimes when travelers are asked what they think about Japan, the one word that comes up time and time again is “polite.” As a whole the people of Japan are known to be gracious and polite, yet they live and work in heavily populated areas which, in other countries, usually creates a recipe for contention and aggressiveness. The Japanese have learned to live quite harmoniously in their surroundings by mastering their country’s art of etiquette. For example, if someone were to feel as if s/he is fighting a cold or flu, a medical mask would be worn to work and in other places populated by people. The Japanese people respect such a conscientious person because they try not to infect others. Whereas in stark contrast, if one were to wear a medical mask in the United States for the same reasons, they would most likely be avoided by every co-worker and chastised by others. This is due to cultural differences, and it makes a clear point of the importance of understanding good etiquette when visiting foreign countries.
There are many etiquette nuances that foreign visitors can follow, and they have been proven to put many Japanese people at ease. This can be demonstrated when riding on the train or elevator. The elderly in Japan are highly revered, so one must be aware of who may be around. If you see elderly persons on the train or elevator, offer them your space and allow them to exit ahead of you. No one will say anything or pat you on the back for this gesture, but they will be very touched by your consideration.
When eating in Japan, it is always best to be very formal. Whether you are served dishes in restaurants or at private homes, bring the dish closer to you with both hands and say “itadakimasu” which means, “I humbly receive.” This gesture demonstrates your appreciation for the food you have been given. Should you need to get up at any time during a meal, remember this very important rule of dining etiquette: never leave your chopsticks stabbed upright in your food. This action is considered to be very rude and is understood to reflect your wish to curse the room and the people within it. It is also important to note that slurping up noodles and soup is considered polite in Japan; it also reflects your enjoyment of the dish. This may seem rather odd coming from western countries, but try not to show any reaction and attempt to imitate the actions of your eating companions.
When finishing a meeting, present your business card with both hands on each side of it and bow while presenting it. This is the proper way to present your card, and this little display of etiquette will speak volumes about your attention to detail. If a person fails to present his or her business cards to members at their first meeting, this action will be considered as a slight and such an insult is akin to refusing to shake hands. This gesture will be one of the first steps to building a lasting business relationship with a Japanese company. Good etiquette is highly revered by the Japanese business world, so it would be wise to practice this custom before actually executing it.
As with any country, it is important learn about what how people perceive color in Japan. For example, similar to customs in the United States, it is a polite gesture to bring a little gift such as flowers to a home you have been invited to visit. However it is important to note that one should never give white flowers or lilies. The color white and lily flowers connote death and would be very unpleasant to receive by your hosts.
When foreign visitors come to Japan, the people understand that their language and customs are very difficult to grasp first hand. This is why they become overjoyed when a foreigner attempts to follow Japanese etiquette, and they will try, to their best of their ability, to communicate with their overseas visitors and help them to refine their actions in the gentlest ways possible.
These are just a few examples of etiquette practices when you can use visiting Japan, and they are meant to illustrate how best to connect with the people of one of Asia’s most polite countries. Good etiquette is not only advantageous when visiting foreign countries, but it is a vital aspect of ensuring a memorable time there. Knowing exactly what most would consider polite behavior in their respective countries takes quite a bit of study on the part of the traveler. What may be considered acceptable behavior in one country, may be viewed as barbaric and insulting in another. This is why impeccable etiquette practices of various countries are vital for successful meetings and, of course, government negotiations. Although etiquette in the private sector may not sever a political alliance, it could affect the quality of a traveler’s journey, and even hinder his or her ability to connect within the visited cultures. Therefore, when planning a visit to a foreign country, such as Japan, take some time to read up on basic etiquette and customs.