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Japanese Etiquette Guide

Japanese Etiquette Guide

View of Tokyo Tower at dusk

By Dean Foster Monster Contributing Writer

Japan is a place of many rigid, often hard-to-understand customs. The norm is for men to work hard and for women, who often face workplace discrimination, to be deferential at all times. Both sexes are expected to bow – literally – to authority figures.

And even though it’s illegal, discrimination on the basis of ethnicity does exist here, particularly if you are obviously of non-Japanese Asian descent. Quite a few establishments will refuse to admit foreigners, although many of these places will make an exception if a Japanese person accompanies you.

While such practices may seem regressive to Americans living and working in Japan, there’s little to be gained by speaking out against them. Your best bet: Respect cultural differences, and focus on getting to know your Japanese coworkers and their culture. This guide will help you accustom yourself to the land of the rising sun.

Food and Entertaining

-Diet: Japanese cuisine is generally healthy. And while food sensitivities will be accommodated, locals will be unlikely to understand your request unless you use the word allergy. Vegans and vegetarians who make an exception for seafood can adhere to their diets in Japan, though most Japanese people will find such lifestyle choices puzzling. Avoiding seafood or seafood products is nearly impossible, and any efforts to do so will likely be greeted with total incredulity or even disregard.

-Drinking: An important way to bond with your generally reserved colleagues in Japan is over drinks. In fact, Japan is a drinking culture, though women are under less pressure to partake than men. Office parties, where large amounts of alcohol are served and consumed, occur often. However, if drinking in this atmosphere makes you uncomfortable and you opt out, you may have to answer to the dismay of your hosts. But you will not lose face, and your decision will be respected. Whether you’re drinking or not, be sure to keep everyone else’s glass topped off, and never serve yourself.

Also, if you’re up for hearing karaoke done in a foreign language and can deal with the inevitable slew of requests that you sing yourself (usually to warble Western music – the cheesier the better), you won’t regret being invited to the after party. If you do get smashed, don’t worry: You’ll have plenty of company, and all will be forgiven the next day. Your coworkers will largely treat the evening as if it never happened.

-Tipping: The Japanese do not tip.

Social Expectations

-Clothing: Both sexes are expected to dress rather formally at the office. During the summer, however, men may do away with wearing suit jackets and ties, and short-sleeved button-down shirts are acceptable. That said, both sexes should make every effort to keep tattoos hidden when on the job or in public. Men must also take care to shave regularly and to refrain from wearing piercings at work. Women are likewise expected to maintain a conservative appearance in the office.

-Gifts: Purchase gifts for first encounters with your superiors or those with whom you’ll work frequently, and spend more on coworkers of higher status. Also, do not return from a trip of any length empty-handed. A box of sweets (preferably produced in the region you visited) for all to share is sufficient.

-Greetings and Public Physical Contact: Being on time is of utmost importance. Always say “good morning” to your superiors, and excuse yourself when you leave at day’s end. All greetings and partings should include a bow of about 45 degrees. Even total strangers you’ve made eye contact with should be given a nod. Higher-status individuals should be bowed to properly and the bow sustained for a period of greater duration. All public physical contact is frowned upon. Even in private, Japanese people will rarely shake your hand, and a friendly hug or kiss on the cheek would be awkward for a Japanese person.



This article originally appeared on Monster.com.

Back to other countries in our Country-by-Country Etiquette Guide.


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