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5 Tips for Interacting with Japanese Friends and Colleagues

Updated on June 17, 2010
"tori" (shrine gates) at Inari Jinja, Kyoto Japan.
"tori" (shrine gates) at Inari Jinja, Kyoto Japan.

5 tips, useful right off the plane.

Rumors and stereotypes abound about the island nation of Japan. To cut through all the misinformation out there, here are a 5 tips for that initial social contact I have compiled for the prospective visitor. This article is based on my own personal experiences and observations from years of living in Japan.

First understand that Japan is very different from western society and even those of other Asian cultures. The most striking feature of Japanese society is the complex and sometimes strict rules regarding social interactions. One must also take into account that certain things that foreigners do can make Japanese feel uncomfortable, even to Japanese who are used to dealing with foreigners. Being aware and going the extra mile (kilometer) to act a little more Japanesey can go a long way.

A follow up to this hub can be found here: 5 more tips for interacting with Japanese friends and colleagues 

Also please check out some of my other hubs on Japan. Links are located on the right.

1. The bow

This is something tricky even for the Japanese. Whole books have been written on the subject. Do not worry about it too much. Do a half bow and greet each person you meet, introducing yourself. Just showing that you are making an effort to adjust to their culture will make them happy. Do not try to go overboard with the bow. At the end of the evening when saying "sayonara" its important to bow. Here is where you can get your practice with bowing, as it will usually take several bows for each person before all parties are happy. Just go along with all the bowing until everyone else stops.

2. Gifts

Gift giving is again a complex and difficult custom in Japanese society. One thing that is always recommended is to bring some sort of gift from your home country. The best thing to bring is something edible and easily shared. A local specialty is an excellent choice. I usually bring smoked salmon from the pacific northwest. Do not bring something that is not edible. People will accept them and some may even really cherish them but food is an easy way of pleasing everyone especially if your dinner group has more members than you expected. Don't worry about customs, as long as the gift is processed and packaged you should not have any problems.

3. Do not be overly friendly

The Japanese know that foreigners may be a little to overly friendly and touchy, but it can still make them uncomfortable. If you are a "touchy-feely" person, try your best not to touch anyone even if your intentions are good. I once witnessed an American acquaintance of mine reach out and tap a Japanese woman on the shoulder. She jumped and ran before my American friend was even able to ask his completely innocent question.

4.Contacts and Correspondance

Even in a non business oriented situation, you may find yourself receiving business cards. Its ok if you do not have one to give in return. The key is to accept the card offered to you and carefully examine it to show your interest. Hold on to it! Put it somewhere safe. That card will come in handy someday. Especially because it's always a good idea to keep up correspondence with Japanese acquaintances.

5. Do not go overboard

Its best to be conservative. The only thing worse than a foreigner not even making an attempt is a foriegner who goes way to far. There already exists far to many charactures of silly foreigners in Japanese pop culture, do not add yourself to the list. Be yourself and just be aware of the attitudes of the people around you.

Keep these tips in mind and it will help make your initial contact go much more smoothly. Enjoy your travels to the land of the rising sun and look for more of my hubs regarding Japan in the near future.



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      mikeydcarroll67 2 years ago

      I found that allowing the local to make the first move definitely goes a long ways towards smoothing over the relationship. They can help progress the relationship if they feel respected as an individual.

    • punacoast profile image

      Viet Doan 6 years ago from Big Island, Hawaii

      Excellent thoughtful tips. Very helpful for me who live in Hawaii! We have thousands of visitors from Japan coming to visit Hawaii all year round. There is also a big influence of Japanese culture here which is wonderful since Hawaii is such a melting pot.

    • jstankevicz profile image

      jstankevicz 7 years ago from Cave Creek

      Making the effort to master the phonetics of a few phrases is also appreciated. The Japanese don't expect the average foreigner to be able to speak their language, but appreciate a little effort at vocal politeness .. thank you ... your welcome ... good morning ... and my personal favorite, "ganbatte" or "try your hardest" ...