Bows, chopsticks and way too many sakes: Being a guest in Japan
If you work or reside in an international environment, or if you know people who do, you probably know some of those embarrassing stories where a foreigner has made a complete fool out of himself as a guest of a Japanese family. Or how your cousin used to work with this girl, “Rebecca”, who had been an expat in Tokyo for two years and then one night when she was out with her boss and co-workers, she fractured her ankle while singing Celine Dion’s “My heart will go on” in a karaoke bar, totally and utterly drunk. So if you want to avoid any of these shenanigans in a way that you will not be disrespectful to the Japanese. what do you need to know and do as a guest or foreigner in the land of the rising sun?
Well of course, I could not possibly write the entire content of the contemporary business, guest and host etiquette book of Japan in one article. I mean there is a reason why Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation was so highly appraised. The Japanese culture is beautiful but can seem quite alien for Westerners in general, which Sofia managed to capture in a very realistic way. That said, there are still some clear guidelines that you can stick to that will help you have a wonderful visit without making a complete idiot of yourself.
The Japanese value status and hierarchy very much, so always, always show respect to those who are older or who have a higher function then you, e.g. in a corporate situation. Because the Japanese want to save face in every possible situation, they will never publicly criticize you or show disagreement directly, because they believe that by doing that you will lose face. So if they tell you “we will think about it” or “I am not sure if it’s really convenient” you know their answer is a definite “no”.
Greetings in Japan are very formal and as a foreigner shaking hands is acceptable, but traditionally the Japanese will bow. And if you’re bowing to someone higher than you in social rank, you have to bow deeper than him or her. Also, never look someone straight in the eyes as this is seen as inappropriate and defiant. When it comes to introductions it’s considered rude to introduce yourself; therefore wait to be introduced even when you are at a large social gathering.
And when it comes to dinner parties, while punctuality is very important in Japan, it is accepted to arrive at a maximum of five minutes late for a dinner. You should always take off your shoes and put on the slippers that you can find left at the entrance. Remember to make sure your shoes point away from the door, especially when you are invited to someone’s house. Always wait to be seated and as a guest you will probably have the highest status at the table, since this is the Japanese way of showing hospitality and respect. The person with the highest status, usually the guest of honor or the oldest person, will be seated at the middle of the table, furthest from the door. The honoured guest or oldest person is always the one who will start eating first.
Don’t point with your chopsticks and when you drink or stop to say something, always put them on the chopstick rest. Never pierce your food with your sticks and if you don’t want anything more to drink don’t finish your glass, as this as seen as a sign that you want more to drink. A final good tip, especially when you are going to the bar with group of Japanese “salary men and woman”, is to keep in mind that it is internationally known that they know how to drink.
The Japanese culture is very beautiful and rich in its heritage and it can be rather different from what most Westerners are used to. But if you educate yourself in the basic ways of the Japanese, you will have no reason to be worried about being disrespectful or putting yourself in embarrassing situations.