Visiting cards, or business cards, are essential for business travelers. The meishi are exchanged in small ceremonies whereby the parties bow and present their cards with both hands to each other (if you’re in a business situation, watch your hosts for guidance) — the recipient of the card should be able to read the information while you’re presenting the card, so take care to ensure that the printed information is facing in the correct direction. The concierge at your hotel will be able to help those who don’t have cards of their own (or, if you have the available resources, you can save quite a bit of money by printing up the cards on your own before leaving home — I priced the cards at about 100 for $100).
When, where, why, and how shoes are worn in Japan can be confusing. Generally, shoes are not worn in Japanese homes, temples, ryokan, and various other public places (including some restaurants). Again, it’s helpful to follow the lead of locals — don’t panic, your shoes won’t be stolen while you’re off touring a temple. Sometimes, slippers will be provided to guests. These slippers generally fall into two categories: house slippers (for walking the halls, but remove them before walking on tatami) and bathroom slippers (remove the house slippers, put on the bathroom slippers, do whatever you’re going to do, remove the bathroom slippers, replace the house slippers, continue on your way).
The Japanese are nothing if not polite. In fact, they are so polite that varying degrees of politeness (or lack thereof) are often used to convey rudeness. One of the great complexities of the Japanese language actually involves the many different words that are often used to communicate the same meaning. Some words are considered to be far more polite than others. Even if you don’t intend to speak much Japanese, this is an important concept to understand during your stay in Japan. At all times try your best to be VERY polite.
It is considered to be rude to count the change that has been handed back to you after making a purchase. This is a culture that prides itself on its honesty — it’s better to be trusting (plus, are you really in a position to translate the currency quickly enough to make this assessment?).
Credit cards are accepted almost everywhere, despite the fact that Japan is generally a cash-based society. ATMmachines are also widely available. Play it safe — before leaving home, visit your bank and change your PIN to a 4-digit number; we learned the hard way that not all machines around the world have the fun little letter/number combination on the keys or that they only accept 4-digit PINs.
Conveniently, the Japanese language has three different written formats: kanji, hiragana, and katakana. Kanji is the most complex and is not easily learned; however, a basic understanding of hiragana and katakana will be very useful. Both are phonetic, and some knowledge can helps in translating menus. With a little training, you too can read menus with ease…slowly, but easily.
Most train stations (at least in Tokyo) have the current and upcoming stations indicated in a combination of kanji, hiragana, and romanji — the Arabic symbol version of the language. Knowing the Japanese version of your home station is critical, unless you don’t mind traveling around in circles. Power Japanese (a CD-ROM based learning program) is highly recommended as a way to learn the language.
Japanese is a phonetic language, and that makes it easy to learn some basic phrases. English is generally read and spoken by younger Japanese people; however, the differences between Japanese and English sentence structure can make conversation very difficult. Stick with the basics, carry a phrase book, and try to elicit the help of your concierge for directions and information whenever possible.
We found that many Japanese people were eager to practice their English on us. After your ears become accustomed to the sounds of Tokyo, you’ll find yourself easily picking out familiar phrases — many Western words have been repurposed in the Japanese language, taking on familiar sounds and spellings (though these tend to be creative).
Despite the language differences, we found that we could communicate very well. We navigated the train system, traveled outside of Tokyo, participated in business meetings, and manged to eat, drink, and sleep without difficulty.
Western-style restrooms are generally found in larger department stores and many restaurants. In fact, if you’re looking for the latest in high-tech facilities, Japan is the place to go. Most hotels feature Western-style toilets, though some ryokan may not.
If you encounter a Japanese-style toilet, remember that you squat (or aim) facing the raised hood of the unit (it takes some getting used to, but it is quite sanitary). Always carry tissues or toilet paper with you — not every restroom stocks these items. And, we’ve found, paper towels are also scarce in restrooms. It’s helpful to note that a current marketing trend involves printing advertisements on small packages of tissue. These packages are usually handed out around the major subway stations and can come in quite handy.
Blowing your nose in public is considered to be bad manners. Excuse yourself and go into the restroom.
While the number of public baths in Tokyo has declined, the custom is still prevalent. Men and women bathe separately except in outdoor hot springs. You will be guided through the process, however the ritual is generally the same in all situations: first, remove your clothing and (after discretely covering the front of your body with your washcloth), proceed to the bath area; before actually entering the bath, you must first wash yourself. Basins and stools are situated near faucets — fill the basin with water, sit on the stool, soap down completely, then rinse off the soap. Once you’re clean, then you may enter the bath. The water will be very hot (ease in slowly), but after a while, relaxation seeps into your bones and peace enters your soul.
The Japanese are gift-givers. If you’re invited to their homes (very rare, as the culture tends to entertain in public places), bring a gift — you hotel’s concierge can assist in this matter if necessary. While we are very fond of the gift melon concept, flowers, candy, or alcohol are also appropriate (besides, a good melon in Tokyo can cost a small fortune). For any kindness done, be sure to be profusely thankful. You may feel awkward, but your return gestures will be remembered and appreciated.
People in Japan bow — a lot. It’s their version of the handshake, only more complex, and failing to return a bow is considered impolite. Though it feels awkward at first, it quickly becomes second nature. If you offer your hand for a shake, you probably won’t be refused, but bowing is the preferred method of greeting. Bows also convey apologies and thanks.
While visitors are not expected to know the complexities of the bow, a few tips will help. First, bow from the waist with the arms straight at your sides. Imitate the bows you receive (there are lots of rules regarding the depth of bows — social abstractions that take decades to learn). Don’t overbow or ignore the greeting. It’s better to smile politely and nod your head than to be perceived as rude. After awhile, you’ll find yourself bowing automatically (when I encountered a Japanese coworker at my office in Los Angeles, I automatically found myself bowing in greeting).