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One-On-One Japanese Business Etiquette

If you are traveling to Japan on business it is very important to have business cards created, or as they are called in Japan, meishi. Not only are they a useful tool to identify you and your company, but they can also provide additional information for your Japanese counterparts, such as any professional memberships or associations you may be involved in.

All cultures vary when it comes to business practices, so it’s vital to understand those of the country you are visiting and how they differ from your own country’s practices. A key component of a country’s culture is language.

Japan has four separate alphabets; Hiragana, Katakana, Kanji and Romaji. Hiragana and Katakana consist of phonetic symbols; they don’t have any meaning. They are known as Kana. Each Kana is a syllable, rather than a letter, and most are combinations of one consonant and one vowel.

Hiragana and Katakana differ in usage. Hiragana represents actual Japanese words and is mainly used for grammar, slang, and very common words, whereas Katakana is generally used to write foreign words in Japanese or for emphasis (similar to the way italics are used in English).

Kanji (Chinese characters) represent ideas or words rather than syllables. Each character or symbol has a specific meaning. When characters are combined, they create new words. For example, if you combine the character for “electricity” with the one for “car” you would be referring to “train.” There are thousands of characters used in Japan in many different combinations.

Romaji is the standard 26-letter English alphabet and literally means “Roman characters.” Romaji is the way Japanese words are rendered in English. Now that you have a basic understanding of the alphabets in Japan, we’ll move on to the content and format of your business card (meishi). In Japan, the meishi consists of: Company Name, Department, Title, Person’s Name (family name first), Address (Country, State, City, Street), Phone and Fax. The person’s company name and rank within the company are usually emphasized in Japanese culture. Therefore, the company name and/or logo is generally the largest piece of information on the business card.

If you are doing business in Japan, it’s a good idea to either have a bilingual card (one side in English and the reverse in Japanese) or a one-sided card displaying your name in Japanese with the English translation below it.

To have your name translated phonetically, you would use Katakana. When discussing the specifics of what you would like on your card with the translation company, it is important to note how your name is pronounced. For example, regardless of whether your name is spelled Steven or Stephen, the phonetic translation will always be the same. However, if a name is spelled the same way but is pronounced differently, it would use a different phonetic translation. For instance, ‘Jan’ could be pronounced as either ‘J-jan’ or ‘Y-yan.’

A few problems may arise when using Katakana as Japanese doesn’t contain all of the sounds that are found in the English language. For example, there is no “L” sound in Japanese, so everything with an L is converted into an R.

Another problem is that in Japanese there isn’t any “thy” ending like in the names Kathy and Timothy. These are replaced with “shi.” In this instance, Kathy would become “kyashi” and Timothy would become “timoshi.”

Job titles are more difficult to translate and it is recommended that you consult a Japanese counterpart, in your same field of work, to verify what your title would be in Japanese.

Once you have your name and title translated, the rest of the information on the card is relatively simple. If you have a bilingual card, you should leave your address on the English side alone. If you translated your address into Japanese, mail would not reach you. The same goes for your phone and fax numbers. You should however, remember to include the country code before your phone number.

As far as formatting is concerned, you can choose horizontal or vertical. Japanese cards that are formatted vertically are considered more traditional.

The banking and financial industries tend to use a vertical layout but even they are changing over to a horizontal layout. Most other industries including computers, manufacturing, engineering, advertising, telecommunications, academia, etc. use a horizontal layout these days.

After your business cards have been created, make sure that you pack plenty of them for your trip to Japan. It would be considered impolite if you ran out of them while you were there.