Business Card Etiquette In Japan

Danny Choo is a guestblogger on Boing Boing. Danny resides in Tokyo, and blogs about life in Japan and Japanese subculture - he also works part time for the empire.

So, you've been getting along well with your new Japanese business client but suddenly get told that they are not interested in doing business with you after meeting them on your arrival in Japan.

Well it could have been due to many a reason. One of the reasons could be that you started to eye up your clients lover secretary. It could also have been because you stepped in poo and didn't wipe off before leaving steaming skid marks all over your clients office carpet. Another reason could be because you slipped and stabbed a pencil in your clients left knee.

The most likely reason however is because you didn't hand over your business card properly and to do business in the land of the rising sun, you just need to know how this is done. Luckily, there is being a tutorial floating around the Tubes which you can see below.

Do also remember that you need to learn how to bow properly too - this flash tutorial (click on the thumbs at the bottom) will help you - I've seen people bow down to 90 degrees but 45 degrees for gratitude and apologies is acceptable. The photo is a collection of some business cards collected during my work in Japan - see more designs of Japanese business cards in my previous "Meishi" article.


  1. Perhaps they’re not doing business with you because you’re dragging out tired racist impersonations of how they speak English?

  2. @karstempire – you just reminded me to post something about how foreigners and pets are treated the same in a particular circumstance over here – thanks!

  3. I can’t be the only who finds this kind of thing annoying as all get-out, can I? The idea that anyone would have to deal with such a remarkable amount of meaningless fol-de-rol makes me want to tear my eyes out.

  4. Danny, have you read American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis? I has some passages discussing business cards.

    Did business cards exist in Japan before WWII? Is the business card etiquette restricted to people who go to work wearing suits or does everyone have a business card?

    Great post DC!

  5. One other thing that came up for me when I was working for a company that gave us five different colored logos on the business card (which reflected the product line at the time) was that it was much, much better to give everyone I was meeting with cards of the same color (whereas US folks tended to like the variety). I’d checked up on the etiquette before my visit, but this, obviously rather unusual case, was mine to discover on my own.

  6. Perhaps in lesson two, they mention that when exchanging cards at a table setting, in addition to the card not being put away before the passer of said card, you must set it on the table to your side farthest away from the door.

    Frankly, I think the detailed manners that folks here abide by are fascinating. They may seem ‘annoying’ at first, but more importantly, they put you in a mind frame to consider and respect those people you deal with each day.

  7. This little bit of professional etiquette is rather interesting. I wonder if there are parts of American business culture that we take for granted, yet are completely foreign and strange to other cultures.

    I also found it odd that the video clip had ragtime as the background music. I couldn’t understand a word of it, but I could tell that there is a definite right and wrong way of doing it. I could also tell that that George fellow was a bit nervous. Can’t blame him; I think I would be too.

  8. #4 the thing is, I’m willing to bet there’s a lot of what seems to other cultures to be “pointless” ritual in American and/or Canadian business etiquette as well. We just dont see it because its so ingrained in our behavior. (handshake, I’m lookin’ at you).

    Fascinating stuff, really, to see those differences.

  9. 20 years after a couple of seasons doing business in Tokyo and Sapporo, I still have trouble just handing over or accepting cards; it seems so wrong. That those trips were my first real business experience I suppose branded it in my subsconscious, somehow.

    I especially remember having to solemnly scan the Japanese text, of which I understood not word one, for a couple of extra seconds while my lucky interlocuter figured out how exactly to pronounce my R and L heavy name…

  10. Business cards have no meaning in the US because everybody (and their dog) has one. I’ve been to parties before where jobless musicans are handing out business cards. Same goes for pretty much every trade show. The etiquette here is more like: “Thanks for the card… I’ll promptly toss it when I get back to my hotel room.” If you have a box of 5,000 of cards you hand them out like Pez. Most of the time — the people that you want a card from aren’t handing them out.

  11. @9 ” wonders if there are parts of American business culture that we take for granted, yet are completely foreign and strange to other cultures.”

    Your whole first-name-thing for example which is kind of strange for Germans. And your strange ways of making jokes during business.

  12. The engineers from Japan were often temporarily renamed Mike or Steve. They would pick a masculine name to use while working in the U.S.

    I also remember watching a video about bowing, it had instructions on precisely how deep a bow was required in different situations. Bowing too far or too quickly was almost as bad as not bowing enough. In the video, stores even had a device for measuring bows, to ensure employees bowed at the correct angle and duration.

    At one time, gentlemen and ladies always carried and exchanged “calling cards”, which were presented when meeting someone new or visiting their home. If you went to someone’s home and their servant answered the door a card was always given to the servant to present to the homeowner.

  13. Best part: The ragtime classic, “Maple Leaf Rag” playing in the background. Composed by Scott Joplin in 1899 in my hometown of Sedalia, Missouri!

  14. Hey, wait a ding dang moment. A Japanese magazine editor told me you’re supposed to present your business card *on top your card holder or wallet*. (She speculated that’s the modern stand-in for a ceremonial pillow in feudal Japanese.) And when you *take* a card, you’re supposed to hold it up with both hands and look at it for a meaningful moment. These folks just sorta do those parts kinda half-ass. WTF?

  15. “Business cards have no meaning in the US because everybody (and their dog) has one. I’ve been to parties before where jobless musicans are handing out business cards.”

    Never been to Japan, have you, Binaryloop?

    Everyone has one here, too. Does that make them meaningless?

    As a part-time jazz musician, I’ve got a massive collection of other musicians’ cards. I worked as a musician for years and years in the US and Europe, but have never received even a tiny fraction of the mountain I’ve accumulated in a little over two years here.

    Regarding the topic (somewhat), Japanese have little ways of handing things to people with all kinds of stuff. Cashiers kind of “pop” bills when giving you change, and they count it out for you with impressive dexterity. They seem very rehearsed. Then they patiently wait for you to get your shit together (which makes me uncomfortable) so that they can give you a little bow and thank you as you walk away, hands positioned on their stomach. No personality is injected at any point in the interaction.

  16. there are advantages to formulaic social interaction. The pros outweigh the cons. All that really matters is you be aware what waters you swim in – while there.

  17. @3 Danny Choo: Foreigners = pets – so true. The good gaijin hops through the loop (carrying his meishi, of course) and if the gaijin is really good, he gets presented to friends – “look, this is my gaijin, I want to show him/her around”. Makes you feel like a circus poodle.
    I don’t mind the hoops much, when in Rome …, but I do mind the circus poodle thing.
    I have noticed, though, that as a foreigner you only have to know the basics of bowing and meishi-giving, they don’t expect you to know it anyway and if you do it too well, you have arrived in uncanny valley and get the opposite effect.

  18. not that the gaikokujin walks well, but that he walks at all. Your opponent’s assumption may be your advantage. Or downfall. Think how disconcerting to the mentally lax to deal with someone who is outside you and inside you – maybe.

  19. OK, so when I’m at Mitsuwa (Japanese grocery store chain) in the US), how am i supposed to hand the cashier my debit card? yoroshikuo negai

  20. In Thailand, you also need to be conscious of this. The polite way to hand things is to hold the card in the tip of your right hand, and then hold your elbow with your left hand. You need to take it in the same way, and then usually wai slightly at the end.

    And it’s been my experience (2 years in Asia, one in China, one in Thailand) that you’re generally treated as a trick poodle. Easy way to tell who wants to know you and who just wants a foreigner to show off tho. You get used to it.

  21. I’m not Japanese but even I can see differences in behavior among the different interactions, particularly inflection and the kinaesthetics of bowing.

    With the (apparently) Japanese woman and man who model the interaction, their repartee seems smooth, natural. More telling are their bows which do not originate from their midsections but from their heads and necks. The bows of the first couple seem the genuine (if brief) acts of deference which are properly accorded to a somewhat unfamiliar person.

    Compare the two white actors at the end of the video. The man on the left seems stilted and reluctant when he bows, an awkward and graceless first date. His body motions produce a barely perceptible shift of weight in his shoulders, and his arrogant and supercilious eyes are still leveled at his interlocutor. This man has the pride of an idiot and should be ostracized for his ignorance, silently but permanently barred from advancement in the business world.

  22. Ah, meishi. I had my meishi custom designed, English on one side, Japanese on the other, with all my info & long position name. I actually designed gears in a CAD program, and used the outline on the meishi, with English & Japanese respectively in the gears on each, and on each side, all translated in effectively compliments fonts over the two languages. My meishi was a work of art, designed to impress.

    Which is why I’m pissed- I can’t use them anymore! I didn’t give out many, and now that I’m between jobs, my old meishi have my old job title & employer on them!

    So here’s one for you, forget the giving- that’s ingrained in me. What do you do when you don’t have a job and are interviewing for one- what do you do? Do you get new meishi that say “jobless”? Seriously, what? Up until now, I haven’t given meishi, and I don’t know what to do…

  23. This ritual actually serves an important purpose: you often don’t know how a Japanese name is written if you only know the pronunciation and vice-versa. Which is why you say your name while handing over the business card (and why you should really read the card to memorize how the name is written and pronounced; this is often your last chance to ask for clarification without being impolite).

  24. Thanks, Danny! There are few things I find more fascinating than the social dynamics found in other cultures, Japan in particular. Quaint, dumb, annoying… quite the contrary. There is purpose and significance in all of it; two things I find painfully missing in American culture. Consider the elegance of the tea ceremony. Honestly, I think the most common source of disdain for such grace and respect is pure laziness.

  25. I think Americans and Australians have a global reputation for good-natured boorishness, and people don’t really expect them to be capable of formal politeness.

  26. @ Orange

    Everyone cites the tea ceremony as this eternal reason that Japan & the Japanese are so innately highly cultured. The tea ceremony was something that reached its height of appreciation and refinement almost 400 years ago, at the hands of men like Rikyu. Since then, while many customs covering manners have evolved, like the one for meishi, they are minor compared to major sentiments I think most people have in mind when they think of Japan. The age of society as a whole there contemplating the asymetric beauty of “wabi”, transcendental mysterious beauty of “yuugen” in Noh ended a long time ago. What exists now are just echos of ghosts from what Japan once was.

    In short, there are plenty of countries as “cultured” as modern Japan, this “Japan is *still* so much more cultured” than us meme just bothers me, it’s modern orientalism reborn.

    I’m not saying you’re guilty of that at all, and I admire you’re view on there being a purpose for the small things- and I agree with you on the disdain thing as well.

  27. @ Bastardnamban

    Well said. Although perhaps
    “Japan is *still* so much more cultured” than us meme
    What exists now are just echos of ghosts from what Japan once was.
    are two sides of the same false coin that circulates so well.

  28. I was fortunate enough to visit Tokyo for business in 2004 and studied this cultural norm before I left. Maybe the reason why business cards in the US mean so little is because there’s no “ceremony” in what they mean.

    I had my English name, title, etc. on one side, and my Japanese version of the same on the other. It was a neat Rosetta Stone-like translation. One of my hosts translated my title and it made me sound much more important than my English title I also discovered that title and hierarchy are prized and that the more important title meant I had the opportunity to speak to higher level decision makers.

    Besides the initial culture shock for me I thought it was all fascinating and made some sense in context.

  29. Compare and contrast with the results of entering a random corner shop in Paris and London to buy, say, the local paper, speaking the local language fluently, the local language in a clumsily broken, heavily accented flavour, and then by speaking French (in London) and English (in Paris.) Congratulations! That’s another weekend over with.

  30. “I also discovered that title and hierarchy are prized”

    Oh, are they ever. They say Japan has no army, but I swear the whole country has been conscripted from birth.

    Something stemming from this makes me cringe daily.

  31. Amdelade:

    “And it’s been my experience (2 years in Asia, one in China, one in Thailand) that you’re generally treated as a trick poodle.”

    That’s funny…I call it the “talking dog effect”…Chinese people in general are more suprised seeing an American speak Chinese than they would be if a dog did (though nowadays I just claim I’m bai-Sulian from Northern Xinjiang, but they don’t in general buy it).

    I notice this Japanese card-handing seems to be quite different from the Chinese two-handed-give, though I do perceive a little elevation.

  32. I will add, though, that this is more formalized among businesspeople. Many times other jazz musicians have just set it on the table in front of me and continued to pack their equipment.

    But I think you’d expect that. In Germany, for example, other jazz musicians always used “du” with me right off the bat no matter the age or level of musicianship.

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