Politeness in Japan 101

A Comprehensive Guide to Japanese Etiquette: Politeness in Japan 101

Politeness in Japan 101

Learn all about Japanese etiquette and politeness in Japan 101 with this comprehensive guide. Master the art of proper manners in Japan with essential tips and advice

A lot of times when people ask me about what they should do to prepare for the Japanese culture, how to prepare for a meeting with Japanese people, or how to handle business card exchanges, whether to bring a gift, or what phrases to use for a first sentence to learn the country’s culture, here’s what I tell them.

I totally understand your concern. If I, as a Japanese person, were to go to a different country, I would do exactly the same. I would learn about the culture, history, current events, and trends beforehand to get a better understanding of the country.

Japanese to Japanese

However, when it comes to respectful business culture, it's only strictly adhered to between Japanese people. That means, if I, as a Japanese person, attend a meeting with a Japanese company, and everyone is dressed in black suits and I don’t introduce myself with a business card or use respectful language, it’s going to be a problem. Not using keigo (respectful language) properly would also be a big issue.

Japanese to Non-Japanese

However, if you come to Japan for the third or fourth time, whether it’s Tokyo, Osaka, or elsewhere, and it's the tenth meeting you’re having in Japan, skipping the business card exchange or forgetting a prepared Japanese phrase won’t be a big problem. Japanese people are strict with Japanese but lenient with outsiders.

I have never heard a Japanese business person complain about someone from the United States (No offence, it’s just an example) not exchanging business cards. Not once. Even in casual settings like izakayas, where Japanese people gather after work, I’ve never heard such complaints.

Japanese to Non-Japanese Resident

However, if you have been living in Japan for 10-15 years and still can’t speak a word of Japanese, that's a different story. I have a friend from Southeast Asia who learned Japanese back home, and after six months in Japan, she could speak not only daily conversation but also business Japanese very politely. If you live in Japan, people will compare you to such individuals. If you’re not making an effort to blend in, Japanese people might view you as someone not trying to adapt.

But for a business person visiting Japan a few times, Japanese people don’t expect you to have perfectly polite or culturally aligned behavior from the beginning.

Only Need One Thing

The one thing you should be careful about is the language you use. It’s not about the tips you get from the internet, YouTube, or TikTok. If you show respect and try to understand their culture during the meeting, there won’t be any problems. People can feel your attitude through how you speak, behave, and deliver the conversation, whether through a translator or in Japanese. If you look down on the country, company, or person you’re talking to, it will automatically come across in your language and sentences. The people sniff you out without understanding English, or whatever the language you are speaking.

So, what I want to emphasize is, and this is significant not just for Japan but internationally, you have to respect the person you’re interacting with. That’s the bottom line.


Minoru Shiina