How you greet and introduce yourself to others is determined by the culture of the place are you in. From a hand shake to a Namaste, to a polite hello to a courteous Bonjour, these practices are endlessly varied. Needless to say, hospitality is absolutely essential in building good relationships in any business setting. In Japanese society, it is fundamentally important for business people to exchange their business cards, or meishi (名刺). Business cards are the persons identity and help determine their position in the hierarchy.

For businessmen, there are several basic rules and etiquette that determine how business cards are exchanged in Japan. In fact, this process is called meishikoukan (名刺交換), in Japanese, as it has its own set of well oiled rules. For a foreigner, these rules can be confusing. To tell you the truth, even the Japanese get some training before entering business life, to master this ritual. So lets see how meishikoukan works.

The basic steps:

-Keep the card in its correct orientation. Your name on the card should be directed to the person receiving your card. Do not cover your name with your fingers.

-Give and receive the cards with both hands. Bow at the same time.

-Stand up while exchanging cards. Keep an appropriate distance from each other.

-The people with the highest ranking switch their cards first. Japanese society has a hierarchical system, especially in such a business context.

The Process of Exchange:

Make sure you are well stocked: It is essential to have enough cards in advance. This is both elementary and obvious. However, it will be a big deal if you neglect to do this, so plan beforehand what would be the minimum number of people you would be exchanging cards with. If your cards are unfortunately exhausted, be honest. Apologize for not having your cards yet.

Store the cards separately: Make sure you know where to store your cards so you can take them out immediately. In Japan, most businessmen have card cases which are separate from the wallets. Make sure you know where to put a card holder in your jacket or purse.

Give and Receive: Greet the person, bow and present the card to him or her, while presenting yourself with a brief introduction. It is common practice to place the card on top of your card holder. When you receive a card hold it with both hands, at a height which is just below your chest.

Read out the name and remember it: In case you are unsure how to read the person’s name, go ahead and ask them without hesitation. It is often the case that a person might have a rare kanji in their name and the Japanese are unsure how to read it. So it is quite normal to confirm with the person, if they are naming the name correctly.

Receive the cards in the order of hierarchy: First exchange cards with the person on top of the hierarchy and continue all the way down, from his immediate subordinates to the last person in the order. Make sure you exchange cards with everyone in the room. The rules of hierarchy are rigid. A mutual consumer might be ranked even ahead of the director of a company, as he is also the client’s consumer and ranks above him.

Place the cards in the correct order: Once you receive the cards put them again in the correct order of hierarchy and place them on the table next to you. You could later collect them and put them all neatly in your cardholder.

The importance of Meishikoukan:

While exchanging business cards is not unusual in any country, no relationship will be compromised if you don’t bring them along to a meeting. Smartphones have made these business cards obsolete for years. Sometimes, business cards are exchanged in other cultures after the meeting. Social media and email also

However, in Japan, it is quite the opposite. Meishikoukan is considered a formal introduction to the person. No activity can begin until the cards are exchanged, as the exchange itself indicates the start of a relationship. The business card is an indication of a person’s social and business standing and, therefore, the level of respect you command.

Business card culture in the times of Covid-19

An important reason for the continued popularity of the business card culture in Japan is the fact that business cards state the position a person holds in the organization. As it would be rude to ask a person their position directly, meishikoukan helps the person determine who is the decision maker in the meeting discreetly. And since hierarchy decides completely how the decision flows it has become the essential cog that it is in business etiquette. However, with Covid-19 endangering the physical exchange of cards the Japanese are using apps on which one could upload their cards and these could be read through QR codes during a teleconference. Also media like LinkedIn are pitching themselves to Japanese as to treat them as their online meishi. How the “new-normal” will change this age old business culture in Japan will be quite interesting to watch.

If you are keen to start business in Japan or with Japanese companies, learning Japanese would be a great way to start. Write to us on our contact form to start learning Japanese online today!

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