Ten days ago, I travelled to Tokyo to help Business Insider launch its latest international edition.
Unsurprisingly, I was asked to meet lots of important Japanese businesspeople, journalists, and advertisers.
Each interaction went something like this:
- Someone introduces us.
- We bow, exchange names, and, if the Japanese person offers, we shake hands.
- The Japanese person takes out a meticulously crafted business card and holds it out with both hands. I take the card, study it with interest, and then begin to apologise. I have no business card to give them.
- I take out a pen and paper and begin to furiously scribble down my phone number, email address, name, and company position.
This interaction has played out again and again throughout my time in Japan. And although I apologise, I am undoubtedly committing a major Japanese faux-pas.
Japan is, at its core, a country of rituals, respect, and etiquette. Whenever Japanese people meet for the first time, particularly in a business setting, they present business cards in a custom known as meishi koukan (名刺交換).
While exchanging business cards isn’t unusual in the US, no relationships will be jeopardized if you fail to bring them. Smartphones have all but made business cards obsolete for millennials. Hence, why I failed to bring them. I had business cards printed once when I was looking for a job after graduating college. In the intervening years, I’ve defaulted to directing new contacts to my LinkedIn or Facebook profiles. No one is ever offended.
In Japan, it is quite the opposite. The meishi koukan is considered to be a formal introduction to the person. No business can begin until cards are exchanged because the exchange itself indicates the beginning of a relationship.
The rules of the exchange are of equal importance, if you don’t want to offend your new acquaintance. According to Michael Gakuran, a writer for Gaijinpot, a website for foreigners (gaijin) in Japan:
1. The highest ranking person gives out business cards first.
2. Cards must be given and received with two hands
3. Cards should be handed face-down to the receiver.
4. Cards should be kept on display for the remainder of the interaction.
5. Cards should be kept as immaculate as possible.
The last two are possibly the most important. Business cards are considered an extension of the person you are meeting. Poorly kept cards indicate either a poorly kept person or a lack of respect to the person you are presenting the card to.
Even worse, if you shove the newly received card into a pocket or handle it roughly, it also indicates a lack of respect. While Japanese people are more forgiving of these faux-pas to gaijin, I have no doubt that foreigners have ruined entire business deals with a careless meishi koukan.
The exchange is so important that, at the Business Insider Japan launch party, attendees arrived early but refused to enter the ballroom where the party was to take place. As Shigeru Sato, Business Insider Japan’s senior editor, explained to me, it is customary for attendees to wait until all of the people they wish to meet have arrived before entering so that they may exchange cards and introduce themselves respectfully.
Here was the scene outside the party when I arrived:
Hints at the source of the exchange’s importance can be found in the characters found in the Japanese word for business card — “meishi” — which literally means “point at the name,” according to David Willoughby, a writer for Tokyo Art Beat, a blog about Tokyo’s art scene.
“If the Western business card is something meant for future reference, the Japanese meishi is a way of smoothing communication by revealing one’s true status,” Willoughby wrote in 2007.
The business card is an indication of one’s social and business standing and hence the level of respect you command. As Dr. Deborah Swallow, who has written numerous books on cultural communication, put it on her blog, “If you do not have [a business card in Japan], this implies you are of no consequence; you don’t exist.”
I never thought forgetting something I so rarely use in the US would be of such consequence to my trip.