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The Global Etiquette Guide to Asia: Everything You Need to Know for Business and Travel Success

The Global Etiquette Guide to Asia: Everything You Need to Know for Business and Travel Success

by Alan Dean Foster, Dean Foster
Everything You Need to Know for Business and Travel Success

The Global Etiquette Guide to Asia

• Country to country protocols and customs

• International business musts and faux pas

• Dining, hosting, gift giving, and more

• Cross-cultural exploration

The Global Etiquette Series Did you know:

• In Indonesia, you should


Everything You Need to Know for Business and Travel Success

The Global Etiquette Guide to Asia

• Country to country protocols and customs

• International business musts and faux pas

• Dining, hosting, gift giving, and more

• Cross-cultural exploration

The Global Etiquette Series Did you know:

• In Indonesia, you should always present your business card with both hands?

• You might offend your Japanese hosts by refilling your own teacupat dinner or forgetting to refill theirs?

In today s high-stakes, highly charged international business world, you simply can t afford a misunderstood gesture, an ill-placed word, or a misinformed judgment. The Global Etiquette Guide to Asia shows both business and leisure travelers how to understand, appreciate, and manage as well as maximize the benefits of the myriad cultural differences that can exist between you and your Asian business hosts.

This fact-filled cultural guidebook provides detailed advice on:

Dining Drinking Speaking Eye contact Hailing a taxi
Dress Negotiating Gift giving Conducting a meeting
Tipping Holidays Dealing with authorities

Just as customs vary greatly between Asia and the West, so do they vary among the diverse nations of Asia. What is proper and expected in Malaysia, for example, may be a deal-breaker in India. The Global Etiquette Guide to Asia will familiarize you with the customs, habits, tastes, and mores of every key Asian nation over forty in all and help you guarantee the mutual respect and acceptance that are vital for keeping every international business relationship agreeable, effective, and successful. Wiley s Global Etiquette Series provides the practical information you need to travel and conduct business in foreign countries and cultures. Each easy-to-navigate reference book is filled with helpful hints, do s and don ts, and other rules of the road for travelers of all types.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
"When in Rome, do as the Romans do," or for that matter, when in Turkmenistan do as the Turkmenistans do. The premise of this new series of books by the managing director of Berlitz International is to familiarize the traveler with the various customs of the countries of the world. The books are a fountain of information on dining, business, public behavior, communication, and more. Some important facts to remember: Do not smile in public in Romania or the locals will think you odd. When in Thailand, do not gesture much with your hands or you may find yourself the source of laughter. And be careful in Bulgaria to say quite clearly yes or no because to shake your head from side to side means yes. Those planning a lengthy stay in a foreign country should familiarize themselves with the information in these books. A useful addition to the travel guide genre in all public and academic libraries.--Sandra Knowles, Henderson Cty. P.L., NC Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
A guide for business and leisure travelers, showing how to understand and manage cultural differences in Asia. Chapters on countries in the Pacific Rim, South and Central Asia and Eurasia, and Southwest Asia and the Asian Arab world give specific advice on dining and drinking, public and private behavior, eye contact, tipping, driving, dress, and holidays, as well as business negotiations, conducting meetings, and dealing with authorities. Some 40 nations are covered, some with in- depth chapters and some with summaries. Foster is a consultant and frequent presenter at conferences, and is featured on radio and television. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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Global Etiquette Guides Ser.
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Read an Excerpt

The Pacific Rim

It's Not What You Say, but How You Say It

An Introduction to the Region

The ancient Taoist symbol of yin and yang is, among other things, a visual representation of the universe, wherein opposites unite forming one perfect whole: black/ white, day/ night, female/ male, action/ passivity, west/ east, occident/ orient. If there was only one thing that I could say to help Westerners better understand Asia, and to behave more appropriately when there, it might be: do everything opposite to the way you are accustomed. Overly simplistic, yes, but not far from incorrect, for Asia is, indeed, the opposite-- geographically, metaphorically, philosophically, and in many other ways-- from the West. The reputation of Asian inscrutability, of course, is more a reflection of the inability of Westerners to appreciate this fact than it is an accurate statement of Asian behavior. Asians and their cultures are as understandable as any other peoples, but Westerners need to understand and appreciate the fundamental value differences and resulting behaviors that exist between West and East.

Asia is a vast area, the largest continent in the world, with most of the earth's human population. The cultures, for the most part, are far older than in other parts of the world; the traditions, therefore, run deep and fast, and are agrarian based. The Chinese and the Middle Eastern civilizations go back approximately five thousand years; the Japanese and Korean, thirty-five hundred years; the Indian, three thousand years. Each culture, while sharing certain similarities with its Asian neighbors, nevertheless developed in different ways, resulting in the variety of peoples and customs found in Asian countries today. The best way to approach this complex region is not by ethnic group, religion, or ideology, but rather by geography. Therefore, Part One will look at the Pacific Rim, made up of east Asia, southeast Asia, and Australia. Part Two will examine south Asia, which is comprised of the subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Himalayan kingdoms), central Asia (including five former republics of the Soviet Union), and Eurasia (Turkey and the Caucasus region). Part Three will look at southwest Asia, the Asian Arab world (Gulf Arabia and the Arabian Levant), and Israel. Let's begin with the Pacific Rim.

Getting Oriented

The Pacific Rim for our purposes consists of the following macrocultural groups:

  • East Asia: Japan, China (including Hong Kong and Taiwan), and Korea
  • Southeast Asia: the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar (Burma)
  • Australasia: Australia and New Zealand

Some Introductory Background on Japan and the Japanese

When the Japanese first visited the Chinese Imperial Court, they introduced themselves as the people who came from the land of the rising sun. The geographical reference is an important one, for even today, in their national motto, the Japanese describe who they are with respect to the Chinese: since the sun rises in the east, the Japanese were stating that they came from a land east of Peking (as the Chinese Imperial City was then known), the "Land of the Rising Sun." There is no doubt that China and Chinese culture are the center of gravity in Asia, yet we will begin our discussion of East Asia with Japan. The reason is simple: although Chinese culture may be more ubiquitous throughout the region, it is the Japanese culture that, by being Asian culture in extremis, provides us with the opportunity to see most strikingly the differences between East and West. In a sense, if we understand Japan, and can master effective behaviors in Nihon (the name the Japanese use to refer to their country) with Nihonjin (the Japanese), we have already learned, in many ways, the skills required for success in the rest of east Asia.

Some Historical Context

Japan, while perfecting its own indigenous culture and traditions, historically has borrowed heavily from its neighbors (and, as history advanced, from far-away cultures as well-- including, most recently, the West), and has integrated, at least on a surface level, many Chinese, central Asian, and southeast Asian cultural attributes. Throughout Japanese history, there has been a swinging back and forth between allowing the gaijin (literally, people from abroad, or foreigners) entry, along with their cultural forms, and barring the outside world from coming in. Throughout all of Asia we see an ambivalence toward outsiders (not only Westerners, but other Asians, as well): a mixture, at different times, of xeno-philia and xenophobia-- of both admiration and acceptance, and revulsion and rejection-- of the outsider's world. In Japan, this has often taken the form of a kind of cultural passive-aggressive personality, mirroring an equally ambivalent sense of superiority-inferiority. While the West often has difficulty reconciling these opposites, such opposites are fundamentally consistent with ancient Asian philosophies (reflected in the concept of yin and yang, for example), as we will see over and over again in regard to many other behavioral patterns. Japanese history (many other Asian cultures mirror this pattern in their own way) is also the history of cycles of struggle between the Shoguns (military governors) and the emperor, the story of the rise and fall and rise again of various powerful feudal families, and the attempts at the consolidation of power (often justified by invoking divine authority) in the face of these feudal struggles by the Imperial Court. While there certainly is a teleology to Asian historical events, there is also a striking repetitiveness to the histories of this part of the world: perhaps this is the nature of history itself, more easily evident in cultures that have had the time to reveal this nature; perhaps it is a unique element of Asian cultural history; most likely, it is a combination of both.

Japan is a very small island nation, with a rugged, mountainous topography that prevents over 70 percent of its land from being used for agriculture-- primarily, the growing of the staple rice crop. Always densely concentrated along the coastlines, the people learned to rely on the sea for food (and, in a sense, for economic opportunity in general, which is, at heart, one of the reasons the Japanese were often successful whenever they did swing into their outward expansionist mode). Historically, life in Japan has been difficult and precarious, dependent upon the moods of volcanoes, earthquakes, typhoons, and four very extreme seasons. Early in the development of Japanese culture, it became evident and then self-justified through the ideologies, religions, philosophies, and histories that developed, that there was little room for error in this world, that individual, spontaneous action could prove reckless and irresponsible, and that rules, forms, and rituals were absolutely necessary in order to accomplish what needed to be done-- whether it was harvesting the rice, fishing the sea, raising a child, or running a business. It is this aspect of Japanese culture that is its essence: the exquisite ritualization of human life in an effort to create a perfectly harmonious and balanced world. If we understand the nature of these rituals, and perform them well, we will go far in advancing the Japanese ideal; if we fail to recognize, follow, respect, and understand these rituals, we violate, in Japanese eyes, the nature of the world. In part, this rigid discipline is what allows the Japanese to be so focused on the proper placement of a willow branch in a garden, and yet embark on the destruction of a neighboring civilization; of being painfully concerned with the shame that one brings about by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person, and yet exhibit a flagrant disregard for the feelings of whole classes of people. In Asia, one must behave according to certain Asian expectations, and this is particularly true in Japan. With this in mind, let's look at some important aspects of Japanese society, and then move on to the correct ways to practice important traditional Japanese customs.

An Area Briefing

Politics and Government

Today, the government of Japan is modeled on the Western political structure that was imposed on the country after World War II. It must be recognized that the parliamentary system in Japan is essentially a Western concept grafted onto a Japanese base, and that the West, while forcing this system on Japan, also recognized the need to maintain the one aspect of the Japanese political structure that was so critical to the people: the emperor. Therefore, today, Japan has a parliamentary system with a president, a representative prime minister, and a bicameral legislature (the diet), as well as an emperor, who serves as the embodiment of Japan as a cultural entity. Thus, Japan is a constitutional monarchy. The feudal lords and families, the former shoguns, have been transformed today into the modern-day business leaders, rulers of those mighty Japanese industrial conglomerates, an old-boy network that has, in the new millennium, become, in many ways, an enormous albatross around the neck of the Japanese economy and work culture. These people usually represent themselves as guardians of the imperial tradition (the old emperor/ shogun feud relived). The old patterns, while challenged, are still at work, and breaking them will require strong leadership from those who can overcome history and put forward a plan for moving the country forward. One waits to see whether Japan can free itself from the grinding paralysis of the modern-day shoguns without rekindling the kind of nationalist aggressiveness that has resulted from similar efforts in the past.

Schools and Education

Japanese schoolchildren work very hard. Throughout elementary school (ages six through twelve), and lower secondary school (ages thirteen through fifteen), right on into upper secondary school (ages sixteen through eighteen), there is little time for independent fun and free play, and the pressure only intensifies as one moves up through the grades. Between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, students with no further academic ambitions may also be attending technical college, or other special schools that train them for administrative or vocational careers. However, most want to go on to university (ages nineteen through twenty-two)-- or at least junior college, which will enable them to move on to university-- and some will later attend graduate school. Once in university, life suddenly changes, and the rigors of high school lessen dramatically. University and college become, in fact, the first brush with the deeply entrenched old-boy network of the Japanese male work society: colleges and universities become fraternities of future coworkers and funnel students into different levels of responsibility within society. Tokyo University is the top school, and its graduates are the political and business leaders of the nation.

Religion and Demographics

As we will see throughout the rest of eastern Asia, most religions are not institutionalized belief systems as they are in the West. The spiritual influences in Japan are strong, but they are not religions per se. It would be more correct to refer to them as philosophies of life. No one claims to be only a Buddhist, for example, or a Confucian. Elements of both of these philosophies inform the behaviors and beliefs of most individuals, and of society as a whole. There are few preset times of worship (although there are festivals that occur at certain times throughout the year), and priests-- if there are any-- do not represent the faithful congregation. Eastern Asian religions are really a compilation of the beliefs, writings, teachings, and thoughts of certain spiritual leaders. The three great religious philosophical influences in Japan are Shintoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.

Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan, where most of its practitioners are still found today. One of the essential aspects of Shintoism is the belief that all of life-- all objects, both animate and inanimate-- are inhabited by forces or gods known as kama. In Japan today, there is a saying that one is born a Shintoist, but buried a Buddhist (and if married in between, usually in a Christian ceremony!). There are Shinto shrines, prayers, and priests; but philosophically, the impact this religion has on social behavior is its emphasis on harmony in all things, and the need for all of life to be in balance.

Buddhism began in India about 600 B. C. Its founder was Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, a privileged Brahmin priest who, in attempting to learn the meaning of life, discovered, among other things, that his privilege brought him no happiness, and that if one were to achieve true happiness, one had to sacrifice in the secular here and now in specific ways in order to achieve a higher level in the next life. In many ways, the theology that evolved was an effort to purify what had become, in the Buddha's mind and others, a debased and corrupt preexisting Hindu religion in India at that time by placing moral responsibility onto the individual, and relying less upon the religious Brahmin hierarchy. This created, as you may imagine, some difficulty for the Buddha and his followers and the existing Brahmin establishment; subsequently, certain Buddhist ideas were both integrated into Hindu theology, while also being exported from India; its principles surviving in China, parts of southeast Asia, and ultimately in Japan. Much of Buddhist tradition emerged in Japan in the form of warrior (or samurai, the "knights" of the shogun) code, the rituals of personal sacrifice and hard work known as the Bushido (or the way of the samurai, represented today in the ethics and behaviors of the modern-day samurai, the "salaryman"), and the idea of nintai, or patience (all things, including another shot at life, in time!).

Finally, there is Confucianism, based on the teachings of Confucius, a Chinese sage who lived around 500 B. C. We will have more to say about the influence of Confucius when we look at China specifically, but Japan, borrowing as it did so heavily from China from time to time, could not help but be influenced by Confucian ideas. Confucius lived during a turbulent and chaotic time in China, and established a philosophy of life that attempted to prescribe the correct and proper way for individuals to relate to one another in order to achieve a well-ordered, functioning society. The essence of his ideas involves the importance of observing and maintaining structures, roles, and hierarchy, so that, paraphrasing his words, "the son obeys the father, the wife obeys the husband, the younger brother obeys the older brother, the husband obeys the state," and so on. Society will work when everyone knows his or her place, understands his or her obligations to others in the hierarchy, and, in fact, seeks primarily not to change his or her role, but to perfect it. This provides philosophical support for the Japanese reliance on ritual, structure, hierarchy, obligation, honor, and duty (what is referred to in Japanese as the concepts of on and giri). Giri is the burden one must always carry, the invisible tally sheet that always is there, depending upon one's relationships and the obligations such relationships impose (the rules can be quite arbitrary, and given at birth, last a lifetime). On is what one does to discharge these obligations (which, in some cases, depending upon the nature of the giri, are never fully discharged: these are literally the burdens that are known as "too great to bear"). As you can see, these ancient traditions play themselves out in modern-day Japan, providing the theoretical framework for a system that requires, among other things, honoring the elderly and one's superiors, humility in front of others, discharging obligations, and always maintaining harmonious relationships.

Japan is demographically an old country; that is, there are many old and rapidly aging people in the country and these people are traditionally venerated. How to continue to provide for them in their old age is part of the pressure that is currently on Japan to reinvent itself. Women in Japan have historically played a minor role in business, although they did run the small family shops (and today, interestingly, do have niche professions, like selling life insurance door to door, for example, or teaching or nursing). And because gender roles, like all behaviors, were ritualized, there was little room for women outside of the nurturing role. At home, women were in complete charge, from shopping (the husband rarely shopped along with the wife) and finances (the salaryman even today usually turns his paycheck over to his wife, and she is fully responsible for it) to childrearing (women were responsible for the education-- and academic performance-- of the child). Today, it is difficult to find Japanese women at any level of real authority in the large Japanese business organization. Traditionally, if a woman were to work, she would do so until she found a husband, and it was at that point that she was expected to resign, run the house, and raise children. Women who seek business opportunity in corporate Japan today often find it with non-Japanese organizations. (Non-Japanese businesswomen, on the other hand, are not subject to these constraints, and therefore can more easily succeed in the Japanese business environment as long as their authority is clear and maintained, and as long as they, like all businesspeople in Japan, follow the cultural requirements for success in Japan; this is a pattern we will see elsewhere in varying degrees throughout Asia.)

It is important throughout Japan and the rest of Asia not to assume an Asian is of one nationality or another. While most of the people in Japan are Japanese, there is a significant population from other Asian countries in the big urban areas, including a small Korean population. Koreans and the Japanese have been enemies in the past, and confusing a Korean with a Japanese could cause significant problems. The Ainu people, found today mainly in northern Japan (on the island of Hokkaido) were the indigenous people of Japan, residing there before the Chinese and others moved to the islands. Unfortunately, they are treated as indigenous peoples often are everywhere else in the world. Curiously, the Ainu have facial features similar to those of Caucasians.

Fundamental Cultural Orientations

1. What's the Best Way for People to Relate to One Another?

Other-Independent or Other-Dependent?There was a seminal experiment conducted in Japanese and American nursery schools: the teacher would provide the students with paper, paints, and paintbrushes, and instruct them to make a picture. In Japan, the children would typically wait for further instructions; and then, when none were forthcoming, one child at each table would take a piece of paper and all the children at the table would start to work cooperatively at producing a painting. The same experiment in U. S. nursery schools produced a very different response: before the teacher was finished providing instructions, each child typically would take his or her own piece of paper and begin work on his or her own painting. As they proceeded, the children would periodically look over at the progress being made by their colleagues at the table. Clearly, even at the tender age of four or five, very different fundamental value orientations about the best way for people to work together were already firmly in place. The Japanese continue today to be among the world's highest scorers on the "other-dependent" scale, while Americans continue to score very high on the "other-independent" scale. While the Japanese are taught to subordinate personal agendas for the greater goal of the group (or, if that goal is not known, until the greater goal of the group can be determined), Americans are taught that they are rewarded as individuals if they advance their personal agendas as quickly as possible. The most popular management training program in the United States is team building, precisely because business organizations and society as a whole continue to reward personal achievement: businesses know that they need well-functioning teams, and that as individuals, Americans need to be taught how to do this. The Japanese, on the other hand, are raised to behave as team players; in fact, they have to be taught how to be a little more personally assertive, when needed. The saying in the United States is "Stand up and blow your own horn," while in Japan one maxim says, "The bird that honks gets shot"; in the United States, another proverb says, "The squeaky wheel gets the oil," while in Japan, "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down" is commonly heard. The president of Sony was quoted as having said, "We need a few more nails to stick up from time to time." This tendency on the part of Japanese individuals not to do something until they are confident that it meets with the approval of others does not mean that they do not promote their own ideas, but it does mean that until one's way has won the approval and support of others, it will be very difficult to get things done. Individuals are rarely recognized for their sole achievements or blamed for their personal failings; face is saved, and all are rewarded. In large, traditional Japanese organizations, advancement occurs on "Graduation Day," when all promotions are announced, so that everyone is promoted at once-- somewhere within the organization, for better or for worse.

Hierarchy-Oriented or Egality-Oriented? Structure and hierarchy are critical at all levels in Japanese society-- in the home, at school, in the military, and in business. A formality has developed around what one does and with whom; it is necessary to show the proper respect for individuals, depending on their rank and position, and performing the correct ritual behavior is essential in order to succeed in Japan. Hierarchy is honored through humility; this is done by "lowering" or minimizing oneself. In fact, one makes more of oneself, and raises one's esteem in the eyes of others, by doing so. This is one of the foundations for the self-effacing behavior exhibited by the Japanese when they find themselves to be at the center of attention, for the formal bow upon greeting, for the endless apologies for wrongs committed or not.

Rule-Oriented or Relationship-Oriented? The requirement for rules, order, and structure, however, does not inevitably lead to rule orientation as a fundamental value. In fact, while some of these rules, structures, and hierarchies need to be made explicit (this is one of the fundamental reasons behind the ritual of the business card, which we will talk about later), many are based on relationships, rules that can only be inferred or learned "off line." In fact, Japan is extremely relationship oriented; that is, what will ultimately determine someone's action or decision is not only the ritual code, but the relationship that exists between the individuals or organizations involved, and the circumstance in which the decision must be made or the action taken. This is one of the reasons for the old-boy network, and the difficulty Japan has in disestablishing its authority.

2. What's the Best Way to View Time?

Monochronic or Polychronic? Because punctuality also reflects other values, such as concern for the other person and humility before someone else's efforts, the Japanese are more or less very punctual; certainly, you should be. Nevertheless, in the big picture, it is difficult to say that the Japanese are monochronic (subordinate to time), because in Japan, as with all traditional Asian cultures, time has historically stood in the background to immediate personal relationships; even in modern-day Japan, this is certainly still the case. Things will take the time they need to take, and the clock is not the ultimate arbiter of what occurs and when. Most Asians have a very big picture of time, and while the day-to-day life of modern Tokyo, for example, certainly requires schedules to be met, and lunches often to be rushed, when investigated a little further, one finds that the clock does not affect the big picture as much as it does in more strictly monochronically defined cultures. Japanese business, for example, usually takes a very big view of things, with business plans that are projected out ten and twenty years or more. The goal often is to obtain market share first and profits later, producing annual or biannual results instead of quarterly results (this is due also to the relative independence of the traditional Japanese business from its shareholders and the paternalistic posture that most traditional Japanese businesses take toward their employees, ultimately founded on these value orientations). Even in the typical Japanese office, where long hours are required of the average salaryman, and much time is spent with one's office buddies, the time spent is not the measure of time worked. It is the style of daily Japanese business to consume much time, but not necessarily to be efficient with it. On balance, we would have to say that Japan is a polychronic culture, as are most of the cultures of Asia.

Risk-Taking or Risk-Averse? Japan is one of the world's most risk-averse cultures. While the group protects and ensures, comforts and advances, risk aversion seals the effects. Avoiding the unknown, taking all possible precautions, gathering as much information as possible ahead of time, reviewing proposals again and again from all possible angles-- all describe Japanese behavior when it comes to risk. When combined with the other aspects of the culture (for example, hierarchy and group orientation), this means that many individuals must act this way, in concert, in order to come up with the most perfect possible solution to the needs of the superior, and must take whatever action is required to protect the supervisor from any problem that might have been avoided had individuals performed more carefully together.

Past-Oriented or Future-Oriented?Nature is not forgiving in Japan: the country is rocked by earthquakes, and typhoons or tidal waves often devastate its shoreline. While mere mortals do what we can, there is no controlling the greater forces of nature; we can appease them perhaps, but only temporarily. This is a common theme throughout ancient Asian cultures, even as they struggle to thrive today, and Japan is no different. The Japanese believe that as they work with all their abilities to make a better world for their children, there are rituals to be observed, traditions to be taken seriously, and ancestors to be listened to in order for the future to work out the way they hope.

3. What's the Best Way for Society to Work with the World at Large?

Low-Context Direct or High-context Indirect Communicators? The Japanese rely on high-context communication almost exclusively. Words themselves do not carry the meaning of any given communication; rather, real information is embedded in the context in which the communication occurs. Therefore, nonverbal communication is essential in Japan, and one must learn to "read" the situation in order to assess what is really happening, and to discover the true meaning behind the words. As the context changes, the meaning of the communication changes-- for, as is the case throughout Asia, as situations change, the behaviors that are appropriate to those situations also change. What a person says in answer to another's question when the two are one on one may be very different from what the person says when asked the same question in front of his or her supervisor. Forget the words: listen to the situation. This is one of the reasons why Japanese behavior can appear so contradictory. While the Japanese may seem stiff, unapproachable, or unable to make a decision during the workday, they suddenly become warm, friendly, and talkative in the evening over sake, and exchange a great deal of information. High-context behavior in Japan is also related to the group orientation and the need to take care of the other before taking care of oneself; this is reflected in the Japanese concern for face, the need to appear correct, true, and appropriate. (We will see this concern mirrored in many other countries in the region.) In interpersonal communications, the need to help another save face (and by so doing subsequently save your own) means that one does not necessarily say what one feels directly. Outward expression (tatemae) is revealed, not inner feelings (honne). However, indirect communication, through eye contact and other forms of nonverbal behavior, helps to communicate honne. Westerners often see this split as duplicitous: it is not. The intent is to preserve harmony and face, a first priority in Japan (and usually a secondary result in the West), not to deceive.

Process-Oriented or Result-Oriented? The Japanese, as is the case with all Asian peoples, are fully capable of employing (and do employ) meticulous logic, whether deductively or inductively; however, that is not necessarily the only process used to evaluate things, to make a case for something, or to understand an issue. A connection is made to other similar circumstances, and in that sense, the Japanese also use associative, subjective logic. However, all forms of logic are used in a more holistic way in Asia, so that while process and experience are important steps in arriving at a conclusion, the path may not be linear or progressive. This is related to the polychronic (or not time-bound) nature of the culture: things occur, thought patterns included, not necessarily in a sequential or progressive way, but in a more holistic way. In other words, the elements needed to make decisions are laid out expositionally, when and as the circumstances require it, and add up to a conclusion only when viewed "at once," as if suddenly from forty thousand feet. Do not search for sequence: search for all the facts that must be brought forward, as the situation deems it, and then sit back and evaluate the total result. (This is one reason why it is essential in Asia, Japan included, to take good notes at every meeting! What people mean may not be clear at the table, but may be upon later contemplation.)

Formal or Informal? Japanese culture is one of the world's most formal. From the tea ceremony to the bow, from the way one conducts oneself with a geisha to the way a husband behaves with a wife, a father with a child, and a wife with a mother-in-law, the required behaviors are complex. There is inevitably a prescribed form for most relationships. Spontaneity is difficult to find in Japan: oxymoronically, there must be a time and a place for spontaneity, and it is usually over sake. This makes for the two contradictory elements of the Japanese personality already referred to briefly: the outer person, or tatemae, which reflects what one says, and the inner person, or honne, which reflects what one truly feels and believes. The two may not be the same at any one time, depending upon the circumstances. Tatemae is most often demonstrated in formal situations (in the office, with the boss, on the street), and honne is usually demonstrated under more spontaneous circumstances (at the bar at night, or at home in bed).

Greetings and Introductions

Language and Basic Vocabulary

The spoken Japanese language shares little similarity with other Asian languages: if you speak other Asian languages, this will not necessarily help you in Japan. However, the Japanese language has borrowed words heavily from other languages. For example, the word for "thank you," arigato, is actually a derivation of the Portuguese word for thank you, obrigato, which the Portuguese brought with them in their travels throughout east Asia in the fifteenth century. In more contemporary times, the Japanese have incorporated many English words into their language, as well (computuh, hambuhguh, etc.).

The written Japanese language borrows heavily from Chinese written forms, and uses these forms (and variations of these forms) to express both original Japanese words and borrowed words that have become incorporated into Japanese. These written forms, or ideographs, are called kanji, and in Chinese each kanji or two represents a word concept (unlike written European languages, where each letter represents a sound). Kanji may be combined so that several concepts together create a greater concept (this is, in fact, how new words, previously nonexistent, are written). The Japanese use most kanji to represent words. But the Japanese also assign a different sound to each of forty-six special kanji, so that a written "alphabet" of sorts is available, by which one can write out a word using sound-related kanji as if they were letters that spelled out the spoken word. These specially adapted kanji are known as kana. Each kana is really a syllable, not just a one-letter sound by itself (in most cases, a consonant plus a vowel form one kana sound, rarely a vowel or a consonant alone). Therefore, the Japanese kana form, not an alphabet, but a syllabary, which is called the hiragana. Finally, there is a kind of "italic" script form used to write words that are foreign and adapted to Japanese, called katakana (hambuhguh, mentioned earlier, would be written in katakana script, for example).

The vowel and consonant sounds in Japanese are similar to those in English, with the exception of l and r. Those sounds are similar in Japanese because both are made by rolling the tongue when either is spoken; making a clear distinction between the two is therefore difficult for the Japanese. The same is true for the letters b and v. Given that it is uncommon for a consonant to stand without a vowel, words ending in consonants often have a soft, barely expressed, vowel-like sound following the final consonant (it is represented when written with the letter u), as in the common word for please, onegaishimasu (the final u is barely whispered). There are no articles in Japanese, so it is important to be clear if the or a is meant. This is usually revealed in the larger context of the text or discussion (this is related to the fact that plurality is also often not expressed directly in Japanese).

The language is not more difficult to learn than most others, but the rules governing its structure and syntax are different from Latin-based languages; this is an especially important issue when it comes to the use of double negatives. In the West, such combinations cancel each other out, thus expressing a positive, but they can cause difficulty in Japan. For example, if you were to ask, "You don't want any of this, do you?", the likely response in Japanese would be "Yes"-- meaning, "Yes, I do not want any of this." Because the Westerner would expect a "no," implying agreement, this can cause great confusion for the Japanese. Avoid such constructions. Related to this is the need to avoid asking questions that could result in yes or no answers. In a culture where much emphasis is placed on preserving harmony and face, and where most communication is therefore very high-context and subtle, any answer that could imply difficulty, a rejection of a request, or make the respondent appear uncooperative causes great anxiety for the Japanese. The result is much nonverbal communication and unverifiable verbal responses. Hai (Japanese for "yes") more often means "I hear what you are saying, keep talking," not "I agree with what you are saying"; in addition, because it is so difficult directly and openly to say "no" (ie in Japanese), you will simply not hear it said. When it needs to be expressed, you will almost always hear hai plus a series of nonverbal and verbal cues indirectly indicating the intended "no." Don't complicate the problem, therefore, by asking questions that require yes or no as an answer: the response will give you no reliable information. Instead, ask open-ended questions that require a substantive, informational response.

Many Japanese-- especially younger ones, and those in business-- speak English today (English is the second language taught to all children in school). However, most English-speaking Japanese are still very self-conscious about their English, and believe it is not good enough to use. Therefore, your excitement at discovering that your Japanese colleagues speak English puts pressure on them. Avoid this response; act pleased that they can communicate with you, apologize for not speaking Japanese better than you can, suggest that an interpreter will be helpful for all of you, and then proceed to work with the interpreters. Moreover, it is important to have your own interpreter if you can, so that the Japanese are aware that someone on your side speaks their language (this will help them communicate to you and minimize the misunderstandings that sometimes emerge when the inevitable caucusing in each other's respective languages occurs in business meetings). If you do know some Japanese, use it; the Japanese will be pleasantly surprised. They will be amazed, and a little suspicious, if you speak it fluently, however, since there is a deep sense among the Japanese that only they can really speak the language (as well that only the Japanese can really understand the subtleties of Japanese culture). Gaijin traditionally have been treated well, but rarely as equals. They are held at a distance, with the rituals making the experience work.

Here are some basic Japanese terms and their English meanings:

ohaiyo gozaimasu good morning

konichi-wa good afternoon

konban-wa good evening

oyasumi nasai good night


dozo please (go ahead)

onegaishimasu (use this often!) please (please forgive me; this is very humble)

arigato (or more respectfully, thank you arigato gozaimasu)

domothank you (in response to dozo)

do itashinmashiteyou're welcome

sumimasen excuse me, I'm sorry

Eigo o hanashimasu ka? Do you speak English?

Nihongo o hanashimasen I don't speak Japanese

wakarimasen I don't understand

hai yes

ie no

Ogenki desu ka? How are you?

Hai arigato gozaimasu, Very well, thanks, and you?

anata wa? hajime mashite pleased to meet you

Honorifics for Men, Women, and Children

Japanese honorifics mainly display rank and seniority according to Japanese culture, and not gender. Therefore, the word san, which is placed after the family name as a suffix, is used for men and women, married or single, and shows respect for them as participating members of society (it is the equivalent of the English "Mr.," "Mrs.," "Ms.," or "Miss"). Other honorifics include sensai for a teacher, which is a much higher ranking than san. For most travelers and businesspeople, san is useful enough. The word is essential when introduced to anyone, and is used virtually forever between business associates. Unless-- and only until-- your Japanese colleague specifically invites you to use his or her first name, and despite what he or she might use to refer to you, you must always use the family name plus san. (In Japan and most Asian cultures, men and women traditionally do not exchange wedding bands or rings; therefore, looking for a wedding band is generally not helpful as an indicator of whether someone is married. Also, in much of Asia, women traditionally do not take their husbands' family name when marrying, but retain their own. However, both practices are changing as more and more married couples take on the Western customs.)

Children in Japan are expected to be respectful and not overly conversational when speaking with adults, and must always use honorifics when referring to adults. As they probably speak limited English, this makes conversation with Japanese children that much more difficult.

In situations where a title is known, the title plus the word san is frequently used, either with or without the name-- for example, kacho-san (literally, "Mr. Supervisor") or bucho-san (literally, "Mr. Senior Manager"). For casual contacts (i. e., with waiters, store help, etc.), just use sumimasen. It is very important to greet people at work, in stores, or in restaurants in an appropriate fashion. The Japanese state their family name first, and their given name second, so Tanaka Shunji signifies that the family name is Tanaka and that Shunji is the given name. When addressing him, always call him Tanaka-san. As the relationship develops, he may invite you to use his first name, Shunji, at which point you still use san (Shunji-san); even when first names are used, they are rarely employed in business contexts without the san. Sometimes the Japanese (as well as other Asians), will Anglicize their names when they know they will be working or meeting with Westerners. (On occasion, they will simply assign a Latin initial as a given first and second name.) Remember that this is done for your convenience, and that the name you are being given is not the real name. (This Anglicized version may also appear on that person's business card.)

The What, When, and How of Introducing People

Always wait to be introduced to strangers; never take that responsibility upon yourself, as doing so is considered inappropriate most of the time. The Japanese are most comfortable with a third-party introduction whenever one is possible, and will go to great lengths to ensure that you are not left alone to decide this for yourself. Never presume to seat yourself at a gathering; if possible, wait to be told where to sit. The seating arrangements have usually been carefully worked out in advance, and in most cases reflect the status of the individuals in the group, and the honor that is being accorded the guests. When departing, it is important to say farewell with a quick bow to every individual present: the American group wave is not appreciated. Once you greet someone you will encounter later that day in the same circumstances (e. g., at the office), you will need to acknowledge them with a foreshortened quick bow whenever you see them again. Seniors, or those who are obviously the oldest in a group, are greeted first, seated first, and allowed to enter a room first (usually at the center of the group, however, and preceded in most cases by their younger aides).

Physical Greeting Styles

Like many Asian cultures, but perhaps even more so, Japan is a nontouching culture when it comes to greeting strangers. Only the most intimate of friends (mainly young people) will touch each other in greeting. The handshake is a Western invention, and not native to Japan: over the last century, the Japanese have, of course, become accustomed to it, but because it is done for the Westerner's benefit, it is generally an accommodation added to the more formal Japanese style of greeting, which is the bow and the business card exchange. When the handshake does occur, it is more often than not very soft, almost limp. This does not signify insincerity; rather, it is an indication of humility using a Western convention. Women must always extend their hands first for a handshake, if it is to occur at all; if so, it is inevitably very soft.

The formal Japanese introduction involves the use of business cards, or meishi. This is an essential ritual that demonstrates many aspects of Japanese culture-- among other things, humility, hierarchy, and face. Always take a large supply of business cards with you to Japan: you must give one to every new person you are introduced to (there is no need to provide another business card when you are meeting someone again unless information about you has changed, such as a new address, contact number, or position). Be sure your meishi are in fine shape: the business card is an extension of you as a person, and must look as good as possible. Never hand out a dirty, soiled, bent, or written-on meishi. You should, if possible, have your business card translated into Japanese on the reverse side before you go to Japan (many hotels and some airlines, as well as your own business, will do this as a service for you). The traditional Japanese meishi is written from top to bottom, and from right to left, with the company name being the first item, the rank and title the second, the name the third, and contact information the last (more modern businesses may organize the information in a more Western format). The group of which you are a member comes first because it is considered the most important piece of information; this is in contrast to the Western idea of putting the individual's name first.

When presenting a meishi, you give it to your Japanese associate with the Japanese side up, so that it is readable for him as you hold it (he will, in turn, present his card with the English side up, so it's readable for you); you must hold the card in the upper right-and left-hand corners, requiring the use of two hands, and you also receive your Japanese associate's card with two hands, on the upper right-and left-hand corners. The exchange is done quickly, almost simultaneously. Accompanying the exchange of the cards is the bow. The formal Japanese bow requires men to bow stiffly almost ninety degrees straight down, keeping their hands parallel to the seams of their pants, and women to bow almost as deeply, with their hands either folded in front of them or behind them (stepping back slightly a few steps, as well). This is not done in typical business scenarios today as dramatically as it used to be, nor is it expected of Westerners, considering that such behavior is directly related to the Japanese notion of showing deference for position and seniority, which is typically not natural to most egalitarian Westerners. Instead, it is perfectly appropriate for Westerners simply to bend their waists slightly and drop their heads in a nodlike action as they exchange the cards.

Smiling and other nonverbal forms of communication usually accompany the meishi exchange; it is appropriate to appear genuinely pleased to meet the other person. When first introduced to your Japanese colleague, make immediate eye contact, but as soon as the card exchange begins, and definitely when the bow commences, drop your eyes so that they are looking to the ground (this demonstrates respect for the other person). The bow is also a way of indicating your humility: the lower one bows and the longer one stays down, the more respectful one is of the other person's status; this suggests that one is more mindful (this is good) of one's humble position in regard to this status. This is why when two Japanese who do not know each other are first introduced, there can be a kind of double and triple bowing, as each person sizes up the self-perception of the other in regard to himself. Do not overdo this-- in fact, for Westerners, it is not necessary-- but remember that it will be done by the Japanese.

Information about each other's status is the most important information to be exchanged, and this is provided directly on the business card, as well as indirectly through a number of high-context indicators, such as gray hair (indicating age), gender (mostly male), and the number of people surrounding and assisting the other person (usually the more assistants the more important the individual). Humility for rank can be demonstrated subtly, by placing your card underneath the card of the other person during the exchange. Once you have received the other person's card, it is important to stand upright again, holding the card with two hands, and silently read the card for a few seconds. Then say his name (this is an opportunity for him to correct you if you mispronounce it, and for you to do the same for him) and his title in a way that indicates your respect for him and his position. It is at this point that your eyes may meet again for a moment, as you extend your hand for a soft Western handshake and say, "Hajime mashite" (" pleased to meet you"). All this occurs rather quickly, and you will inevitably meet many Japanese at once, so you will have a handful of cards when it is over.

As this ritual usually precedes a sit-down meeting, it is important to arrange the cards you have received in a little seating plan in front of you along the top of the desk or the table at your seat, reflecting the order in which people are seated. This will help you connect the correct names with the correct individuals throughout the meeting. During the meeting, it is important never to play with the business cards (do not write on them-- ever!); and when the meeting is over, never put them in your back pants pockets: pick them up carefully and respectfully, and place them neatly in your meishi holder (a nice-looking leather-bound or brass card case would be perfect), then place the meishi holder in the left inside jacket pocket of your suit (nearest your heart).

Communication Styles

Okay Topics / Not Okay Topics

This is definitely a context-driven issue: in formal business and social situations (during the day in the office, at meetings, on the street with strangers, at family gatherings with seniors), the tatemae face needs to be shown, saving honne for informal business and social situations (over sake, in the karaoke bar, at the watercooler, in the lunchroom or the men's room in the office, at home with the family). Okay: anything that reflects your personal interests and hobbies, or your curiosity about things Japanese (be sure not to be effusive, however, since it is "over-the-top" and forces your Japanese colleagues, in order to present a humble face, to minimize Japanese culture). Not okay: Politics, current events, or any subject that might in any way be controversial needs to be avoided at first. Do not inquire about a person's occupation or income in casual conversation. Do not inquire about your colleague's family life. Do not give your opinions about the role of the emperor, or comment on World War II, or discuss Japan's positions regarding the rest of Asia (or the rest of the world, for that matter). Sticking to general themes of personal interest or business is fine; it is a way of seeking common ground. There will be no need to begin a conversation with the very American "So, what do you do?" since you already know this from the meishi exchange; however, further discussions about your company and its work are very much appreciated, as this gives the Japanese a chance to learn more about you and your firm.

Also not okay: money, inquiring about private family matters and spouses (although children are revered in Japan and make for wonderful conversation), or anything that is negative or may cause disharmony. The goal of all conversation is to maintain a harmonious atmosphere, despite the difficult or confrontational nature of the topic being discussed. (This does not mean that Japanese do not demonstrate anger; they do, but when it is shown, it is usually in private, with intimates, or with individuals with whom a relationship no longer matters.) At first, speak about things that you believe you have in common, so that you can build a personal connection, which will go far toward maintaining a harmonious bridge between you. This is appropriate for both individuals and organizations.

Tone, Volume, and Speed

At first, in more formal situations, the tone is quiet and hushed. Speak slowly, for the benefit of those translating, in short phrases, and speak clearly. Try to speak expositionally, without emotion, if possible. Since words for high-context cultures such as Japan are for the most part not the best vehicles for communication, use pictures, graphics, and charts to augment the topic being discussed, whenever possible. Illustrate what you can say, and certainly what you cannot. This is a very symbol-oriented and visual culture.

Use of Silence

Passive silence can be a form of proactive communication in Japan. There may be long pauses between comments, sometimes extending over several minutes. When confronted with silence, for whatever reason, the best response is to remain silent yourself, although this may be difficult and appear unproductive for time-conscious Westerners. (Think of it as an opportunity for a Zen moment: contemplate what is going on. Do as the Japanese often do: close your eyes and meditate briefly on the situation. This is perhaps the most subtle form of communication, yet communication it is.) In Japan, the most effective communication comes from the gut (hara), not from the head or mouth. Creating, maintaining, or joining in a harmonious feeling in the room by simply remaining silent may be more important than anything you can say. Feel out the situation: the Japanese are extremely intuitive, and seek out true feelings this way. If your gut tells you that the silence is in response to tension or a possible misunderstanding, it is best to say nothing, or wait a few moments, then make a statement about something you know they will agree with and feel positive about (it can be completely unrelated to what was previously said that created the silence in the first place). For example, you could say, "By the way" (a very common and useful expression in Japan), "Tanaka-san, I meant to tell you earlier how much our team enjoyed the dinner last night; thank you again for your kind hospitality." If your gut tells you that there is no tension or discomfort in the room, but the silence persists anyway, it is probably because your Japanese colleagues are simply thinking about what to say and how to respond. A Japanese friend once told me that Westerners have it easy-- we only have to think about what to say; but the Japanese, he explained, because of so many other concerns, also have to think about how to say it. In either case, allow silence (ma). Remember, in Asia, given how careful one must be with what one says, "silence is golden"; those who speak too much are considered immature. Because some Westerners find silence disconcerting, they may tend to fill up the space with more talk; resist this impulse, as it may cause you to say more than you might normally be inclined to, and you may unintentionally help the Japanese achieve their goal of gathering as much data and information about you as possible.

Physical Gestures and Facial Expressions

The U. S. "okay" sign, made with the thumb and the forefinger, simply means "money" (i. e., the shape of a coin) in Japan; it does not mean okay (there is no hand signal for that, as the thumbs-up sign is considered a little vulgar). In Japan, there is considerably less physical gesturing of any kind. If you have a tendency to speak with your hands, you will consciously have to try to control it: most of the time, such gesturing is considered far too over the top, and will engender surprise, laughter (embarrassed giggling is more the case), or frozen disbelief. In fact, laughter may or may not be in response to anything humorous in the Western sense (jokes may not be understood); more often, it occurs because the Japanese may find the Westerners' not knowing how to behave so odd that it is funny. Doing things differently from the way tradition would have them be done makes the unknown terribly strange, and therefore, when such behavior is exhibited (more often by unknowing gaijin), it is unexpected, odd, sometimes frightening, and always a threat to the balance of things. Giggling is a way of minimizing the impact of the wrong behavior, and setting things in balance again. Japanese women will often place their hands over their mouths and giggle, as a way of maintaining their distance from men, or as a device to control an uncomfortable situation. Winking, whistling, and similar displays are considered very vulgar. When a Japanese person wants to point to himself, he puts his index finger up to the tip of his nose, not to his heart or chest. A very common nonverbal facial gesture is the sucking of air in through the front teeth, usually done in response to a difficult question. In general, this signals that there is a great displeasure, hesitation, unwillingness, or negativity, despite the hai that might accompany the gesture. Public displays of familiarity and affection with the opposite sex are typically expressed only by teenagers.

Waving and Counting

The pinkie represents the number 1, and the thumb represents the number 5, with everything in between ordered from the pinkie down; however, instead of raising the fingers when counting, the whole hand is exposed, and each finger is depressed as the counting is done. It is very insulting to motion to someone with your forefinger; instead, turn your hand with the palm facing down and motion inward with all four fingers at once. If you need to gesture for a waiter, very subtly raise your hand just slightly, or just make eye contact. Waving or beckoning is done with the palm down and the fingers moving forward and backward in a kind of scratching motion. It may seem as if the person making this motion is saying good-bye to you, but in fact you are being summoned over.

Physicality and Physical Space

Most Japanese stand, relative to North Americans, an extra six inches apart from each other; this can create a sense of distance with Westerners, but resist the urge at first to move in closer. Never, upon first greeting a Japanese, touch him beyond the soft handshake: no backslaps, no hugging, no kissing, ever. Never speak with your hands in your pockets: always keep them firmly at your side. If men and women must cross their legs when they sit, it must never be ankle over knee; for women, the preferred style is to cross ankle over ankle. Remember, in public, formal is always better than informal: no gum chewing, ever; no slouching; no leaning against things. The Japanese are very formal when they sit and stand. Once close relationships are established, and especially in those moments where spontaneity and friendliness are allowed (such as at the karaoke bar), there may be much physicality-- touching, for example, or putting arms around other people's shoulders-- but generally only between members of the same sex, and not in public between members of the opposite sex. About the only time this general nonphysicality rule is broken is on public transport, where it is very crowded and touching is unavoidable.

Eye Contact

Very indirect eye contact is the Japanese custom. Only upon the first introduction do eyes meet, and respect and humility is demonstrated, whenever necessary, by lowering the eyes. The eyes are used extensively to convey true feelings in formal situations where it is difficult to express honne verbally. Tune up your nonverbal antennae.

Emotive Orientation

The cultural code of obligation, giri, honor, face, and harmony makes the Japanese extremely intuitive and sensitive, even emotional. At times, emotions must be displayed openly, even publicly, but carefully; for example, crying often accompanies a public admission of shame and wrongdoing, or it can accompany an admission of a long, joyous, and deeply intimate relationship. Most of the time, however, the display of feelings must be done judiciously, and this can make "reading" the Japanese difficult for Westerners. Again, it is important for the Westerner to consciously control emotive impulses for more effective communications.

Protocol in Public

Walking Styles and Waiting in Lines

On the street, in stores, and in most public facilities, people are polite and orderly in lines; however, due to the volume of passengers on public transportation, there can be much pushing. This is not to get into a bus or train ahead of someone else, though; it is merely to get in! In Japan, people-- as do drivers-- usually stay to the left, and pass on the right.

Behavior in Public Places: Airports, Terminals, and the Market

Customer service is king in Japan, because the "other" (in this case, the customer) is so important. Stores are typically open in the evenings and on weekends, as well as during the day; there is a very good chance you will be bowed to as you enter and leave a store, and by all clerks as they help you. A personal thank-you to store owners, waiters, chefs, and hotel managers for their services is very much appreciated. In food markets, allow the staff to help you select items; in most cases, if you touch the produce, you are expected to buy it. In goods stores, if you buy a product and have problems with it, returning the item is usually no problem, since such a situation causes great loss of face for the store and the manufacturer. Smoking is endemic, and you may have difficulty finding a no-smoking area on public transportation, in restaurants, and in other public places. Bathroom facilities can range from Western-style toilets to Asian-style toilets (holes in the floor, with buckets of water or hoses attached to a water li ne for cleanup instead of paper); be prepared. Remember that prices in Japan can be shockingly high by Western standards and that there is a high level of comfort in doing things in groups. Consider taking public transportation whenever possible-- it is, ultimately, faster and cheaper.

When answering a phone, say, "Moosh moosh" (which means "hello" on the phone).


Driving is on the left, and most drivers are quite considerate and law-abiding. The metros shut down after midnight or 1 A. M. The best way to get a cab is at designated taxi stands (hotels are good places, but sometimes charge more for the same ride: a hotel surcharge is added to the meter fare, in some cases). Most intercity trains have all facilities you will need, as distances are usually not that great (try the high-speed train between Tokyo and Osaka: it is a joy to ride). Hold onto your metro ticket when you buy one, as you may need it when you try to leave the station. When a taxi has been hailed (the red flag in the front window means the taxi is available), the passenger doors will automatically open and close for you: do not open or close the doors yourself when getting in or out of the taxis. Addresses in big cities like Tokyo can be maddeningly illogical (in part due to urban reconstruction after World War II, and in part due to the traditional system of demarcating neighborhoods and intersections, not streets), and even taxi drivers are often mystified: whenever possible, have the address you need to get to written down on a piece of paper (or use the business card of the person you are going to see, if you can) before you hail the cab. A small map outlining the route is great, if you can have one prepared before you go. Don't be surprised if taxi drivers and train conductors wear white gloves!


Tipping is usually not done-- but if there is a tip, 10 percent is certainly sufficient. This is mainly true for restaurants; taxi drivers do not traditionally expect tips, while porters and hotel help get the equivalent of 5 percent, and theater and bathroom attendants merely fifty or one hundred yen. Restaurants usually do not permit tipping; but if it is typical at an establishment, have the 10 percent tip included already on the bill. If you are unsure if a tip is needed, it's okay to ask if service is included in the bill. There is no need to leave any odd change.


While the culture is essentially polychronic, punctuality is expected in all situations. Do not arrive more than five minutes too soon-- or more than five minutes too late, for that matter. The rules are a bit more flexible for social calls outside of the big cities, and it is understood than in places like Tokyo, getting around can sometimes be difficult and involve some delay; however, it is not preferred. You will not be told that your tardiness has caused a problem, of course, but it most likely has.


People who stand out because of their dress are not thought of very highly. Clothes should be used as a way of fitting in, not standing out. The standard is neither very formal, nor informal, no matter the occasion-- business or social, at work, in the restaurant, or on the street, for men and women. Good taste is important, and should be reflected in the clothes one wears. At work, men wear dark suits, white shirts, and subdued ties; shoes must be polished; but beyond a watch, accessories are not often worn. Women can accessorize somewhat, but most often dress simply in a business suit or dress of a conservative length. On the street, informal may mean jeans and sneakers, though that is more common as clothing to wear at the gym or while jogging (some women do wear sneakers to work, but change just before they enter the office, not after going in); and for a social gathering, informal more often than not means tastefully coordinated clothes, sometimes including a jacket and tie for men (it rarely means jeans, sneakers, and T-shirts). "Formal" usually means formal evening wear, but it is rare; most of the time, business clothes are appropriate.

Seasonal Variations

There are four extreme seasons in Japan, and one needs to dress accordingly. Summers can be hot and very humid, with frequent rain, and winters can be damp, snowy, and cold. Spring and autumn can be delightful, however.


Wear neutral colors whenever possible.


Modern Japanese are certainly aware of Western styles, and depending upon the industry, age, job, and lifestyle of the individual involved, there can be great attention to style, particularly the most recent Western fad. For the most part, however, most Japanese tend to dress with more of an eye toward conformity than toward making an individual statement. Schools still insist on regulation uniforms, and this is often reflected in the clothes worn at the workplace and in public, as well. Traditional dress, such as the kimono, is rare in modern Japan; it is usually reserved for special occasions, rituals, or entertaining. If wearing a kimono, be sure to wrap it left over right on your body (for funerals, kimonos are wrapped right over left).


Because there is no Puritan tradition in Japan (or most of Asia), sexual expression is seen as appropriate human behavior, as long as it is done privately; attracting the opposite sex is perfectly acceptable. The right makeup, hairstyle, and accessories, therefore, are important for women but must not be over the top; perfume and cologne are popular.

Personal Hygiene

In Japan, personal hygiene is very important. There is a real concern for cleanliness and smelling good, but sometimes what smells good and bad to the Japanese may be different from Westerners. When Admiral Matthew C. Perry first sailed to Japan in 1853, it is said that some of the Japanese could detect the Westerners coming: they smelled the "milk," because the Western diet relies heavily on dairy products, which are used minimally in Japan (with the exception of ice cream!). Throughout the region, the smell of dairy products on individuals is generally considered offensive, while there is usually no concomitant concern for the smell of other foods, such as garlic or seaweed. The Japanese bathe very frequently; additionally, soaking in a hot bath (traditionally, the thermal springs that are ubiquitous throughout Japan) is a ritual pleasure enjoyed by both men and women. In this situation, the sexes are usually segregated, when possible (if in a thermal spring, this is sometimes not possible, but no sexual activity is implied by any subsequent nudity in this context), and all are expected to wash, bathe, and shower meticulously before entering the hot bath. This is usually done with buckets of hot water and soap, standing outside or beside the bath; occasionally, assistants will help in this task. No one enters the bath without having first cleaned him or herself: the purpose of the bath is to enjoy the hot, relaxing waters (and the hot soak is often a daily family ritual). This has often caused confusion among Japanese who travel to the West and enter bathrooms with large tubs; soaking in them requires that they clean themselves before entering the tubs-- to wash while sitting in one's dirty water is uncommon to them (they typically shower). Do not blow your nose in public: it is considered very rude (if you must blow your nose in public, never use a handkerchief; try disposable tissues). At the end of a meal, it is perfectly acceptable to use a toothpick, but you must cover the "working" hand with the other hand, so that others cannot see your mouth.

Dining and Drinking

Mealtimes and Typical Foods

The typical Japanese diet revolves mainly around seafood, rice, and noodles. Consequently, although there has been increased familiarity with Western foods (you might just as easily have a cappuccino and a croissant for breakfast in Tokyo as rice cereal), most meals are prepared with these ingredients in a variety of ways. We will refer here to the more traditional Japanese meals, not those that have become Westernized. Breakfast is served from about 7: 30 A. M. to 9 A. M., and usually consists of tea and rice; the latter is served either as a porridge-type cereal that can be flavored with any number of ingredients, with eggs in a variety of styles, or with pickled vegetables. Tea in Japan, as is the case elsewhere in the region, is usually drunk without sugar, milk, or lemon.

Lunch was traditionally the main meal of the day, and even today, in busy cities, it can still be an elaborate affair with several courses-- or it can be a simple noodle dish bolted down in a matter of minutes. Lunch is served from about noon to 2: 30 P. M., often in a bento box (usually a small wooden lacquered box), which consists of several small dishes, each in its own compartment, made of meat, fish, and vegetables (tempura-style or pickled), and some rice and noodles. Lunch can also be a large serving of hot broth or soup, made with a variety of ingredients and noodles. Finally, of course, there are the fine courses of sushi, sashimi, sukiyaki, shabu-shabu (a barbecue-style meat sukiyaki), and the like. It should be remembered that these dishes are fairly luxurious and do not constitute the average meal; they are usually reserved for special occasions, quick personal snacks, or entertaining. Typically, the drinks served with lunch and dinner are beer, sake, and/ or tea.

Dinner is served from 6:30 P. M. on, with eight to nine o'clock the customary time; salarymen with long commutes usually arrive home late (around 9 P. M. or later) and have their dinner (served to them by the wife) separate from the family. If the main meal of the day was an entertainment lunch, then dinner is lighter-- this is often the case with families at home. The dinner menu is often similar to that of the more formal lunch. Dinner drinks may begin with sake, served alone or with appetizers, then move on to beer during the meal, and end with a sweet wine and/or tea. Desserts may or may not be included; when they are, they usually take the form of sweet cakes, fresh fruit, or green tea or ginger ice cream.

Business dinners can last well into the evening, and depending upon the elaborateness of the occasion, may or may not include entertainment (sometimes in the form of geisha). The geisha house itself is not technically a restaurant, and many geisha will work for hire in any restaurant they are called upon to attend. The geisha traditionally make men feel comfortable. They play the roles of mother, girlfriend, sympathizer, supporter, entertainer, and waitress. They should not be judged by Western standards of fidelity and propriety, as they hearken back to a long courtier tradition in Japan. Today, geisha are a very special, and expensive, luxury, and are not a common sight in Japanese restaurants. They will most often work private parties at restaurants, and therefore may never be seen at all unless you are a male guest at one of these functions. Women are never invited to a party being "hosted" by geisha. As a man, try to relax and enjoy the extraordinary hospitality. A geisha will never make you feel uncomfortable. They do not come on to you; they are extraordinarily sensitive to your mood and are there to make the evening meal as relaxing and enjoyable an experience as possible. They follow your cues. But never tip a geisha. At the end of the evening, a simple bow and thank-you is all you need to do.

While we're discussing entertaining, a few words on the ubiquitous karaoke, a unique form of Japanese after-dinner entertainment that has caught on around the world. The karaoke, before it became associated with high-tech sing-along music machines, began as a way to break down whatever barriers between friends that the sake and beer had not already destroyed. The idea is still the same today: be prepared to sing a song, no matter how good or bad your voice or lyric memory; be sincere; be willing to make a fool of yourself in front of others; and be a good sport about it all. Most importantly, be sure to have fun. It's the spirit that counts. The bottom line: don't go to dinner in Japan without having boned-up on the delivery of your favorite song. Women are expected to partake in the evening's business entertainment as long as they are seen as equal business partners (in this case, geisha entertainment will not be part of the evening).

You know restaurants are open when they have little cloth banners (noren) strung out over the doorway; they are closed when the noren are not visible. And here are some of the different varieties of eateries you may find yourself in:

  • sushi-ya: Usually informal places, where you sit at counters and order individual dishes of sushi.
  • ryotei: High-class traditional restaurants, featuring Japanese "haute cuisine"; they absolutely require reservations, and are typically very expensive. A ryotei may be difficult to recognize, for it is usually a discreet building placed inside a courtyard set back from the bustle of the street; look for a little mound of salt (morijio) placed on the ground to the side of the front entrance. The morijio is a welcome sign to customers and symbolizes prosperity, which you must be blessed with in order to pay the prices charged inside!
  • sukiyaki-ya: Places specializing in sukiyaki and shabu-shabu; they are a step up from the noodle shop, and very popular among businessmen.
  • soba-ya: Strictly soba (a popular type of noodle dish, usually served in a broth), strictly simple, and usually family run.
  • tonkatsu-ya: Tonkatsu is a fried pork cutlet, and that's what you get here mainly.
  • yakitori-ya: Yakitori is grilled chicken, often served on a skewer. If you see a restaurant with the ubiquitous red paper lantern hanging outside to the side of the front entrance, that's your sign that the restaurant is most likely a yakitori-ya. It's a friendly, informal place, where salarymen gather for a bite and some drinks before going home.
  • okonomiyaki-ya: Okonomiyaki is a kind of pancake, into which all sorts of vegetables are mixed. It's usually cooked right on a griddle at your table. It's very informal and lots of fun, and a specialty of the western region of Japan.
  • oden-ya: Places serving oden, a kind of constantly bubbling stew of vegetables, meat, or fish, which is a favorite in winter.
  • department store restaurants: Yes, they are inexpensive and very good family-type places serving all sorts of Japanese food.

A unique feature of many Japanese restaurants is the display of mouth-watering dishes in the front window, tempting passersby with luscious-looking examples of the food to be found inside. It's amazing, really, how the restaurant's chef turns out these display dishes every single day. Well, really, they just dust them off. The fact is, they are plastic models, and if you don't speak Japanese, just bring the waiter outside for a moment and point to the dish in the window that you want. And if you don't know what it is, say, "Are o kudasai" ("What is this one, please?"). You'll get a smile and, most likely, a high-school-English- as-a-second-language attempt at an explanation.

Regional Differences

While different cities in Japan will certainly have their local specialties, the food is remarkably similar throughout the country. There are some notable delicacies though, such as Kobe beef (rare and expensive because the cattle are grazed on specially manicured grass and treated exquisitely, including being given hand massages and meals of beer; this is all the more extraordinary when one considers how valuable real estate is in Japan-- precisely the reason why cattle are not typically raised in the first place), chicken sushi (yes, raw and marinated chicken), and fugu (the specially prepared meat from the occasionally poisonous blowfish). But for the most part, the food is uniquely Japanese, everywhere.

Typical Drinks and Toasting

The most common liquor is sake (pronounced "sa-kay"), which is a fermented rice wine. It is best drunk at room temperature, neither warmed (although cheaper sakes are in winter) nor chilled (although the same sakes are in summer), in small ceramic sake cups. Each person is usually given a sake cup and a small flask filled with sake. Because you must never pour your own drink (be it sake, beer, or tea), you must always be alert throughout the meal as to whether your neighbor's sake cup, teacup, or beer glass needs refilling. If it is less than half full, it needs refilling; alternately, if yours is less than half full, your neighbor is obliged to refill it. If he or she does not, do not refill it yourself, for this will cause your neighbor to lose face; instead, diplomatically indicate your need by pouring a little more drink into your neighbor's glass, even if it doesn't really need it. Sake is sometimes drunk in shots, beer usually is not.

The toast in Japan is kampai, which means "bottoms up" or "drain the glass." Sake can be strong, so go slow. If you are the honored guest, you will be expected to make a toast, usually soon after the host does (but before the main course is served) or at the end of the meal before everyone departs. An appropriate toast is to the health of the host and all those present, and to the prosperity of the business that brought you together.

Table Manners and the Use of Utensils

Let's start with perhaps the most formal Japanese dining event, the tea ceremony, and work our way down from there. The tea ceremony is a classic Zen event, requiring strict adherence to rules designed to promote tranquillity through the discovery of much in what is little (remember, the Japanese excel at perfecting the miniature, as evidenced in the art of bonsai). You will be served special green tea (o-cha), unsweetened, which has a slightly bitter taste. But remember, rice and tea are sacred in Japan. If you are invited to a tea ceremony, ask about the formality of the occasion: in most cases, unless you are instructed otherwise, men should wear dark suits and ties, and women should wear skirts and blouses. You will remove your shoes upon entering, as you would in a Japanese home, and you will probably be seated on a tatami flooring or a zabuton (a cushion or pillow), so be sure your socks aren't worn-out and that you don't wear tight-fitting clothes. As when entering a home, there is an area just inside the front door known as the genkan: this is where you remove your shoes and put on slippers, if they are made available. Once your shoes are removed, it is imperative never to step down on the genkan in your stockinged or slippered feet, but instantly step up onto the tatami. This way, you avoid bringing whatever dirt there may be in the genkan area into the house.

Once you have entered the tatami room, greet the guests who are already there with a slight bow, and sit down in the place indicated. No talking, please. And no handshaking or exchanging of business cards (meishi). Stay in your place, bow, and then be seated silently.

First, you will be served a small cake (o-kashi) on a small plate. Pick up the plate with one hand and hold it at chest level so that crumbs fall on the plate. Crumbs must not fall anywhere on you or the tatami. Eat the cake in several small bites, then put the plate back down in the place from which you originally picked it up.

After you have eaten the o-kashi, the tea will be served to you. Before you pick up your cup, bow to those guests who have not yet been served tea (they will be served, as you are served, individually, and in order of status, after each individual has performed this ceremony), pick up the cup (actually a small bowl-- there will be no handle) with your right hand, bring it to chest level, and hold it there with both hands for a moment. Now turn the bowl clockwise two quarter turns (this keeps you from having to drink from the front of the bowl), and drink the tea completely in several sips. When you are finished drinking, turn the bowl counterclockwise in two similar quarter turns back to the original position and place the bowl down in front of you on the tatami just inside the seam. Make a formal bow to the hostess when you are finished drinking and have set the bowl down. Keep in mind that tea bowls and utensils are ceremonial objects, often worthy of the status of high art, and therefore must be handled with great care. If there are other guests waiting to be served, look admiringly at your tea bowl while they are being served. If there are many others to be served, polite conversation with those either waiting or finished drinking is acceptable. Take special care not to be loud, too talkative, or disruptive of anything that could break the peace and harmony of the event. Once everyone has been served, everyone makes a bow of gratitude to the hostess and then departs.

At this event, and at other formal traditional Japanese dinners, you may be sitting in a seiza position (on one's heels with the legs tucked underneath the buttocks), which can be uncomfortable for many Westerners. Your hostess will probably notice your discomfort and suggest that you "get comfortable"; when she does, you may sit cross-legged (if male), or with your legs tucked to one side (if female). Never spread your legs directly out in front of you.

How many American businessmen have endured excruciating leg cramps while attempting to enjoy a Japanese meal, sitting cross-legged in a business suit on the floor? How many Western women have had to endure the discomfort of sitting legs sideways on the floor while dining with men at the same meal? Yes, traditional Japanese meals are taken sitting on the floor-- well, really the tatami, which is a reedlike mat inset into the top part of the floor, so that the top of the mat surface is level with the surface of the floor surrounding it. Most Westerners can't do this for more than five minutes without experiencing hospitalization-level pain. How to get around this? Practice and wear loose fitting clothes. However, most Japanese restaurants have dining areas in which the table is built around a "dugout," so that once you settle in you can dangle your legs to your heart's content under the table.

There is a far more informal event that you may be invited to, and that is tea at a Japanese home or office. This is not the tea ceremony described above; this is a friendly, casual event, at which a tray will be brought out with a cup of tea, a small plate with a cake, and a hot, wet cloth (an o-shibori). Why the custom of o-shibori has not caught on in all restaurants around the world, I do not understand, for it is a wonderfully refreshing, and sanitary, way to start off any meal. You wipe your hands with the towel, not your face, and you do so before you touch any of the food, not after the meal. As far as chopsticks (o-hashi) are concerned, let's start by setting the record straight: not every country in Asia uses them. In fact, the "chopstick cultures" were originally only China, Japan, and Korea. In most of southeast Asia, you simply do not use chopsticks: in Thailand, for example, you eat with spoons and forks, but no knives, and no chopsticks. (Next time you're in your favorite Thai restaurant, don't ask for chopsticks: eat your sticky rice with a spoon and fork.) Chopsticks can be fancy (made of silver or ivory, inlaid or carved with drawings and sayings) or simple (just two sticks of wood), but no matter how basic or aristocratic, they are held and operated exactly the same way. I personally find the simple wooden kind the best: food sticks to them better, the friction makes picking up food easier, and the wood absorbs all the wonderful flavors. I find fancy ivory and lacquered jobs far too slippery: the food keeps sliding off them, and they don't absorb any flavors. There are lots of ways to teach someone how to use chopsticks, but I like the "pencil" approach:

  • Hold the first chopstick horizontally in your hand as you would a pencil, the bottom of the chopstick resting on the top side of your thumb, and the top of the chopstick being controlled by your index and/ or middle finger lightly pressing down on it. Notice the little loophole created by your thumb and forefinger.
  • Holding the second chopstick with your other hand, slip the second chopstick through the loophole starting from the inside of your palm, until it is parallel to the first chopstick. Always hold both chopsticks so that the pointy end is the end you'll use to pick up the food with, and the blunt end is pointing back at you. If you were to let go of the second chopstick with your other hand at this point, it would wobble and fall out of the loophole, so you've got to hold it down somehow. Well, you've got several other fingers left, so use either your middle or third finger (or both) to hold down that second chopstick against the inside of your thumb. You've done it! The "pencil" chopstick moves up and down, while the second chopstick remains stationary. The latter is the one against which the food is scooped, picked up, and eaten.

Having said all this, remember that learning to actually use chopsticks is like learning to drive: I can tell you what to do, but the only way you'll really do it is to, well, just do it. Practice, practice, practice.

Chopsticks should always rest together parallel to each other, most preferably in a north-south line along the right side of the plate on a chopstick rest or on the plate itself. In Japan, and throughout all chopstick cultures, never cross your chopsticks like an X, never rest them on separate sides of the plate, and never ever use them to point at things. No matter how pointy, they must never be used to spear your food. And the biggest no-no of all: never stick your chopsticks into your rice so that they stand upright. It may seem to the Japanese that you are mocking the Japanese requirement to use them well. Moreover, when someone dies, a bowl of rice with upright chopsticks is often used as a funeral offering.

Chopsticks with soup? In Japan and elsewhere in the chopstick region, you use the chopsticks to lift the solid foods out of the soup bowl and into your mouth. When you are finished with all the food pieces, you drink the broth straight from the bowl. Since soup is wet, of course, you hold the bowl close to your mouth, scooping the food pieces with your chopsticks directly into your mouth with as little empty space between the bowl and you as possible. When nothing but the broth is left, you rest your chopsticks, hold the bowl with two hands (important!) at your lips, and drink the broth like a cup of tea.

The same procedure is used with rice, minus the drinking part (unless it's sake, or "liquid rice" as it is sometimes referred to). Rice is the main grain of Asia, and in Japan it holds a sacred place. It is most often served in individual small rice bowls, to be eaten all at once after the main dish has been eaten (the preferred way), or you can

A. pick up some food with your chopsticks in your chopstick hand;

B. then, with your other hand, pick up your little rice bowl and hold it up to your chin;

C. then, holding the food in your chopstick over the rice bowl, put it in your mouth, and quickly scoop in some rice from the bowl as a follow-up.

It is important to eat every grain of rice in your rice bowl: rice is sacred, and leaving any over is considered bad breeding. Additionally, rice is never mixed with food or sauce: it is always eaten plain.

Remember that in Japanese culture every action is functional precisely because it is also done gracefully and efficiently. This concept is a manifestation of Zen ideals, so much at the heart of Japanese traditions. Japanese chopsticks differ slightly from Chinese chopsticks (Japanese chopsticks are typically slightly shorter, with squared-off edges; Chinese chopsticks are typically longer and rounder) and need to be more formally handled: no waving chopsticks around aimlessly over different dishes trying to select what you want (mayoi), no sticking the chopstick ends into the food like a spear (sashi), and no drawing the bowl or plate nearer to you with your chopsticks (yosi). You might also note that pickled vegetables (tsukemono), a common accompaniment to the main dish, usually served in a small dish or bowl on the side, will often come with their own pair of serving chopsticks. Use them to transfer the tsukemono onto your plate: this way, the strong flavor of the pickles does not affect the other food you might pick up with your chopsticks, especially the subtle and mild flavors of fish.

Japanese chopsticks are usually simple, raw wooden sticks, connected at the blunt end, and rounded slightly at the other, and are typically presented in a paper wrapper. Everything in Japan has a meaning, so don't just slip the chopsticks out of their paper wrapping and discard it. Slide the chopsticks out, and lay them carefully on the right side of your plate, north-south, blunt connected end facing north. Now get to work on the paper wrapper: fold it horizontally in half, so that you have a long, thin, rectangular ribbon of paper. Holding both ends of the ribbon, tie it into a knot. Place the knotted paper to the right side of your plate (near the two o'clock position), and rest the mouth end (the rounded end) of your chopsticks on the paper knot. Voilà! You have made a rest for your Japanese chopsticks. Now the food-stained ends of your chopsticks never have to touch the table while you dine. The Japanese do this all the time (unless, of course, they are provided with chopstick rests, which usually happens only at the classier restaurants and events). An important point about using Japanese chopsticks: they first need to be separated at the connected blunt end. So once you've created your little paper chopstick rest, pick up your chopsticks and, holding them over your lap (this is important, because little splinters of wood may break away, and you don't want them to land on your plate and eventually in your food), snap them apart like a wishbone. Then gently rub the separated ends a few times together (again, holding them over your lap), as if sharpening a knife, the idea being to whittle any wooden splinters away. Now they're ready to use, and you can place the food ends down against your paper rest (food ends facing north, blunt ends facing south).

If you really want to score points with your Japanese hosts, don't just reach over and grab your chopsticks. If you've made your little paper chopstick rest, you've already started down the correct path; complete the journey by learning how to pick up your chopsticks bushido-- the right way. With your right hand held hovering over your chopsticks, push your elbow out to the right and rotate your hand counterclockwise so that the fingers you will use to pick up your chopsticks land with your thumb on the right side of the right chopstick, and your index and middle fingers on the left side of the left chopstick. Pick up the chopsticks from the blunt base end this way, and as you lift them off their rest, bring your elbow back in toward your body, rotating your hand clockwise and upward, so that you can see the tips of your fingers. The chopsticks swing elegantly in an arc, and are perfectly ready to be used. This is a single, beautiful, and graceful motion that, again with practice, avoids the clumsy two-handed setup that chopstick novices usually suffer with.

If you use chopsticks with soup, you must also use them for grains of rice, little bitty peanuts, and practically every item on your plate, no matter how small, round, or difficult. Never use your fingers; always use your chopsticks. Really. Sushi is the only exception to this rule, based on the fact that if you pick up sushi with chopsticks, it is physically impossible to dip it into the soy sauce fish-side down; this forces you to soak the rice on the bottom of the sushi with soy sauce, and not the fish, so by the time the soya-soaked rice gets to your mouth, it has fallen apart all over your plate. Your best bet is to pick up the sushi with your hand and dip it, fish-side down, quickly (for just a taste) into the soya sauce. If you simply cannot master chopsticks, it's perfectly all right in modern-day Japan to ask for Western cutlery: you will get a spoon and a fork (rarely a knife).

Use your chopsticks to cut up pieces of food, if necessary; remember, the meat or fish is marinated before cooking, so it will be easy to break up the flesh with the chopsticks: there will be no need for knives. Certain foods, like soups, are served in bowls with lids on them: it is important at the end of the meal to place the lid back on top of the bowl when you are finally finished. Unlike in some rural parts of Asia, bones, gristle, and other remains of your meal do not get scattered on the floor or on the table; in Japan, these are placed neatly on the side of your plate. If you are using soya sauce, be sure to pour out only the amount you think you will actually use, and make sure you pour it into the shallow, empty little bowl that is usually brought out to you with your meal. That's what it's there for. Most Westerners use far too much soy sauce, and drench their sushi and sashimi in it: just a quick little dip, please. A well-bred diner in Japan usually has just a trace of soya sauce left in their bowl.

When eating sushi, mix a little wasabi-- a pungent green herb that tastes like horseradish-- into your soya sauce bowl with your chopsticks, and stir a bit, slowly so it does not splash. No soya sauce should stain the tray, the tablecloth, or the mat, and wasabi should never be eaten by itself, or spread directly onto the fish.

When seated at the Japanese table, be sure to sit upright, not slouched over your food, with your legs flat down against the floor, not cross-legged (if seated Western style). There is an exception to this rule, and it is the same situation that allows for an exception to the no-noise rule: the eating of noodles. Day-to-day dining in Japan revolves around vegetables, noodles, fish, and soups; the salaryman's typical lunch consists of a bowl of ramen (Chinese-style yellow-colored noodles) in a steaming broth filled with vegetables, egg, and chicken. When eating any kind of noodles (many of which can be served either hot or cold), it is perfectly acceptable to slurp. Slurping hot noodles cools them off, and, hot or cold, it is believed that slurping air into the mouth along with the noodles enhances the flavor. How vigorous a slurp? Listen to those around you. And, of course, slurping such wet food also requires that you bend over your bowl a bit so that the slurp doesn't splash. Slurping is also okay when it comes to miso soup or bowls of noodle broth. Splashing is not okay. (However, never slurp your tea: sip it quietly.)

The two main kinds of non-soup noodle dishes are soba (brownish buck-wheat-and-wheat noodles) and udon (whiter, wheat-only noodles). Cold noodles will be served to you on a bamboo rack in a lacquer box, with a small bowl of broth on the side and a small bowl of condiments to mix into the broth. You take some noodles with your chopsticks and dip them directly into the broth bowl. Do not pour the broth over the noodles. You may also be served a yuto, a small, square container with a ladle-like handle and a spout, into which was poured some of the broth that the noodles were cooked in the kitchen.

If the yuto is brought out to your table, pour a little of the broth from it into your broth bowl: it supposedly adds to the flavor of your dipping broth. It is considered an honor if the chef selects you to receive the yuto. Both soba and udon are served in limitless varieties, either plain, or in soups and broths, sometimes with a raw egg on top, sometimes with strips of nori (dried seaweed) or tempura (batter-fried vegetables or shrimp). One interesting tradition in Japan is to eat soba while listening to the temple bells ringing at midnight on New Year's Eve. Soba eaten this way is called toshikoshi-soba, with the long, thin noodles representing a long life and many years to come. Additional varieties of noodles are somen (wheat-based noodles, the thinnest of all), and hiyamugi (wheat-based noodles, and not as thin as somen, but thinner than udon). All noodle dishes in Japan are served with condiments, to add more flavor to the very subtle soba and udon. The following condiments also appear on the Japanese table, in general, so it's good to become familiar with them. Sprinkle them (carefully) on whatever you like; feel free to experiment with them.

  • negi: diced spring onions or scallions
  • schichimi: a combination blend of seven tastes-- mikan (mandarin orange peel),sansho (pepper), kurogama (sesame), asanomi (hempseeds), keshi (poppy seeds), togarashi (cayenne), and hoshinori (ground dried seaweed)-- served in a shaker on the table
  • wasabi: a green, ground, pastelike herb that tastes like horseradish (very strong!)
  • mitsuba: ground, greenish-yellow coriander-type fresh vegetable leaves
  • yuzu: ground Chinese lemon peel, with a unique citrus like taste
  • shoyu: soy sauce
  • su: rice vinegar
  • mirin: heavily sweetened sake (or rice liquor); used only as a food dressing
  • fish sauce: made from vinegar and fish paste, imparting a dark, fishy taste

When you are served a lunch in Japan, it will either be on a place mat, the tablecloth, the tatami, or in a bento box. The bento box was designed as an easy, simple way for salarymen and workmen to get all the ingredients and dishes in a transportable meal quickly and easily. It is a mastery of design, efficiency, and presentation. Foods served to you will come in a variety of containers, the most common being the following:

  • chawan (the rice bowl)
  • shiru-wan (the soup bowl)
  • yakimono-zara (the ceramic dish on which the food is placed)
  • nimono-wan (a wide-mouthed bowl for boiled foods).

Additionally, there are three small bowls for side dishes:

  • chuzara (medium sized to small)
  • kozara (very small)
  • kobachi (a tiny bowl for little delicacies)

Soba or udon is served in lidded china bowls known as domburi-bachi. Finally, the tall handleless cups in which tea is served are called yunomi-jawan.

Any dish served in a container with a lid on it probably contains liquid, so be careful removing the lid. When you remove it, place it upside down on the table or tray, so that it doesn't roll and so that the condensation that has probably formed on the inside does not drip onto the table or tablecloth.

Seating Plans

The most honored position is at the middle of the table, with the second most important person seated next. This means that the host will sit at the middle of the table on one side, and the honored guest in the middle on the other side, opposite the host. (Spouses are usually not invited to business meals, and most formal meals in restaurants are business meals: do not ask if your spouse can join you; it will embarrass your Japanese colleague into doing something that is uncomfortable for him.) The honored guest sits on the side of the table farthest from the door. (This is the same at business meetings, with the key people sitting in the middle, flanked on either side in descending order by their aides, with the least important people sitting at the ends of the table farthest from the middle, and closest to the door; the arrangement is mirrored on the other side, because the rules of hierarchy demand that everyone must be able to speak with their opposite peers and those who rank below them, but those below should not speak with those above.) If women are present, they will probably be given the honored positions first, although practically speaking there will be far fewer women. In Japan, women typically rise when men enter the room, hold doors open for men, and escort men into a room first.

Refills and Seconds

Japanese food is typically served, depending on the dishes, either individually or as a communal dish. If it's a communal dish, or if you are dining at someone's home, you will always be offered more food. Leave a bit on your plate (but never any rice in your rice bowl) if you do not want more food. You will be implored to take more two or three times, in the form of a little ritual. The game is as follows: first you refuse, then the host insists, then you refuse again, then the host insists again, and then you finally give in and take a little more. Usually the host will be apologizing to you for the terrible food and begging you to take it anyway to make them feel better. If you really don't want more, take very little and leave it on your plate. You may always have additional beverages; drink enough to cause your cup or glass to be less than half full, and it will generally be refilled. A reminder: never refill your own glass; always refill your neighbor's glass, and he or she will refill yours. Portions are generally smaller than in the United States, but there are generally more courses, for both lunch and dinner. It is not about quantity, but quality, and exquisitely prepared dishes that look as good as they taste.

At Home, in a Restaurant, or at Work

In Japan, it is expected before you begin eating or drinking anything that you say "itidakimasu" (basically "bon appétit"), and that after the meal you say "gochisosama deshita" (basically, "thanks for a great meal") to the host or hostess.

At the table in Japan, try to relax and see the meal as an opportunity to enjoy peacefully the company of other people in an atmosphere whose sole purpose really is to create a harmonious and Zen-like feeling of satisfaction-- with the food, with one another, and with life. Try mirroring both your Japanese colleagues' actions and words. To begin, it's best not to drink or eat until your Japanese host does and, throughout the meal, try to follow the cues of your colleagues in terms of when they drink, eat, and toast. Match the relaxation levels they are striving for as the meal progresses. It might begin rather quietly and formally, but the Japanese meal can get quite convivial and lively once the sake starts flowing and the wasabi is mixed.

In informal restaurants, you may be required to share a table. If so, do not force conversation: act as if you are seated at a private table. Waitstaff may be summoned by making eye contact; waving or calling their names is very impolite. The business breakfast is a fact of life, but not as ubiquitous as in the West. The business lunch (more common than dinner) and dinner are quite common; but, depending upon how well developed your relationship may be, it is generally not the time to make business decisions. Take your cue from your Japanese associates: if they bring up business, then it's okay to discuss it, but wait to take your lead from their conversation. If you're in a restaurant and being hosted by your Japanese colleagues, it is perfectly all right to ask your host to order for you, if you are unsure of the food.

When invited to a Japanese colleague's home for a formal meal, you will be told where to sit, and there you should remain. It is a great honor to be invited into a Japanese home, because the Japanese feel that many Westerners will find their homes too small and crowded; also, older family members might be living there, and your presence will probably make things uncomfortable for you and them (no mutually intelligible language!). When you approach a Japanese house (not an apartment), you generally announce who you are at the front door, without ringing a bell or knocking. Once invited in, you will need to remove your shoes (wear good socks): this is still a custom in many restaurants as well. Remove your shoes in the genkan, and never put your stockinged feet down on the genkan once you have removed your shoes: step directly into the house onto the tatami. Both men and women should remove their shoes before stepping onto the tatami.

In typical Japanese fashion, one doesn't simply remove one's shoes: there is a prescribed "way" of doing it. As soon as you approach the tatami, turn around and face the direction from which you came, and slide your feet out of your shoes. Your shoes should automatically be facing outward and away from the dining area. Place the shoes side by side next to the other shoes that are lined up in front of the tatami, or in the "shoe area" (it will be made obvious to you). Whatever you do, never ever put your shoes on the tatami. Now, turn around and step onto the tatami. (In some homes, you may be offered slippers after you remove your shoes. It is perfectly appropriate to put them on; however, if you need to use the bathroom at any point you must take the slippers off before entering the bathroom, and place them back on when leaving the bathroom.)

The ritual of removing shoes ensures that your shoes are "ready for you"; that is, when the meal is over, all you need to do is step up to your shoes and slide right into them and keep on walking! No klutzy fumbling around. Grace and efficiency. That's Japanese. This all presupposes that you realized before-hand that in Japan it's best to wear shoes that slip on and off, as opposed to shoes that buckle or lace. A very high-profile U. S. businessman was being coached on just this point prior to his first, and very important, trip to Japan. "Hell, I never wear those loafery shoes," he scorned, and took his very British lace-ups with him to Tokyo. He fumbled the shoes. He fumbled the meals. And he fumbled the deal.

Once inside the home, do not wander from room to room: much of the house is really off-limits to guests. If you move from room to room in a Japanese home, be sure to always allow the more senior members of your party to enter the room ahead of you. Once at the table or tatami, be sure to look for place cards or wait until the host indicates your seat: do not presume to seat yourself.

Being a Good Guest or Host

Paying the Bill

Usually the one who does the inviting pays the bill, although the guest is expected to make an effort to pay. Sometimes other circumstances determine the payee (such as rank). Making payment arrangements ahead of time so that no exchange occurs at the table is a very classy way to host, and is very comon. When men are present at the table, women will not really be able to pay the bill at a restaurant: if you want to, make arrangements ahead of time, and don't wait for the check to arrive at the table. The only time it is considered appropriate for a woman to pay the bill is if she is a businesswoman from abroad.


It's a very nice idea, when acting as the host, to inquire ahead of time whether your guests will require transportation. If necessary, you should arrange for taxi service at the end of the meal. When seeing your guests off, you must remain at the entrance of the house or the restaurant, or at the site where you deposited your guests into the car, until the car is out of sight: it is very important not to leave until your guests can no longer see you, should they look back. Guests are seated in cars (and taxis) by rank, with the honored guest being placed in the back directly behind the front passenger seat; the next honored position is in the back behind the driver, and the least honored position is up front with the driver.

When to Arrive/Chores to Do

If invited to dinner at a private home, offer to help with the chores, but do not expect to be taken up on your offer. Nor should you expect to visit the kitchen. Do not leave the table unless invited to do so. Spouses might be invited to dinners at a private home, because another person's spouse will probably be there. Be on time.

Gift Giving

In general, gift giving in Japan is a way of maintaining the obligations that exist between people, and of honoring the role that others play in your life. In business settings, it usually takes the form of personal gifts that symbolically say the correct thing about the nature of the relationship. When going to Japan on business, you must bring gifts for everyone you will see. The general rule is pastries for the office staff, good-quality corporate logo items (all the same) for business associates, and an especially thoughtful, somewhat personalized gift for the key man you will be working with. You give your gifts at the end of the first or second meeting in Japan, as a sign of your sincerity and best wishes (it is too distracting if you give it at the beginning of the meeting, and the first meeting may not be an appropriate time). You will receive a farewell gift at your last meeting in Japan before you leave to go home. When the Japanese visit your country, they will also bring you a gift, and before they leave, you should give them gifts. Holiday cards are appropriate for less formal relationships, particularly as a thank-you for their business during the previous year, and should be mailed in time to be received at least one week before New Year's Day. The Japanese postal system will usually hold them and deliver them precisely on New Year's, an old tradition. The most appropriate gift for a personal visit to a home, or as a thank-you for dinner, would be a box of fruits, pastries, cakes, cookies, or other sweets. If you know the family, however, any small item that would be appreciated is okay; and if there are children, it is important to bring along a little something for them as well. Flowers are generally not appropriate (however, a growing plant is appreciated, as long as it does not carry negative symbolism associated with death, such as lilies and carnations: a pine tree or a small bonsai or bamboo is very well received). In addition to the gift (and certainly necessary if you did not send or bring one), be sure to send a handwritten thank-you note on a card the very next day after the dinner party; it is best if it is messengered and not mailed. If you are staying with a family, an appropriate thank-you gift would be a high-quality item that represents your country and is difficult to get in Japan; this is also a good idea for a key business associate. Acceptable gifts may include coffee-table books about the United States, or anything that reflects your host's personal tastes (the cap of a famous American team for the football-playing son of the family, for example). For other business associates, fancy fruit baskets or gourmet foods make fine gifts (they can be shared around, as well); well-framed and well-mounted photographs of the group, including you, are also much appreciated. Do not give money as a gift under any circumstances (there are certain occasions where money is given in Japan, such as at funerals, or to children with whom one has a close family relationship, but these are best reserved for Japanese).

The more you can personalize your "key man" gift, the more it is appreciated. Sometimes the best gift you can give is a fine bottle of whiskey or cognac (more cognac is drunk in Japan than in France each year). The gifts exchanged must be equal to or slightly finer-- and perhaps more expensive-- than gifts previously exchanged. A fine gift for an elderly man is a statuette of a crane: this is a symbol of long life and wisdom.

If your gift consists of several items, be sure that the total number is not an even number (bad luck), never four (very bad luck), not nine (also bad luck), and preferably three or seven (very good luck). For both giving and receiving gifts, two hands are always used. Gifts are typically not opened by the receiver in front of the giver; they are usually received, graciously acknowledged, and placed aside to be opened once the giver is no longer present.

Gifts must be wrapped well. When purchasing any of the previously mentioned items in Japan, it will be wrapped beautifully for you-- especially if you make it known that it is a gift. Gift giving in Japan is an art, and, in fact, has been institutionalized into two gift-giving seasons during the year: the month of June, or summer gift giving, called ochugen; and the month of December, or winter gift giving, called oseibo, coinciding with Christmas and New Year's. There are special gifts and special gift-giving rules for these situations (the best gifts in either case are fine whiskies, fancy dried foods, condiments, and nori, or seaweed). However, no matter what the occasion-- whether a thank-you for a meal or a thank-you for a special favor-- the gift-giving protocols typically are not that much different. If you are unsure, ask an intermediate Japanese colleague or the recipient's secretary for help: they both will be willing to assist you and make the correct selection for you (the secretary will probably insist on buying the gift for you: she will know the most appropriate gift, being familiar with her supervisor, and in which store to get it and get it wrapped).

Most gifts are wrapped in ordinary paper first, and then wrapped again in a sheet of white paper. Red is a fine color for gifts or cards, unless the occasion is an illness, since red signifies blood. Although the color white is associated in Asia with funerals, in this case its meaning will be offset by the ribbons (mizu-hiki) and other details of the wrapping. To be absolutely safe, use red or yellow paper; in that case, no special mizuhiki are required. If using white paper, you must also use mizuhiki. Typically, the mizuhiki are red and white, and they can be tied in either of two ways:

  • the cho-misubi style: it looks like a stylized butterfly's wings, and is used for gifts exchanged as a thank-you, a wish for happiness or prosperity, birthdays, and the like
  • the musubikiri style: the ends of the ribbon are cut short, indicating that the sad event for which you are giving the gift (illness, sympathy, etc.) should end quickly

Clearly, the cho-misubi style is the one used for gifts given by most visitors to Japan as a thank-you. Don't worry about how to tie these bows, because your gift will be tied and packaged the appropriate way when you buy it, and you can always specify the occasion to the clerk; he or she will know exactly which ribbon to give you. Typically, directly above the knot of the mizuhiki, the giver of the gift would write in an inscription celebrating the event, and directly below the knot of the bow, they would also write his or her name. A very traditional additional touch is to add the "seal," or a decoration known as the noshi, directly to the right of the inscription, in the upper right-hand corner of the gift. The noshi today is usually merely an illustrative symbol of what it originally once was: a thin strip of dried abalone wrapped in red and white paper folded in a very special way. It represents a wish for prosperity and long life.

Special Holidays and Celebrations

Major Holidays

August (the obon holiday) is a top vacation time, although most Japanese take only a week or so of vacation; other popular vacation times are from the end of December through January 10 (oshogatsu), and Golden Week, which usually falls at the end of April or in early May.

January 1-3 New Year's holiday

January 15 Adult's Day

February 11 National Foundation Day

March 21 or 22 Vernal Equinox Day

April 29 Green Day

End of April/ Early May Golden Week, including Constitution Day, Citizen's Day, and Children's Day

September 15 Respect for the Aged Day

September 23 or 24 Autumnal Equinox Day

October 10 Health and Sports Day

November 3 Culture Day

November 23 Labor Day/ Thanksgiving Day

December 23 Emperor's Birthday

Business Culture

Daily Office Protocols

The traditional Japanese office has an open design; there are few doors, with the exception of the offices of those holding higher positions, and people work mainly at long, large tables or in individual or shared cubicles. Doors, if they exist, are usually open. The large tables are usually shared by sections, consisting of workers of the same rank dedicated to a particular project. Each section is usually headed by a manager (kacho), with a submanager (kakaricho) dedicated to each table. The director, or bucho, to whom the kacho reports, is commonly in charge of the entire worker floor. In the traditional Japanese office, "office ladies," or OLs (also known as the "flowers of the office"), usually hold the simple clerical positions, or do menial tasks such as pouring tea. (By the way, when providing refreshments in the office, be sure they are served in porcelain tea sets or sake cups: the use of paper or Styrofoam shows disrespect and is very bad form.) Executives are usually on other floors. You probably will not be invited onto the section floors until the proposed project has been set in motion. This is the back office. (By the way, "window people," or the madogiwazoku, are not highly respected: they are seated by the window because they are the least important or the most expendable, and are probably pre-retirement; the key positions, and offices, are physically in the middle of the office layout-- with the exception of the executives, who do have larger windowed offices!).

Work beings at 9 A. M. and ends officially at 6 P. M.; but dinners and entertaining are clearly a part of the workday for most. Many businesses have Saturday half-day hours.

Management Styles

The Japanese organizational scheme is rigid and almost militaristic; the levels are as follows:

kaicho chairman

shacho president

fuku-shacho vice president

senmu-torishimariaku senior executive vice president

jomu-torishimariaku executive managing director

torishimariaku director

bucho division manager

bucho dairi deputy division manager

kacho section manager (section chief)

kacho dairi deputy section manager

kakaricho section submanager

hira-shain office workers; section members

office ladies (OLs) administrative support

Because of this rigid hierarchy, titles are very important. The highest ones (e. g.,vice president) are usually reserved for very senior, executive-level positions, and should not be used as casually as they are in the United States. Compliments and rewards for work done well are usually not given publicly. Deference is shown by subordinates to their seniors; paternalistic concern is often shown by executives to their subordinates (in fact, in more traditional organizations, the company was expected to take care of its workers before it took care of its stockholders, meaning that layoffs due to downturns were not done, and efficiencies designed to produce more with less expense were secondary to making sure that the highest quality and constant perfection processes-- kaizen-- were in place with dependable, well-taken-care-of workers).

Boss-Subordinate Relations

The decision-making system in Japan has been referred to as a "bottom-up" process. It is more formally known as the ringi seido system (literally, "reverential inquiry from below of my supervisor's intentions"). Through formal meetings and (most importantly) informal networking, dialoguing, and consensus-building, supervisors inform their subordinates about their goals, feelings, and plans; then, amongst themselves, as a group, the responsible teams set about coming up with solutions to the problem or goal they have been set with. These teams will not risk their supervisor's disapproval, so they perfect their plans before sending the final version upward for their supervisor's acceptance. In most cases, this will mean that all risks will be minimized, and much information needs to be gathered so that everyone involved fully understands the project and can proceed. Once the team produces its results, they are passed upward to its supervisor. The supervisor of a well-functioning team trusts the team's work, and generally approves its recommendations. In this case, the supervisor literally puts his stamp of approval on the team's work (the stamp is placed in a square on a document called a ringi, which is then passed on to the next level for approval after the supervisor's staff has had time to review and add their piece to the project). This process is repeated until all appropriate teams have been involved. It can take a long time, but everyone, when it is completed, has intimate knowledge of the project and knows exactly what to do. Decision making is slow, but implementation can be rapid. (For many Westerners, this is a frustrating experience, in that as individualists, they often have made decisions more rapidly on far less information, are more willing to take risks and fix mistakes later, and are not as concerned about full and total consensus; for Westerners, decision making is often rapid, but implementation can be slow.)

Rank most definitely has its privileges, and there is a rigid chain of command that must be respected. No matter what field you are in, there is a hierarchy you must respect-- a proper way for communicating with particular individuals, and an expected procedure to follow. Deviating from the proper or expected way will generally make more problems, even if the intent is to bypass what appear to be difficulties or obstacles. Bosses are expected to provide guidance, information, and make decisions; subordinates are expected to provide detailed information and follow the lead of their superiors. While the group protects individual team workers, the supervisor must individually take responsibility for the results, and will publicly take the shame if things turn out badly, but publicly pass the success back down to the group when things turn out well. Traditionally, subordinates usually stay in the office till quite late, certainly later than their boss, to indicate their diligence and hard work.

Conducting a Meeting or Presentation

At your first meeting in Japan, you will probably be received in a very comfortable waiting area, which may or may not be where most of the meeting is conducted between yourself and your colleague. If this is the case, you are merely being sized up, and your colleague is a gatekeeper. At meetings of peers, there can be open communication and sharing of ideas: however, most meetings are formalities at which information is exchanged, or decisions that have already been made are confirmed. Meetings are too risky for open problem solving and decision making, given the group and hierarchy orientation in Japan. If this is just the beginning of a business relationship, expect to spend most of the time sharing information about your organization with different individuals; you may need to repeat the same things to different people. This is okay; it usually means your plans are advancing to the right people in the organization, and that those you have previously met with have approved of you and moved you on. Patience and third-party connections are key.

Negotiation Styles

The first meeting is usually very formal, with the Japanese sizing up you and your organization. Expect no decisions at the table, and be willing to provide copious amounts of information, to the degree that you can, in response to their questions and in anticipation of their needs. Presentations should be well pre-pared and simply propounded. Details are best left to questions and backup material, which should be translated into Japanese and left behind. Ideally, you should present your material to the Japanese for study, along with a proposed agenda, prior to the meeting. Have extra copies available, as you will meet more people than you expect. You should come with a well-organized team, and the roles of your team should be well thought out. Never disagree with one another in front of the Japanese, or appear uncertain or unsure.

The Japanese dislike bargaining: if the terms are good and the price is reasonable, that is enough. Changing terms at the last minute to make something more attractive implies unreliability and untrustworthiness. If they like you and your product, the price is often secondary as long as it is fair. Although the contract must be legal down to the dotted i's, it is often just a seal of something they have already decided they will do as discussed.

Plan your meetings as carefully and as well in advance as you can, and avoid surprises and any unexpected changes: this makes the Japanese uncomfortable and suspicious. Keep communications, especially when at a distance, open: share more information than you normally would, not less; information overkill does not exist in Japan.

Written Correspondence

Your business letters should be very formal and respectful of rank and hierarchy. Last names are usually written in uppercase; dates are given in the year/ month/ day format (with periods in between, not slashes), and an honorific plus the title is as common as an honorific plus the last name. You should write your e-mails, letters, and faxes in a precise way: use a brief introduction, then quickly get down to business. Keep it simple, however, and outline all important matters. In Japan, and throughout most of the region, the address is usually given as follows:

Line one: country and postal code

Line two: city (and prefecture)

Line three: street address

Line four: company and/ or personal name

Meet the Author

Dean Foster, former director of Berlitz International, Cross-Cultural Division Worldwide, is currently Senior Vice President of Global Intercultural Services, Windham International, in New York City. One of the world's leading cross-cultural experts, he has consulted with most major Fortune 500 companies, is a frequent presenter at international professional conferences, and is featured often on radio and television.

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