Business but there is put much greater importance

cards are used all over the world, but there is put much greater importance on
them and the exchange of ditto in Japan. The Japanese way of exchanging
business cards, known as meishi koukan
(????) is something foreigners must be
aware of if wanting to do business in Japan. As a minimum, it is necessary if
they aim to be successful in their business, while not utmost important to be
successful, it helps it on the way to have an awareness about this, like so
many other cultural aspects and general awareness. But what are the reasons
behind the “extraordinary” use (compared to Western countries, and the like),
or to say it differently, which significant cultural factors plays part in its
role in Japanese society?

This paper will examine some of the factors that might have contributed to
giving business cards a special place in Japanese business and daily life. An
introduction to this follows, such as to give a general idea of the content,
helping the intake of the rest: There are many reasons why business cards are
particularly important to Japan other than the practicalities. The Japanese are
always, or strive to be, aware of their hierarchical position in any social
setting, and place great importance on knowing the status of people they
interact with. With business cards, and the ceremonious exchange of them, the
Japanese will get to know in which relative circle and rank to place each other.

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Japan is a Confucian-influenced society where societal stability is ensured by
maintaining unequal relationships, thereby the need to know if you must place
yourself higher or lower than your counterpart. The “ceremonial” exchange of
the cards shows the uncertainty avoidance that Japan is also known to score
high in on Hofstede’s uncertainty avoidance scale. (“Country Comparison,” 2017) How the exchange happens and how people should behave in the process
can be found described in great detail. The exchange is highly ritualized and
has a characteristic pattern that tends to be followed – there is of course
variation, and it is not an endlessly strict procedure. Business cards usually
include a logo and a company name that might give a sense of belonging to the
owner, signalling part of a certain group: The company. This is also an
interesting aspect, as the Japanese previously have been, and to a certain
extent still is, very famous for their company loyalty. Another part of this
that will be examined is the role of groups, and how they relate to each other
in a card-exchange. Business cards must be treated very carefully and can in a
way be seen as an extension of the individual. It must be kept immaculate to
not offend. The exchange marks the beginning of a relationship – and as
experience shows, relationships are very important in Japan. The mentioned
aspects will all be related to some of the subjects and theory gone through in
class and be supplemented with further literature, to enlighten the “unusual”
importance of business cards in Japan.

Other than different cultural reasons, business cards can be viewed as
something of high practicality in Japanese business context. Japanese names are
written in Kanji, making it hard to
know how a name is written if you have only heard it. Many characters have the
same pronunciation and a name could be spelled in a variety of ways. In the
book 100 Tough Questions for Japan, it
is asked why, in Japan, business cards are “necessary” for work. The previous
argument was given, and an example was stated. It went: “In the name NAGAI
Hiroshi for instance; NAGAI can be written as??, ?? or ?? and Hiroshi
can be written as?, ?, ?, or?.” (Itasaka, G., 2004, p. 187) There are probably more combinations than
this, and they cannot possibly be discerned by ear. To present a business card
and one’s name in writing you give the other person important information in a
convenient way – information that can be used for further reference. Another practical
aspect of business cards is that in Japanese society it is a custom to call a
person by his or her title, not necessarily only people in one’s own company.

It is a bit odd to ask for a person’s position in a company upon first meeting
them, and this is where the business card also successfully provides the
information without too much social friction. (Itasaka, G., 2004, p. 187)

The book by Itakasa also gives an answer as to why the Japanese call
each other by title, which might provide further insight into the use of
business cards. It states that: “This method of calling by title or role
clarifies the relationship between oneself and the other and brings about an
awareness of the position of the other, making unnecessary inconveniences less
likely to occur. This is why the Japanese are said to be a people who revere
harmony.” (Itasaka, G., 2004, p. 185) Not only is it common to call your
co-workers by titles, such as Shachou (president),
Buchou (general manager) or Kachou (manager), but also in the home
you call your partner either Otousan
(father) or Okaasan (mother), after
having children together. From this it is very clear what role you play in
society. There is always a pecking order where a superior-inferior vertical
relationship in relation to the other is constantly maintained. (Itasaka, G.,
2004, p. 185) A great quote by a writer for Tokyo
Art Beat, David Willoughby, referenced several places, goes: “If the Western business card is
something meant for future reference, the Japanese Meishi is a way of smoothing communication by revealing one’s true
status” (Swallow, 2009) To sum up the background for business cards in Japan;
they are basically used as a formal self-introduction that aims to remember the
other person’s name and role in relation to yourself. Special emphasis is put
on one’s role all through life, compared to other countries, and so the
business cards reflects this, contributing to its extensive use in Japan.

Another aspect that can be related to the use of business cards, the
meeting and first communication between people, are Uchi and Soto. These
terms refer to group membership, where Uchi
means inside, referring to the group, and Soto means outside and refer to those outside of the group. Group
membership is fluid and can change all depending on the situation. In its
broadest use, it is indicating Japan as in-group and everything else as out-group.

In a situation where an exchange of a business card would happen there would also
be such an in- and out-group, different from each point of view. Erik Cattelain
puts it like this about professional relationships: “…members of one’s
department at work are uchi, while other departments in the same company would
be soto. Yet if the company starts a negotiation with another, this transforms
all its members to an uchi state while soto then would apply to people in the
other company.” (Cattelain, 2014)
Having perceived the group membership, communication with the others commands a
distinct form. Other than the appropriate formal speech that is so unique to Japanese
(From a Western perspective), “The in-group has to show humility, as the out-group deserves signs of
respect.” (Cattelain, 2014) This
is done to try to avoid conflicts and continue to maintain harmony with the
others. Naturally, this can be showed appropriately in the exchange of business
cards as this process and the behavior displayed in it allows for both show of
humility and respect to the counterpart. Later we will examine and describe the
process to see exactly how humility and respect is showed, but an example is
that when receiving a card this is examined closely and commented on, to show
an interest in the other person. This is quite opposite to other countries,
where they are not much attention is given to them right away. The counterpart
is put in high esteem, while the in-group is putting themselves down, another factor that is repeated
through the whole society, family life and so on. A feature that is described
by Kagawa “Japanese use humility and deprecation when talking about members of
their inner group to those on the outside” (Kagawa, 2004). To summarize, the
terms Uchi and Soto, is like in many other situations in Japanese society, visible
in the exchange of business cards. Again, it is a feature springing from the
need for harmony and conflict avoidance.

The Japanese are historically very loyal to their c

(Hall, 1987)

(Hofstede, 1991)

Chapter 4

Masculinity –

names on cards grant status. Freelancers and entrepreneurs therefore need to be
creative and tend to overcompensate with extravagant concepts to grab your
attention: peculiar shapes, unusual textures, folding designs,
cellphone-readable barcodes.” (Swallow, 2009)


Japan scores high on uncertainty avoidance on Hofstede’s scale. (“Country Comparison,” 2017) What this means is that Japanese society deals with uncertainty as
something best avoided, and try to control the future to the best of their
ability. It is to the extent that the Japanese feel threatened by the ambiguous
future or unknown situations, and how they handle it that reflect this high
score in uncertainty avoidance. (Hofstede, 1991,
p. 125-134) Japan is one of the most uncertainty
avoiding countries in the world, normally attributed to the high number of
earthquakes and other natural disasters. It is under these circumstances that
the Japanese have learned how to best prepare for these kinds of things. This
influence not only the preparation for natural disasters, but also other
aspects of life. Many things are highly ritualized: “For example, there is
opening and closing ceremonies of every school year which are conducted almost
exactly the same way everywhere in Japan”, and also: “At weddings, funerals and
other important social events, what people wear and how they should behave are
prescribed in great detail in etiquette books.” (“Country Comparison,” 2017) Naturally
this feature has also spread to other parts of life, and so also to the use of
business cards, as said the exchange can also be very ritualized compared to
other countries. In an Economist article from March 12th, 2015,
discussing why the use of business cards is still thriving in this modern
electronic age, it is stated that “Americans sling their business cards
casually across a table; the Japanese make the exchange of cards as elaborate
as a tea ceremony”. (“On the cards”, 2017) So while important many places
across the globe, the Japanese is yet again very detail oriented. Below, the
exact etiquette will be described and discussed.

As said, your business card represents your social status. The common
practice is that unless a business card has been exchanged, no business can
start. There are of course other rules for foreigners, meaning that mistakes
can be okay, and if you do not have a business card or forgot it, it does not
stop business but merely makes it less smooth. Business card etiquette begins
with the layout of the actual business card itself, which should be printed in
Japanese and in English, usually one on each side. The standard Japanese meishi is 55 x 91 mm. Every little
detail can be tweaked to create a different impression, and stuff like the
texture of the card itself can say something different about the name on the
card. Generally, no detail here is considered too small for improvement. (Swallow,
2009) You should consider the card like the figurative head of the
businessperson, and yours as your own. You would prefer it as something that
resembles how you are, or want to be perceived. The same to your counterpart –
that is also why it should be treated with utmost respect, “… as if it were a
physical extension of that person.” (Gakuran,

procedure follows: Bear in mind that in a group of several people the highest-ranking
representatives should exchange their cards first, going down the chain of
command in order. Even though a person may be the person in charge of the
meeting or even the sales representative or similar – the chances are that he
or she might not be the most important person from the company. It is very
important that the superiors always exchange their business cards first. The
other side will also do the same, leading to a natural progression down the
chain. From this it can be learned who is in command, and it must be noted for later
when making correspondence. (Gakuran, n.d.) Confucian ideals …. Power distance and such look at Hofstede book and

Hofstede, G. (1991). Culture and Organizations: Software of the
Mind. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Chapter 2

Chapter 7

When exchanging cards
between two individuals, it is normal for the visitor to be the first to offer
their card. It is best if two hands are used for the exchange. Alternatively,
the lower ranking person will offer their card first (in situations where this
is clear to both parties in advance). When not clear, quite often a
simultaneous exchange of cards will occur, as detailed below. (Gakuran, n.d.)

The process of the exchange
between two people will now be outlined, as to be aware of the remarkability of
it. If achievable the rule of using two hands should be respected, but in
actuality many cards are exchanged simultaneously such that using both hands is
impractical or impossible without making a fool of yourself and your opposition.

The business cards are removed from your business card holder – using a pocket
or wallet is considered rude. This is again marking the importance of the card,
so important that it needs a separate holder for itself. It is important to not
fumble around trying to remove a card from the holder while the other person is
waiting, as this also leaves a bad impression. The same is coming unprepared
without any business cards. After the cards are out, they are placed on top of
your business card holder. The cards should be facing towards the receiver so
that they can read the text. If you have a bilingual card, ensure the correct
language of the receiver is facing up. In most cases in this will be the
Japanese side. Use the right hand to offer your card, holding it by the top
corner. Make sure that no names or logos are covered up when you offer your
card. While this is happening give a brief self-introduction. Your company and
your name must be mentioned When receiving the other person’s card, it is
common practice to confirm their name and say thank you for the card. As noted
before, usually the visitor will be the first one to speak and offer their
card, but in practice the understanding of this rule varies, so if the host
speaks first no harm is done. If the situation has unfolded correctly, both
individuals will be offering their cards to one another using their right hand
and receiving with their left. One person gives a brief self-introduction,
offering their card, and the other person follows with a self-introduction and
offering their own card. Arrange cards on top of the card holder or on the
table in the seating order. When dealing with one other person, business cards
are rarely put away straightaway. The standard practice is to keep the card on
display for the duration of the meeting, usually by placing it on top of the
card holder on the table. In the case of receiving several cards, you should
arrange them left to right in the order of seating, as seen from your own point
of view. The purpose of this is to learn the names of the people you are
speaking to and to show respect. After all, the business card is the face of
the other person. As with much business etiquette, showing an air of respect
and politeness trumps rigid adherence to rules. This might sound like a
contradiction considering how ritualistic the exchange process seems, but it’s
important to remember that each situation will be slightly different and the
other parties may themselves have a different understanding of what is
considered correct protocol. (Gakuran, n.d.)

It should be your aim to make the process
pleasant for everyone involved, even if that means bending the ‘rules’ a
little. Remember though, coming unprepared without business cards is something
to avoid and it is very important that you treat the cards you receive with
respect. Do not fold them or write on them unless you have the other person’s


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