When meeting new Japanese people in a business context it is important to remember the proper method for exchanging business cards. This method for introductions is very specific because it is part of a cultural ritual which has been generated through religious anthropology. I will first explain the method in which business cards are properly exchanged then I will explain the cultural points which make this such an important ritual for Japanese people.
Japanese hand their business cards to new acquaintances with both hands with the card facing the other person as they bow slightly and say “yoroshiku onegai shimasu” which loosely translates to “I wish you will treat me justly”. The business card is accepted with both hands while bowing slightly. Once the card is accepted it is studied briefly and knowingly. If there is a meeting taking place at a conference table the accepted card is typically placed on the table in front of them above anything else that is placed. Otherwise it is stored away carefully.
"yoroshiku onegai shimasu"
Shinto is the native religion of Japan. In Shinto, boundaries are typically seen as risky or dangerous. These boundaries can be spatial, temporal (between childhood and adulthood) and in this case boundaries between groups. For example, shrine grounds are separated from the outside by a Torii gate. This denotes a spatial boundary between holy and unholy. Shintoism as many religions also places a heavy emphasis on ritualism. A ritualistic card exchange ensures to treat the crossing from unfamiliarity to forging a business relationship with tremendous care. While virtually no Japanese people consciously believe there are spirits to be upset if the ritual doesn’t happen I think everyone can agree that entering into new business dealings carry with it a degree of risk and should be handled with care. To this end, the Japanese have made a ritual similar to the way care is taken in Shinto.
A torii gate denoting the boundary of a Shinto shrine
Buddhist and Confucius Virtues
This exchange is also an opportunity for Japanese to display two distinct virtues, one from Buddhism and the other from Confucianism. The Buddhist virtue is one of being humble and the Confucian virtue of respecting social rank or position. Japanese people observe these two by the manner in which they carry themselves and language. While as a non-Japanese you may not be able to speak in Japanese it is important to convey these two virtues in your mannerisms when first meeting a Japanese business partner or colleague.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately this is a guideline for westerners and it is well understood by the Japanese that cultures outside of their own are different. Many Japanese these days when meeting non-Japanese are comfortable with a handshake and the typical exchange. However, I would suggest that reaching out to someone with cultural respect goes a tremendous distance. Do not worry about getting it perfect, it’s just important that you try.
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