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

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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.

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Public displays of familiarity and affection with the opposite sex are typically expressed only by teenagers. 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.

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It may seem as if the person making this motion is saying good-bye to you, but in fact you are being summoned over. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

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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. Driving is on the left, and most drivers are quite considerate and law-abiding.

The metros shut down after midnight or 1 A. 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.

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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.

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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.


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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.


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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.


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  4. 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.

    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.

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

    Spring and autumn can be delightful, however. 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.

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    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. 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 , 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.