Those familiar with the social and business landscape in Japan will have experienced the feeling of protocols and politeness taking on a whole new level of complexity in a culture with rules governing appropriate behaviour for almost every aspect of life which extend back over 700 years or more.
"It can be overwhelming, confusing and stressful to wonder whether you are constantly putting your foot in your mouth.”
For the first-time visitor, it can be overwhelming, confusing and stressful to wonder whether you are constantly putting your foot in your mouth. For foreigners attempting to do business in the country, be it striking partnerships or entering a new market, it adds another layer of complexity.
Politeness is all-pervasive in Japanese life, an unspoken shared understanding governing how we should bow and speak, where and how to sit, serve and drink tea, when and where to wear shoes, even extending to the smallest details of how and when to push the elevator button.
Good manners will also naturally incorporate small touches which show an appreciation for the changing seasons which are so important in maintaining harmony - or ‘wa’ - with nature and the surrounding world, a concept which goes straight to the heart of Japanese spiritual equilibrium.
My experience in Japan almost 40 years ago shows how daunting this can be to an outsider. After a year or so studying Japanese at university in Melbourne I was lucky enough to secure a home stay opportunity for six months with a Japanese family in Tokyo.
After three months I wrote to my mother saying I wanted to come home because “all of this politeness is tiring me out”. Unable to separate polite form and protocols from the substance of sincerity, being extremely polite to every person I met was exhausting - until I got the hang of not putting the entirety of my heart and soul into every single word.
Some commentators may question the future significance of politeness as we move into in a world where an increasing number of human interactions are in fact not with other people, but with machines and robots (albeit robots programmed to speak to us politely).
Indeed, as the agony aunt columns advising on the polite way to handle social or professional situations have faded into the past, so has the importance attached to etiquette and good manners in today’s globalised world, where productivity, profitability, technological innovation, and disruptive change are the shared benchmarks of success.
And yet, as long as personal relationships remain at the core of how we find and build new business partnerships, understanding and applying etiquette and good manners will go along way towards opening new doors, and cementing new bonds.
While this is universally true around the world, in Japan it is at the very core of how people feel. The shared values of care, respect, purity and humility which etiquette and protocol are designed to convey will be what fundamentally changes a superficial connection into a real relationship.
The Japanese concept of ‘ichigo ichie’, translated as ‘one moment once in a lifetime’, comes from the origins of Japanese tea ceremony and is the underlying philosophy for ‘omotenashi’ or hospitality, which has recently taken on greater prominence as a key factor in attracting visitors to Japan.
Omotenashi means the utmost care should be taken in serving customers and guests to ensure every moment of their experience is special.
This fundamental philosophy permeates all facets of customer service and business in Japan, resulting in the sort of minute attention to detail which the Japanese pride themselves on, constantly amazing visitors as they discover yet another small touch aimed at anticipating and meeting a client’s needs.
Omotenashi has now become a flagship slogan of sorts for the rapidly growing Japanese tourism industry.
The Japanese government also rode the hospitality wave to success in 2013, having centred its public relations campaign bid to host the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics around a demonstration of Omotenashi by TV personality Christel Takigawa.
Not content to leave it there, in 2017 the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry (METI) instituted an Omotenashi service quality accreditation system for hotels, restaurants and other companies keen to receive independent verification of the level of their customer service.
Rather like the number of Michelin Hats a restaurant might receive, Omotenashi accreditation is provided via a series of Mount Fuji certification symbols starting from ‘red’, graduating through to ‘gold’, ‘dark blue’ and then ‘purple’ as an indication of the highest possible level of service quality.
Certification standards are stringent and aimed at addressing common problems in Japan such as the lack of multilingual menu options or barrier free infrastructure.
But Omotenashi is about far more than a certification process alone can quantify. At the heart of Japanese hospitality, business and social etiquette is the fundamental demonstration of care for others which comes from anticipating needs before they arise.
Even after 20 years in Japan I am still discovering subtle ways to show this kind of consideration. A few days ago, I arrived home from a business trip at my apartment building at the same time as another family living on the fifth floor.
Keen to check my mailbox, I politely urged them not to wait for me but to take the elevator first. A few moments later I was surprised to find the elevator had returned to the lobby empty before I had even approached the door. Upon alighting, the other residents had considered I would need it and sent it back for me.
One of Japan’s leading experts is Keishousai Ogasawara, Head of the Ogasawara House of Protocol, which draws on 700 years of history. As the first female Head of House, she offers advice and training to people right across Japan on politeness and etiquette, known in Japanese respectively as ‘reihou’ and ‘sahou’, and how these underpin both social and professional interactions.
I was recently privileged to take part in a lecture by Ogasawara to the members of the Awaji Youth Federation, an international community focused on regional revitalisation in Japan.
One of her fundamental messages to the young participants gathered there from 20 countries worldwide was Japanese protocol and etiquette is, above all ,about conveying care and sincerity, aimed at reducing the feeling of burden or obligation another might feel, or alternatively, anticipates and provides a solution to an unexpressed desire, need or problem.
She demonstrated this principle by explaining, when visiting someone’s home, it is customary for the caller to remove his/her coat and fold it over his/her arm inside out, before knocking on the door to be admitted.
In doing so, the possibility some dust, lint or other dirt adhering to the garment might fall on the (clean) floor of the host has been anticipated and managed through evasive action.
Like other forms of language and communication, Ogasawara teaches Japanese protocol and etiquette is a living art form, evolving and simplifying to meet the requirements of a modern society where the media for interacting, time spans and other modalities governing personal relationships differ greatly from the societal norms the House of Ogasawara was intended to regulate when it was first created 700 years ago.
The good news for the uninitiated reader is, at the end of the day, it’s not about how low you bow or whether you exchange name cards in exactly the right manner.
Politeness, however tiring it may be at times, comes from the heart. There is no replacement for well-intentioned genuine sincerity, and a keen understanding, in Japan at least, the devil truly is in the detail.
Whilst you may feel business etiquette in Japan is complex and at times difficult to follow, a demonstrated awareness of the crucial nature of anticipating and meeting unvoiced needs, and careful consideration for others in social and professional relationship building is all you really need to get off to a flying start in opening the hearts and minds of your Japanese counterparts to what you have to offer.
Elizabeth Masamune is a former Senior Trade Commissioner for Austrade, and Managing Director of @Asia Associates Japan, based in Tokyo.
She also serves as the Vice-President of the Omotenashi Meister Association, and Senior Managing Director of the Awaji Youth Federation.