Bows, business, bathrooms & bars: Japanese etiquette
April 25, 2003 6:29 AM   Subscribe

How To Bow - learn Japanese etiquette for business and social situations in this quirky flash animation that offers practical tips on how to behave as a guest, how to avoid embarrassing dining gaffes, how to conduct a successful business meeting and what to expect in a public bathroom. Don't "drop a brick" - learn to avoid common mistakes!
posted by madamjujujive (27 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
posted by plep at 6:35 AM on April 25, 2003

Despite the fact that I found the animation and those processed voices oddly disturbing, that brought back some really funny memories from when I lived in Japan. Nothing like getting caught in an earthquake while using one of those squat toilets.
posted by MrBaliHai at 7:06 AM on April 25, 2003

hypnotizing...the clicking as they walk, the processed voices...the gradual immersion into the natural order of etiquette...thanks for the link.
question: is this still very much accurate behavior and business etiquette? to a westerner whose only exposure to these formalities has come at the foot of a rigourously traditional sensei, i wonder.
posted by chandy72 at 7:26 AM on April 25, 2003

Nothing like getting caught in an earthquake while using one of those squat toilets.

Did you drop a brick?
posted by y2karl at 7:37 AM on April 25, 2003

Did you drop a brick?

No, I fell in!...(>_<)
posted by MrBaliHai at 7:51 AM on April 25, 2003

*bows several times to Mamma-san Juju*

That was useful and fun!

*starts a campaign for adopting strict Japanese formality in MetaFilter*
posted by MiguelCardoso at 7:57 AM on April 25, 2003

Now I want a tall frosty Sapporo.

I'm not much for formality but I like this better than, say, people who talk on the cell phone in public restrooms.
posted by Foosnark at 8:28 AM on April 25, 2003

o tsukare sama desu.

Just say that to your colleagues whenever you happen to bump into them.

That's it - now you can work for a Japanese company.
posted by SpaceCadet at 8:48 AM on April 25, 2003

Great one, Madam, as usual. That guy's comb-over hairstyle is called a "bar code" in japan, BTW.

My brother just arrived a few hours ago in Kyoto on his first trip to Japan, and well, he obviously didn't see that site. He's already offended my delicate, refined sensibility. He took a shower, then put on his shoes (!) in my living room (!!) Photos already blogged. It really does seem filthy to me, now, wearing shoes indoors.

*starts a campaign for adopting strict Japanese formality in MetaFilter*

While she may be a Madam, calling MJ3 "mama-san" is not the way to start a formality campaign. Mama-san is the saucy term for the proprietress of a "hostess bar."
posted by planetkyoto at 9:20 AM on April 25, 2003 [1 favorite]

More fun Japanese Phrases:

When late for a meeting, or leaving a meeting early:
"Chotto shitsurei shimasu" (Excuse me for being very rude)

When bumping into someone:
"Sumimasen" (Excuse me!)

When beginning a Japanese meal:
"Itta dakimasu!" (Something like "thank you for your hospitality")

When finishing a Japanese meal:
"Gochisoo sama deshita" (Thanks for the feast!)

If you don't speak Japanese:
"Sumimasen, Boku (or Watashi, if you're a girl) wa Nihongo o wakarimasen" (I'm sorry, I don't understand Japanese)

If you need to use the bathroom:
"Doko atearai desu ka!" (Where is the bathroom!)

A quick note from my time in Japan - If you're western, and you look western, most people aren't going to bother bowing to you. They'll just walk up and shake your hand. If you give a bow, they'll bow back to be polite.
posted by SweetJesus at 9:32 AM on April 25, 2003

A wonderful and comprehensive site!

I wonder: Do we westerners have such complicated social traditions? I've a feeling that our customs are just as nuanced, only we take them for granted.
posted by aladfar at 10:10 AM on April 25, 2003

While she may be a Madam, calling MJ3 "mama-san" is not the way to start a formality campaign. Mama-san is the saucy term for the proprietress of a "hostess bar."

How about "Juju-sama"?
posted by wanderingmind at 10:18 AM on April 25, 2003

That was probably the most instructive Flash 'toon I've ever seen. I'm impressed that someone took the time to make it so thorough. For example, the site mentions an interesting phenomenon among Japanese men that have a "mother complex". I first heard about this from a friend that taught in Japan for a couple of years; I'm glad the author was able to weave so much general Japanese tradition into the three general categories (work, home and bars).

As for Western-style etiquette, it certainly exists, but it a much more watered down form. The west tends to prefer expedience and simplicity over quaint tradition (at least, Stateside), and is more tolerant when a faux-paus is made. The problem, of course, is that people sometimes mistake the civility that coincides with social traditions as just another part of the dogma, and good manners are frequently tossed out entirely. As a general rule of thumb, the longer a society has been in existence, the more social traditions are in use, as "new" societies have a tendency to want to break away from the old. For the west, the best practioners of social traditions would probably be Great Britain, France and Scandinavia (and if you count it, Russia would probably be high on the list as well).
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:31 AM on April 25, 2003

As for Western-style etiquette, it certainly exists, but it a much more watered down form.

I couldn't disagree with you more. The Japanese social customs are not absolutes; they are what you need to do in order to be considered a good business partner and a member of well-educated society. The same is true in the West.

Each Western country has its own equally arcane set of rules, which you can choose to follow or not. I had to learn a lot of the European ones the hard way, and I've seen European friends commit unbelievable faux-pas in America. Although American customs are often less formal, they are often more rigid.

Some American customs that seem incomprehensible to certain other cultures:
If you pass someone in the hallway who is having a conversation, it is considered very rude to interrupt them to say hello. A slight but silent nod of the head to signal acknowledgement is common between men.
In public, leave a lot of space (3-6 feet) between you and people you are not good friends with. It is acceptable to raise your voice to communicate over this distance. Avoid touching someone else's arm while talking unless you know them well, this is considered to be a sign of intimacy or even a sexual advance in America.
Most flirting is illegal in the office in America. Humor is very sensitive and it is highly inadvisable for foreigners to make jokes in America until they have mastered the list of forbidden words and topics.
If you meet someone for the first time, try to smile and show as many teeth as possible. Make sure your teeth are in very good condition, as this is considered very important. Insincerity is not considered rude in America, you do not have to smile with your eyes, but if you fail to smile as often as the Japanese bow, you risk being considered hostile and rude. When going out in a group, you must never appear to be having a bad time.
Parents can bring their children into almost any public space. It is never acceptable to make a comment to the parents about their children's behavior.
When you meet someone at a party, it is customary to ask them what they do for a living. You are allowed to ask them where they went to school, and try to see if you know people in common from your respective pasts. On the other hand, it is generally rude to ask people details about their families unless you already know them personally.
Although employees can express their opinions, the final decision is always made by the boss, and you must treat him or her as the decision maker. Never ask the boss if he needs approval from the group; this will be seen as questioning his authority.

Hmm, I could go on for days about this one. Maybe I need to learn Flash.
posted by fuzz at 11:13 AM on April 25, 2003

moshi moshi!
posted by y2karl at 11:20 AM on April 25, 2003

Yes indeed fuzz.

To give an example - I've been on company courses in 'cultural sensitivity training' (for want of a better phrase). Example :- we warned against was 'elevator eyes' - i.e. checking people up and down. This apparently (we were told) is seen as threatening in some quarters in North America. It is not so in the UK (although staring is definitely rude).

All cultures have some pretty rigid customs which people just get used to, being day-to-day reality. Regarding some being less rigid than others - well, maybe there are certain squid who doubt the reality of water, too. :)
posted by plep at 12:20 PM on April 25, 2003

Another useful Japanese food-related term sounds like "oy-she." This means "yummy" or something like that, but coming from a foreigner it seems to translate to a polite and indirect way of saying "Yes I would like some more of that please." This then results in the acquisition of more Japanese food. Which is yummy :)
posted by carter at 12:24 PM on April 25, 2003

Oishii! :)
posted by plep at 12:37 PM on April 25, 2003

Another useful Japanese food-related term sounds like "oy-she."

Oishii means delicious, and your pronounciation is pretty much correct. The beginning is pronounced quickly, (Oi!) and the latter part you can let trail off a bit (Oi-shii...).

Here are some other food words:

Kamai - Hot and Spicy
Suuppai - Sour
Shiokarai - Salty
Suite - Sweet
posted by SweetJesus at 12:39 PM on April 25, 2003

Very interesting site. I guess that once one gets used to bowing and sitting/leaving stuff it's not too difficult to look at least somehow polite. Probably the most interesting fact is that japanese people notice the effort some western do to respect their tradition, probably excuse errors because of the effort itself, much like in France where they LOVE hearing strangers speak french, even if they haven't really mastered it.
posted by elpapacito at 1:13 PM on April 25, 2003

er, it's

karai - spicy
amai - sweet
posted by gen at 3:59 PM on April 25, 2003

Oishii means delicious

My fav-o-rite Japanese television commercial featured Sylvester Stallone in full Rambo regalia, seated at a banquest table, clutching a knife and fork in his hand, with a huge baked ham in front of him. He looks at the camera with his big droopy eyes and drawls, "Ito Ham wa oishii desu."

And I bet they paid him a million bucks to say it too.
posted by MrBaliHai at 4:10 PM on April 25, 2003

Well fuzz I agree there are codes of behaviour in any culture, but having worked in a typical Japanese company in Tokyo for a couple of years, I can tell you that the Japanese have a lot of seemingly pointless business behaviours - they are there for familiarities' sakes. Japanese psyche likes what is familiar and breaking away from old habits and customs is not something they are likely to do, no matter how arcane.

When I worked there, for example, We had teirei-kai which is a monthly meeting for the entire company. This meeting would last 2 hours or so. At each meeting, a few employees would speak about some arbitrary subject. This was after working hours. I can tell you, nobody was interested in this meeting, but everyone had to attend. This meeting is there because it's a custom, not because it's necessary. There are dozens of other customs of the office (and the home) which might appear curious and charming at a passing glance, but not if you're embedded into the system and have to kowtow and play the game - a lot of them are "mendou kusai" (pain in the neck) and absolutely unncecessary.....well I say unnecessary, but they are there to uphold the "wa" (the group harmony). As an individual, they are a pain, for the group, they expect you to behave a certain way, not your way. Your way is rude and egotistical and ignorant of the group harmony.

For me there are two Japans - the fascinating one with absolutely interesting people and places and great food, scenery, and yes, culture - then the other Japan is the everyday Japan of work, work, work and commuting and the rigid language patterns that turn the average Joe gaijin into a raving rebel.
posted by SpaceCadet at 6:28 PM on April 25, 2003

papacito...It may be restricted to Paris, but my friends and I all noticed that the French will almost certainly speak to you in English if they hear any accent whatsoever in your French. This is whether you want to speak French to them or not.

As for fuzz on American customs, I'm inclined to think that we have generally few that are rigid. Like, "leave 3 to 6 feet between yourself and someone you don't know well" or "don't flirt in the office" - as an American, I can say that rarely do people talk at that distance and there's flirting in every office. Physical contact, like grabbing the arm or the two-cheek kiss, is not common, but no one would chastise you for it, especially if you were a foreigner.

I mean, other than "shake hands," "say please and thank you," and "dont' say something insulting to your colleagues or host," I think most American customs depend on the preference of the specific host. Some people don't mind shoes in the house, some do. It's certainly not as rigid as what's described in the flash cartoon.
posted by Kevs at 8:01 PM on April 25, 2003

Great, now I'm afraid to visit the country... I'd stumble all over myself trying to follow all the rules, I'm sure. Of course, sometimes I feel like I'm stumbling all over myself trying to follow the rules here in the U.S., too; I've never felt that I truly understand them.

Excellent web site, though. Great use of Flash, completely appropriate to the subject matter. (Those of you who remember my rants on web design from two years ago will know just how unusual a commendation that is...
posted by Mars Saxman at 9:06 PM on April 25, 2003

Great comments from all - particularly those with first hand or native experience. MrBaliHai, your bathroom ordeal sounded harrowing! And PlanetKyoto, I will forever adopt the term "bar code" for that type of hairstyle, haha.

The comfort level of personal space varies from culture to culture - it is apparently a huge differentiator as some have noted; another is the amount of direct eye contact. These can be points of great discomfort and misunderstanding between cultures. Even within one's own country, differences can be startling. The first time I ventured forth from New England and traveled through the South and California, I couldn't believe that strangers would nod or say hello to me on the street - it was very disconcerting!

I haven't been to Japan yet, but it is high on my list of places to go. Here are a few more useful resources:
Japanese table manners made easy
MuMu - most useful and most useless travel tips in Japan
...and for those who have expressed an interest in the more general topic of global customs and manners, international business etiquette and manners is a handy site.
posted by madamjujujive at 11:08 PM on April 25, 2003

Great link, and an accurate display of etiquette of such stifling and rigid proportions as to be uniquely Japanese.

I fully concur with the earthquake sentiments: there is no good place to be during one, though the subway or a drop toilet have to be first and second on the list of the worst.

Thanks, mjjj.
posted by hama7 at 5:16 AM on April 27, 2003

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