Japanese Business Card Secrets

Meishi box

Japanese Business Card Secrets

Meishi (namecards)

Name cards or business cards are very important in Japan and are usually exchanged during introductions. Meishi provide valuable information (name, affiliation, rank, address, phone/fax numbers) which helps the recipient know what level of formality in language is appropriate to use. It is important to show respect when receiving another person’s meishi.

Secrets of Meishi

Understanding Japanese corporate organizational structure is essential to cracking the Japanese market, and meishi are valuable tools in this quest. Meishi or business cards have much greater significance in Japan than in Western culture. In a society where the individual is less important than the group to which he belongs, a meishi provides access to its bearer’s identity. Without a meishi, business people have no face in Japanese society, and their social status will directly parallel the size and prestige of their company.

The layout of Japanese and Western business cards exemplifies this corporate versus personal priority. A typical Western business card will show the employee’s name, with his title underneath in smaller print, and the company name and address in the corner. A Japanese meishi, however, will normally have the company name first, then the person’s rank, and finally his name, reflecting the relative importance of the three elements.

In Japan, the actual mechanics of exchanging business cards are of supreme importance. For Japanese, the angle of bowing and the proper way of holding the card on presentation are studied arts. New company employees must practice the “house style” at training sessions soon after they are hired. As a general rule, the more junior person in age and/or status will present his card to the more senior person, though there are exceptions. In a buyer/seller relationship, for example, the seller always gives his card first, with the most senior members leading off, unless rank cannot be determined.

Foreigners are not expected to know all the points involved, but you should be aware of some basic courtesies. It is essential that you have a large number of cards on hand wherever you go. To appear at a meeting without a card does almost irreparable damage to the business relationship; it is tantamount to refusing to shake hands at a Western business meeting. When presenting your card, be sure that you hold it Japanese side up, facing your contact so that he can read it. A small, quick bow will suffice to show your respect. When you receive a card, spend some time looking at it and digesting it – do not shove it quickly into your pocket. Remember that the card represents the other person’s identity! For the same reason, never write on the card or mark it in any way while in the person’s presence.

Japanese business people involved in the international marketplace will normally have bilingual meishi, with English on one side and Japanese on the other. Anyone who checks the Japanese side of a business card will be rewarded with important information. The company name may be more detailed or different in Japanese and the corporate logo is often only on the Japanese side. Whether the card is vertically or horizontally typeset can indicate whether the company is traditional or more liberal; generally a traditional Japanese vertical orientation is considered more conservative. A non-Japanese who is seen checking the Japanese side will be given additional marks for effort and politeness. Comments about the company logo, the person’s rank or division, or the company itself are welcome and useful as conversational ice-breakers.

Following are some steps you should take when presented with a business card:

1. Check the name and title:
When you receive a card, read the English side first but definitely turn to the Japanese side, for the reasons noted earlier. Check the name, even if your Japanese knowledge is virtually nil. Note the title of each person you meet. Junior and senior relationships in Japan are very important. You will sometimes meet two people in the same division with the same title. In this case, by checking the kanji you can often determine who is senior as there may be additional titles, subtitles or words in Japanese. Note that more than one Japanese title can be translated into the same English word. “Manager” and “General Manager” are examples of this.

2. Know the implications of rank:
Knowing a contact’s title is not enough; you must also know what it means. Managers’ roles are not always easily defined, but the use of different Japanese titles with the same English translation has a meaning clearly distinguishing who is junior and who is senior. Unless you check the Japanese title, you will never know this unwritten (in English) ranking. As examples, it may reflect the individual’s rise through the company or show which division he works in. Junior, untitled people are also very important to you and must be cultivated as they will prepare the background report on your company and your proposal upon which the ultimate decision will be based. General rules of contact are as follows:

Same level contact is key
A junior staff member in a Japanese company may not be comfortable dealing directly with senior management in your company. Initial contact meetings are fine, but you should attempt to set up working relationships between your junior staff and their Japanese counterparts. In general, contacts should be at the same level, though it can be acceptable for senior members of smaller companies to meet with lower-ranking managers of larger companies. A senior executive in your company may be respected, but will not get results if lower-level contacts in the company are not developed.

Foreign business specialists bypass rank
In many companies and especially in smaller organizations, these may be the only people who can understand English. This can create serious problems for you as they may not be skilled or knowledgeable about your products or services or even their own: they may be no more than ‘foreign handlers.’ In this case, you must recognize the Japanese-speaker who has rank or ability, and employ the foreign handler to fulfill your purposes. Ensure that he understands what you are saying and reiterate your points in different words if necessary to ensure that the Japanese-speaker is receiving the correct message. Rank will mean nothing if you allow the foreign business handler to control you.

Top management may not know details
The general bottom-up Japanese management style means that often ceremonial or figurehead leaders reign. If you are in top management, deal courteously with these people, but recognize that they can be helpful mainly for introductions, advice and networking. Do not embarrass yourself or them by going into too much detail, particularly if they are not responding.

Differentiate between large and small corporate management
Contrary to their counterparts in large companies, top managers in small companies have more authority and are often detail-oriented, quick decision-makers. Such independent presidents are known as one-man-Shacho. The implication in terms of rank is that junior people may have no decision-making power at all.

Interdivisional rivalry and power can displace rank
It is a myth that only age determines station in Japan. Just like Western companies, some divisions control budgets, handle certain countries or projects, or have some other specific power. Never underestimate the importance of even one junior member of the group; he may be at the meeting because he handles the budget, and therefore has the ultimate power to approve or reject your proposal.

Use corporate family connections
In Japan, as elsewhere, related companies or subsidiaries provide useful introductions, recommendations, and often lasting business dealings. Especially in smaller companies, the director or president may have retired to that position from a larger group company. The logo or corporate name on meishi you receive may give you a clue as to these groupings.

Every foreign businessman should be aware that an understanding of meishi can give valuable insights into the Japanese market.

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