Japanese Etiquette for Dummies

November 13, 2007 at 8:46 am

Regarding Sarah’s post a couple weeks ago on the onslaught of ‘reality-enhancing’ Nintendo DS games to hit the market, I just bought an RPG that’s guaranteed to hone my business etiquette skills. In the game, I’m a young office worker who goes through the week answering a series of questions by coworkers on topics ranging from word usage to phone conversation – even elevator manners. The more answers I get right the more my coworkers begin to respect me. Heck, I might even get a promotion!

Here’s a sample question for you:

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Three clients arrive at your office for a meeting. Chairs and table are set up as shown above with two seats on the left side and three seats on the right. The doorway is on the south (bottom) side. Given that you’re with your boss and the three clients – a regular worker, a department head and the company president – how would you seat everyone? Three seconds…

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Time’s up! The answer: The higher your rank the furthest from the door you sit. So you’ll be sitting on the left side next to the door. And as long as you know this rule you can figure out other patterns like when riding in a taxi cab, elevator or eating at a restaurant. It’s the same rule for Japanese martial arts. The high-ranking master always sits at the far end, called kamiza (literally, upper seat).

A friend told me the reason for this is because when enemies attacked in the feudal days the most vulnerable seat would of course be that closest to the door. Low ranking soldiers had to be willing to take the hit for their leader. Shame on them if they didn’t.

As a real-life worker in a Japanese office I know it’s important to be wise to proper etiquette. Telephone conversations are especially tough because it’s hard to know how to address the person you’re talking to. There’s at least ten honorific ways to say, “He’s not here,” none of which I’ve ever used outside the office. And then there’s the humble form when speaking about yourself. E.g., “I humbly present you this cup of tea,” or “I will humbly visit you on Wednesday.”

Though, even if you foul up the words or confuse your seat with the president’s, at the end of the day the important thing is that you show respect and apologize when in doubt. “Gomennasai (Sorry)” … it’s golden.

Himawari

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