Japanese manners: Info from an expert!

This is the first of a series of interviews: My goal is to add insights of other professionals in regard to Japan, its culture or simply additional insights to the business culture. This time the focus is on Japanese etiquette.

Ms. Rieko Sonntag is an experienced trainer for Japanese culture/manner now for 18 years. Apart from giving language courses and intercultural training program including manner seminars, Ms. Sonntag focuses on helping newcomers to Japan to adjust and feeling comfortable within the local culture.

Sibylle Ito: What do you see as the common manner mistakes of foreigners?Rieko Sonntag: There are countless facts, yet allow me to focus on three points, which I notice beyond cultures many foreigners might confront.
1. It depends on which country you are from. Once after experiencing something negative in Japanese culture, some foreigners tend to generalize the characters of Japanese. We are all different. We have to learn to see people individually, beyond nationality, gender or other differences.
2. The way of communication in Japanese culture is very unique. It is regarded as one example of the high context culture: Japanese language is based on few explanations and it demands to try to read between lines and consider all the gestures. Many Japanese tend to explain not that much or not finish the sentences at all. Talking in uncompleted sentences is regarded in the Japanese culture often as very elegant manners, yet often interpreted in Western culture as weakness or poorness in expressions.
3. Real meaning of adapting manners is showing respect. One doesn’t have to behave like Japanese and Japanese should not expect foreigners to learn Japanese manners perfectly, yet try to understand and accept each others difference is important.

SI: Is it really so important for a foreigner doing business in Japan to follow the Japanese rules?
RK: I would love to say, “No”, yet in reality, it would surely help businesswise to understand or partly follow the Japanese way of behaviors or rules, especially when their Japanese counterpart has a strong position in the business relations. The world could be a better place, if Japanese business counterparts also make efforts to learn western rules.

SI: Changing the topic a bit: Why is gift wrapping so complicated?
RK: In our old tradition we used to have a simple way with the furoshiki. I guess the customs of wrapping got so complicated, as it is very new and a product of modern consuming and capitalistic world, due to esthetic sense, brand oriented way of thinking (package with names on it), to protect product from the humid climate, service and practice oriented thinking and for hygienic purposes.

SI: A personal question: Why are female high pitched voices so common in announcements?
RK: Since many men find it cute. Sibylle, you have also quite a high cute voice. Japanese tend to think you are well experienced businesswise or in a relationship, if you have a low voice…High voice is often a significant of innocence and pureness….

SI: Ooops, I was not aware that I have myself a high pitched voice. I will remember it before complaining again about high pitched announcements. Thank you so much for taking time to address the questions above.

In case of interest more information about Rieoko Sonntag can be found through LinkedIN (http://jp.linkedin.com/pub/rieko-sonntag/1a/580/b94/en) or then partially in German at http://www.dsty.jp/freizeit-angebote/japanisches-seminar.

Brought to you by Sibylle Ito (シビル伊藤).

3 thoughts on “Japanese manners: Info from an expert!

  1. Doing business in Japan is like growing mushrooms the feed you shit and keep you in the dark. Stay away the country is on its last legs anyhow.

  2. Hi Charlie,
    Thank you very much for your comment.

    Decision-making process is one of the headaches for my international corporations to face dealing with Japanese counterparts. Japanese have often their rules with NEMAWASHI-consulting with individuals business related in advance before bringing the topic to the table in public, so every decision is already made prior to the public discussion so the decision goes smoothly. Since many Western business rules tend to discuss openly together with everyone concerned to make a decision after the democracy, believing in concentration on factual issues bring a fair result, they get stuck with Japanese counterparts. For Japanese trust and KIMOCHI-a good relationship-, are the issue they put an emphasis on. With Western way of making decision they feel being confronted and intruded to their business related field which could often result in damaging their business relationship.


  3. Quite simplistic, but I suppose your audience requires it. I’ve been here several decades but still find it frustrating to go through the convoluted Japanese decision-making (or non-decision-making, as the case may be) process. All the different ways Japanese say yes but mean no might be interesting.


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