Etiquette guide: The return of in-person meetings

With Japan opening up again to foreign visitors after two years of Covid restrictions, here’s a reminder of the dos and don’ts of IRL meetings to help you avoid a red-faced face-to-face

DO Be on time, meaning, early

The Japanese like to be punctual. It’s why trains run like clockwork, but for business meetings being ‘on time’ means being 15 minutes early. Plan your journey time accordingly; your clients will appreciate it.

DON’T Forget to bow

Like a handshake in Western countries, but more Covid-secure, bowing is a normal part of a Japanese greeting, even among friends. For business meetings, a tidy 30-45-degree bow will suffice—turning yourself into a human right angle is reserved for apologies or meeting royalty. There’s no need to keep eye contact, instead cast your gaze to the floor.

DO Think Covid

Things have adapted in the face of the pandemic. Meetings are briefer and any materials should be sent through in advance to allow people to print their own copies. While previously wearing a mask in a meeting was frowned upon, now it is expected and whereas pre-Covid you’d expect to sit opposite each other, now attendees sit diagonally to increase social distance.

Pre-Covid you’d expect to sit opposite each other, now attendees sit diagonally to increase social distance

DON’T Forget to say hello

While ‘konnichiwa’ is commonly used as a catch-all greeting by beginners, in more formal environments you should instead convey the social relationship and the expectations of the upcoming conversation. First-time meetings should be preceded with a round of ‘hajimemashite’, an expression of gratefulness to have met. If you’re expecting to be working together in the future you should add ‘yoroshiku onegaishimasu’ (‘it is nice to work with you from now on’). If in doubt opt for ‘osewani narimasu’, a sort of catch-all that means everything from “I look forward to doing business with you” to “Nice to meet you” to just “Hello”. For those who already have a business relationship, go for ‘otsukaresamadesu’ (roughly ‘thank you for your hard work’).

DO Remember the cards

Even in the age of Covid, physical business cards are still a big deal in Japan. You should be sure to have plenty available for every meeting and store them in a dedicated card case rather than your wallet. Accept each card with both hands and a bow and be sure to examine it carefully, repeating the name printed on it. Card-giving also helps you understand who is the boss: senior figures will be the first to exchange, with subsequent exchangers working their way down in rank. Once you have collected all the cards, do not write on them or put them in your wallet or, worst of all, pocket. This is a social snub, meaning the person is of no importance to you. It’s best to place them on the table in front of you, placing them in your card case once the meeting is over.

DON’T Say sayonara

‘Sayonara’ is one of those words that every visitor seems to know, but rather than ‘goodbye’, ‘sayonara’ is closer to ‘farewell’, and is so final and relatively unfriendly that it’s most often used to end romantic relationships. Best to instead opt for ‘shitsurei shimasu’ or ‘arigatou gozaimashita’ instead.

Your work partners will likely wait outside the office, standing at attention until you’re out of sight

DO Look back

When leaving a meeting, you’ll be expected to do a short bow before leaving, but while you walk away, your work partners will likely wait outside the office or meeting room, standing at attention until you’re out of sight. Acknowledge their efforts by turning around when you’re a short distance away, and repeating the bow. Your business partners—and probably your business—will appreciate it.