Facts and Statistics
Location: Eastern Asia, island chain between the North Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan, east of the Korean Peninsula.
Population: 127,333,002 (July 2004 est.)
Ethnic Make-up: Japanese 99%, others 1% (Korean 511,262, Chinese 244,241, Brazilian 182,232, Filipino 89,851, other 237,914)
Religions: observe both Shinto and Buddhist 84%, other 16% (including Christian 0.7%)
The Japanese Language
Japanese is the sixth most spoken language in the world, with over 99% percent of the country's population using it. Amazingly, the language is spoken in scarcely any region outside Japan.
The origin of the Japanese language has many theories in reference to it, some believe it is similar to the Altaic languages, namely Turkish or Mongolian. It is recognized and acknowledged to be close in syntax to the Korean language.
Dialects are used in areas, particularly in Kyoto and Osaka, but standard Japanese, based on the speech of Tokyo, has become more popular through the use of television, radio and movies.
Japanese Society & Culture
The Japanese and ‘Face’
- Saving face is crucial in Japanese society.
- The Japanese believe that turning down someone's request causes embarrassment and loss of face to the other person.
- If the request cannot be agreed to, they will say, 'it's inconvenient' or 'it's under consideration'.
- Face is a mark of personal dignity and means having high status with one's peers.
- The Japanese will try never to do anything to cause loss of face.
- Therefore, they do not openly criticize, insult, or put anyone on-the-spot.
- Face can be lost, taken away, or earned through praise and thanks.
Harmony in Japanese Society
- Harmony is the key value in Japanese society.
- Harmony is the guiding philosophy for the Japanese in family and business settings and in society as a whole.
- Japanese children are taught to act harmoniously and cooperatively with others from the time they go to pre-school.
- The Japanese educational system emphasizes the interdependence of all people, and Japanese children are not raised to be independent but rather to work together.
- This need for harmonious relationships between people is reflected in much Japanese behaviour.
- They place great emphasis on politeness, personal responsibility and working together for the universal, rather than the individual, good.
- They present facts that might be disagreeable in a gentle and indirect fashion.
- They see working in harmony as the crucial ingredient for working productively.
Japanese Non-Verbal Communication
- Since the Japanese strive for harmony and are group dependent, they rely on facial expression, tone of voice and posture to tell them what someone feels.
- They often trust non-verbal messages more than the spoken word as words can have several meanings.
- The context in which something is said affects the meaning of the words. Therefore, it is imperative to understand the situation to fully appreciate the response.
- Frowning while someone is speaking is interpreted as a sign of disagreement.
- Most Japanese maintain an impassive expression when speaking.
- Expressions to watch out for include inhaling through clenched teeth, tilting the head, scratching the back of the head, and scratching the eyebrow.
- Non-verbal communication is so vital that there is a book for ‘gaijins’ (foreigners) on how to interpret the signs!
- It is considered disrespectful to stare into another person's eyes, particularly those of a person who is senior to you because of age or status.
- In crowded situations the Japanese avoid eye contact to give themselves privacy.
- The Japanese are very conscious of age and status.
- Everyone has a distinct place in the hierarchy, be it the family unit, the extended family, a social or a business situation.
- At school children learn to address other students as senior to them ('senpai') or junior to them ('kohai').
- The oldest person in a group is always revered and honoured. In a social situation, they will be served first and their drinks will be poured for them.
Etiquette & Customs in Japan
- Greetings in Japan are very formal and ritualized.
- It is important to show the correct amount of respect and deference to someone based upon their status relative to your own.
- If at all possible, wait to be introduced.
- It can be seen as impolite to introduce yourself, even in a large gathering.
- While foreigners are expected to shake hands, the traditional form of greeting is the bow. How far you bow depends upon your relationship to the other person as well as the situation. The deeper you bow, the more respect you show.
- A foreign visitor ('gaijin') may bow the head slightly, since no one expects foreigners to generally understand the subtle nuances of bowing.
Gift Giving Etiquette
- Gift-giving is highly ritualistic and meaningful.
- The ceremony of presenting the gift and the way it is wrapped is as important--sometimes more important--than the gift itself.
- Gifts are given for many occasions.
- The gift need not be expensive, but take great care to ask someone who understands the culture to help you decide what type of gift to give.
- Good quality chocolates or small cakes are good ideas.
- Do not give lilies, camellias or lotus blossoms as they are associated with funerals.
- Do not give white flowers of any kind as they are associated with funerals.
- Do not give potted plants as they encourage sickness, although a bonsai tree is always acceptable.
- Give items in odd numbers, but not 9.
- If you buy the gift in Japan, have it wrapped.
- Pastel colours are the best choices for wrapping paper.
- Gifts are not opened when received.
On the rare occasion you are invited to a Japanese house:
- Remove your shoes before entering and put on the slippers left at the doorway.
- Leave your shoes pointing away from the doorway you are about to walk through.
- Arrive on time or no more than 5 minutes late if invited for dinner.
- If invited to a large social gathering, arriving a little bit later than the invitation is acceptable, although punctuality is always appreciated.
- Unless you have been told the event is casual, dress as if you were going into the office.
- If you must go to the toilet, put on the toilet slippers and remove them when you are finished.
Japanese Table Manners
- Wait to be told where to sit. There is a protocol to be followed.
- The honoured guest or the eldest person will be seated in the centre of the table the furthest from the door.
- The honoured guest or the eldest is the first person to begin eating.
- Never point your chopsticks.
- It will yield tremendous dividends if you learn to use chopsticks.
- Do not pierce your food with chopsticks.
- Chopsticks should be returned to the chopstick rest after every few bites and when you drink or stop to speak.
- Do not cross your chopsticks when putting them on the chopstick rest.
- Place bones on the side of your plate.
- Try a little bit of everything. It is acceptable to ask what something is and even to make a face if you do not like the taste.
- Don't be surprised if your Japanese colleagues slurp their noodles and soup.
- Mixing other food with rice is usually not done. You eat a bit of one and then a bit of the other, but they should never be mixed together as you do in many Western countries.
- If you do not want anything more to drink, do not finish what is in your glass. An empty glass is an invitation for someone to serve you more.
- When you have finished eating, place your chopsticks on the chopstick rest or on the table. Do not place your chopsticks across the top of your bowl.
- If you leave a small amount of rice in your bowl, you will be given more. To signify that you do not want more rice, finish every grain in your bowl.
- It is acceptable to leave a small amount of food on your plate when you have finished eating.
- Conversation at the table is generally subdued. The Japanese like to savour their food.