The Japanese way

IT IS said that when the Japanese first visited the Imperial court of China, they introduced themselves as "the people coming from the land of the rising sun". The speculation is that they were merely pinpointing their geographical positioning in relation to Beijing.

Japanese culture is a unique blend of their indigenous traditions, with a lot of Chinese influence, especially in art, poetry, literature and language. The culture is also influenced by Christianity from the early European travellers and Buddhism from our own land. It is a culture that values self-discipline. Everything in that culture points to an uncompromising attitude towards harmony, simplicity, elegance and dignity.

Any visitor to Japan is impressed, and simultaneously thrown off-balance, with how fastidious they are about etiquette, proper form and stylised formality. It manifests itself in every sphere — right from their tea ceremony to which footwear is to be worn, where. Here is a glimpse into their lifestyle, behaviour and customs. Similar to our custom, they also remove their footwear before entering a home or a shrine. The only difference is that they change into, or you are provided with, indoor slippers.

Traditional Japanese homes are covered with tatami mats on the floor. Tatami mats are made of straw and measure roughly 180 cm x 90 cm. You should always take off your slippers before stepping on the mats in order to protect them from damage. The slipper changing is not over yet! Before using the bathroom, you change, yet again, into another pair of slippers, kept exclusively for that facility. While taking leave, you will be impressed by your thoughtful hostess who would have turned your slippers around, in order to make it easy for you to put them on!

It's polite to take a gift when you visit someone. Gift-giving is important in Japan. It is a custom for them to bring a small gift for all those they work with, when coming back from a vacation. Usually, the gift will not be opened right then and there, in front of everyone.

The chaji, or full tea ceremony, allows the host an opportunity to express hospitality to guests. The spirit underlying the ceremony is that of discovering beauty in things of everyday life. During the tea ceremony, the host and guests perform a highly ritualised series of actions, carrying on a nearly wordless dialogue of symbolism and feeling. In almost all high schools in Japan, teenage girls, and sometimes boys, learn the manners of the tea ceremony. The hostess thoughtfully selects each item used in a tea gathering (including scroll, flowers and food) and each one has a special meaning. They should be treated as objects of appreciation. The guests appreciate each of these items and compliment the hostess. This is the most important responsibility of a guest.

Bowing or Ojigi as it is referred to in Japanese, is the traditional form of greeting in Japan. There are classes in many companies and schools on how to bow properly. The correct bowing is from the waist while keeping the back straight. During the bow, men place their hands at their side, while women place their fingertips over one another to form a "V" shape. The angle of the bow is determined by rank and seniority. The farther forward and longer one bows, the more reverence one shows to the other. For instance, a junior employee may bow forward 45 degrees from the waist while the manager may bow just 10 degrees. In business circles, it is common to mix a bow with a handshake, particularly when Japanese meet people from other nations. There will be a slight inclination of the body along with a handshake. Bowing is also performed when giving or receiving something of importance such as exchanging business cards.

And, this is just a peek into their culture!


(The writer is the director of ProEt Centre for International Protocol and Etiquette. Ph: 23372004\55503605: Email:

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