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Japanese Social Interaction Guide
In a business setting, the Japanese can be extremely reserved. In a social setting, this can be the complete opposite. This guide has been setup to explain certain social situations you will likely encounter in Japan.
It’s crucial to understand that social events in Japan play a key role in building connections with your potential Japanese clients. Often times, even in a Japanese business meeting, there may be discussions of social events that will take place shortly after. These types of discussions may materialize into an actual social event, or they may not. However, you may not get direct answers, especially when events dissolve into just talk. Do not be offended. This is common and not meant to disrespect you in any way. It’s not a good idea to pester your host for details and confirmation on any social event information like you may want to do for an actual business meeting.
If you have made the trip to Japan, you are seen as a guest in their country. This means that if you are invited out to a social event at a restaurant, your host will likely be paying. It is actually seen as being rude if you insist on paying for your food or drinks, as “going Dutch” is uncommon in Japan. The best rule of thumb is to politely attempt and offer to pay for your meal or drinks once. Your host will reject your offer, so at that stage, thank them graciously. In Japan, many exchanges are ritualistic in nature, and it would be rude to outright expect to be treated to dinner by your host. A meek suggestion that you would like to pay will show that you are participating in this ritual, and that you are showing respect for a night out. Also, in general one does not need to tip in Japan. It may seem rude to those in the West, but it is customary to not tip in Japan.
Location, Location, Location
Don’t expect to be taken to the homes of those you have interacted with from your business meeting. This is uncommon and a home setting is very unlike what we may find in the West. Thus, expect to meet at restaurants or bars for social functions.
The Japanese love to drink. Thus, many social events outside of the office take place at bars, restaurants, karaoke spots and other locations where alcohol is flowing. If you don’t drink, you are likely going to face quite a bit of peer pressure in a Japanese social setting. Those who do not drink are often seen as guarded or hiding something in Japan. If you absolutely cannot drink, it may be best to fabricate an explanation of medical condition of some sort, as other reasons will rarely be seen as acceptable. The reason for this is that alcohol is the great equalizer in Japan. For a society with so many rigid rules of engagement in a business setting, alcohol allows those outside of the office to express themselves freely, and often without consequences. If they say things to offend, the Japanese will often blame the alcohol the next day, and thus, no harm is taken. When drinking, it’s important to note that you do not drink from the bottle. When glasses are provided, it is customary for people to not pour themselves a drink, especially when drinking with a higher-ranking member of your team, etc. Keep an eye on their glass and when it gets low, that is the time to refill it. After this refill, place the bottle down, and your counterpart will likely fill your glass as well. If there is ever a time when your glass is empty, and you want to fill your own, don't. Simply, fill the glass of the Japanese person next to you, and they will get the hint that you need to be served as well. Pouring your own drink can be seen as rude as you are not allowing the Japanese person near you to fully assist you.
When in Japan, you are likely to be introduced to exotic foods you may never have seen before. If you are a vegetarian or a selective eater, this could cause issues as eating in Japan is a social event. It will be customary that your hosts in Japan may want to introduce you to foods that are special from their region, or especially important to their culture. It’s best to handle these situations with care and to take the “When in Rome” attitude. Even if you don’t feel you will like a certain food, just an attempt to taste it will show the Japanese that you are trying to best to respect their culture.