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Three Books on Customs and Etiquette in Japan

Three slim volumes you can take with you where ever you go.

Review by Phil Stripling

Our trip to Japan was for business, although we added a tourism component. Because it was a business trip, we looked for books about etiquette especially for business persons. We chose Etiquette Guide to Japan by Boye De Mente, Passport Japan by Dean Engel and Ken Murakami, and The Japanese Way by Noriko Takada and Rita L. Lampkin.

We found the books helpful, but Japan is changing very rapidly, and all of the books had information was contradicted by what we saw during our brief week in Osaka, Kyoto, and the surrounding towns. Please keep in mind, though, that these books are written by people who have spent considerable time there; we have not. We had never visited Japan before, and our experiences may have been outside the norm. We review the books based on our experience, and yours certainly will be different.

We had some interesting experiences and interesting problems on our trip. We spent a week in and around Osaka and Kyoto in December 1999, and, being The Civilized Explorers that we are, we wrote a Web page about it. We had problems with names, mixed up telephone messages, and train schedules. Our hosts took us to traditional restaurants where our food included raw fish and what was called "the reproductive organs of tuna." We had a wonderful time.

Etiquette Guide to Japan is a small book, with a nice guide to useful phrases (with pronunciation) in the back. This book is copyright 1990, and the information on dating seemed to be, well, dated. Mr. De Mente mentions that Japanese have a "strongly negative" attitude toward Japanese and foreign couples dating. We saw many mixed couples, with none attracting any obvious attention. Handholding, arms around each other, and embraces seemed to be as common in Osaka and Kyoto as in the U.S. I found the book very helpful, nonetheless. I feel it never hurts to be conservative, and if the book promoted "old fashioned" behavior, no harm was done.

The chapters in the book are brief and to the point. They cover introductions and relationships, business cards, bowing and shaking hands, seating and dining etiquette, praise and criticism, apologies and thanks, and even weddings, wakes, and funerals. I thought chapter on the origins of etiquette was very interesting and helpful. Although some information seemed outdated, the book was well worth its cost. It is very helpful for business persons, but it will be useful to all first- time visitors.

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The Japanese Way is copyright 1997. It contains helpful information on dates (the Japanese count from the accession of the current emperor -- we were laughed at for the Year 2000 issue since in Japan it was the 11th year of the rein of the Emperor), dining, drinking, driving, earthquakes, family, flowers, gender roles, titles, toilets, and "yes" and "no." The toilets in our hotel rooms were models of modernity: heated seats, built-in bidets, fans for odor control. Although The Japanese Way has phrases, the book did not have a good pronunciation guide. I do think the book's chapters complemented Etiquette, however, and I was glad to have both.

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Passport Japan is the most recent of the trio, being copyright 2000. It is also a small book, easily slipped into a coat pocket. It starts off with facts about Japan: size, location, geography, climate, national holidays, and so on. I found the general chapter on the Japanese to be helpful for a basic understanding of the culture. This book devotes most of its pages to the business aspects of Japanese culture and the impact of business upon customs and life in general. The ending chapters cover entertainment and socializing, less business- oriented that the bulk of the book.

This book is the most general of the three, and it is not a phrase book at all. However, it is geared toward business people, and it offers very helpful information on sorting out who is who at meetings. The authors give tips about where the important people are seated, not giving too much attention to those who speak English (older persons, i.e., those in authority, are less likely to speak English than younger persons), how properly to present your company and yourself, how to conduct meetings and negotiations with the Japanese, and how to dress for meetings. Passport Japan bills itself as a guide to "Japanese business, customs, & etiquette." The emphasis clearly is on business. Since we were there on business, it was a very helpful book. For tourism, however, it is the least useful of the three.

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