How to See Somebody Off in Japanese Business Culture and Customs

As many people who have been to Japan probably realize, the Japanese have many norms. These are hidden under a surface and therefore not visible at first sight, however, foreigners and travelers may still encounter some strange behaviors from time to time.

An example of such “strange behaviours” could be that expensive shops often have a door person. These worker’s task is simply to open doors when customers enter and leave. This task may have a security purpose, however, since Japan is fairly safe, the purpose probably is to provide a luxurious image and mindful customer service. Furthermore, the sales assistants of the shop carry the purchased items to the exit. This may already seem to be overly polite – and yet there are some even more polite manners to be found in business situations.

This article will describe one aspect of the Japanese business culture, namely: how to see people off in Japan. This situation (to see somebody off) appears both in private and business life. The Japanese custom of seeing off, some historical background, and how people should behave in specific business scenes will be explained.

One of Japanese cultures: How to see a person off in Japan

Seeing somebody off in Japan

If you are from Europe, you will find the Japanese custom of bidding farewell quite different from that in Europe. The Japanese custom is deeply connected to Japanese culture and history.
Japanese people behave in specific ways when they say goodbye and leave in order to show respect to others. If the other party doesn’t behave a certain way back, the person conducting the seeing off would feel disrespected and that the quest was rude, yet, they would understand when and why foreigners don’t behave the “correct” way. If a foreigner on the other hand could act appropriately back in such a situation, the Japanese would be impressed and feel appreciation.

The simplest explanation of the principle of how to see off in Japan is to not leave until the guest is completely gone. Some situations and how to behave will be explored below.

When leaving by a train

When people leave after a meeting, sometimes they take trains to go back home or somewhere else. This is particularly common in the cityside. There are many railways in Japan, especially Tokyo has many metro stations and lines.

There are 2 possible points where you can leave in this case: at a train platform or a gate at the station. The foremost advice when people leave at a station is for the host (aka the person bidding farewell) to simply not leave until the other party is gone. On the other hand, the visitor (the person who is sent off) should look back at least once and bow lightly before it is gone. Some business people do deep bowing at those times but this can also be seen as too formal sometimes. So, the party to be sent off should judge according to how close and friendly they are. If they are leaving from a private occasion, the party to be sent off can just casually wave their hand.

When leaving from an office

After business people have had meetings in Japanese companies, the host person takes the guest either to an elevator or the company’s entrance. The following are steps which the host should do for the quest:

  1. Let the guest stand up first (the host should stand up after the guest).
  2. Doors on the way should be opened by the host, and be kept open for the guest.
  3. If the host takes the guest to an elevator, the host should thank the guest, for example through a phrase such as: “本日はわざわざお越しいただきありがとうございました (Honjitsu wa wazawaza okoshi itadaki arigatōgozaimashita/ Thank you very much for coming today)”, then bow his/her head until the elevator door is completely closed.
  4. If the host takes the guest to an entrance, the host should say “thank you” and bow their head for a few seconds. They ought to then stay bowing until the guest is gone.
  5. If it is winter, the host should suggest that the guest wears a coat at the entrance. This is because according to Japanese business manners, guests shouldn’t wear a coat at the offices of business partners. If the host has suggested to do so, the guest can therefore wear a coat before leaving the office.

The important aspects of these steps are that firstly, the host shouldn’t look to be in a hurry to let the guest out. Secondly, the host should not leave first and never show his/her back to the guest.
Accompanying the guest out up until the elevator is good enough, however, if the host joins all the way to the entrance, the host has an extra few minutes for small talk. The host is then provided with additional time to make a good impression, especially if they can talk about common interests.

On the other hand, the guest should also keep bowing until the elevator door is closed. If the host follows the guest to the entrance, the guest looks back and bows at the first corner to show appreciation through their body language and then leaves.

Background of this business custom

Even though most Europeans have never encountered Japanese business culture before (in Europe at least), it could be desirable to have some knowledge of it, in order to show guests respect and politeness.
Business manners are learned in Japan when fresh graduates enrol in companies. Interestingly enough, some variations of seeing people off can be seen in different practices such as in group meetings or when people are in a rush, but the core principle is the same and probably shares the same roots.

It is not easy to clarify exactly from where the custom of bidding farewell originated or how it was inherited into the 21st century. One possibility would be that it originated in the Edo era (1603 to 1867). During the Edo era a strong samurai family called the Tokugawa family governed. Since the Tokugawa family did not possess full control of Japan, a decentralization mechanism called the Bakuhan system (幕藩体制) was in place and basically meant that different Daimyo governed their own territory.

Although not a big proportion of the public, there was a merchant class in the Edo era. As the years went by, the merchant class got financially stronger, and they began their own traditions and business culture. There exists an account of how to see off guests in one such merchant group, which entails that when the merchant group in question had a guest, the merchant followed the guest to the next village and spent dinner with them as well as stayed overnight in an accommodation. The next morning, the merchant bowed his head (only men had external communication and business roles) until the guest was completely gone. On the other hand, the guest wouldn’t look back at all and just move forward.

It is not exactly the same as, nor in accordance with, current business manners. Unfortunately, it can’t be said that the culture of seeing people off came from any certain merchant group, however, the previously described account shows that similarities of how to treat people can be found all the way back in the Edo era. Speaking of, one big trading company, Itochu, maintains old Japanese business philosophies from a certain merchant group in the Edo era as their core vision even today.
As the above examples reflect, Japanese business culture has been shaped by history and one can, even today, find some connections to old traditions.

 

R S
Senior Consultant

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