Business Cards in Japan: Theory & Practice

Whoever wants to do business in Japan heard about business cards and their tacit rules. If you master the Japanese culture, people will certainly have a better image of you. Instead of being the gaijin (foreigner) who wants to do business, you show that you put your shoulder to the wheel and value the Japanese culture, not only the Japanese market. The exchange of business cards (meishi koukan 名刺交換) is an essential element since a real business relationship cannot be built without it. But too many rules seem to exist: are they truly followed by businessmen? 

Here is a guide for those who want to make the perfect Japanese business card, check it out!

Business Cards Rules 名刺のルール (meishi no ruuru)

First, let’s see what Japanese and foreigners are told to do or not do concerning those cards.

  • The first step is to come prepared when visiting Japan on business since you will have to give cards to every person present. It is considered rude if you don’t give out your cards to everyone
  • They must be up to date, with your current title and a nice design. Many Japanese businessmen bring cards printed years ago, but it is better to change them more often. If you keep them in your wallet (for a long time), be sure that they are not dirty – make new ones if it is the case. You can have an English and a Japanese side, but when you give them out, be sure that the correct language is facing up.
  • When you hand them out, be sure not to sit down or that nothing is between you and the other person – a desk, for example. It will be rude if you don’t stand up (except if you have any disability, of course).
  • The person with the highest status gives out his/her card first. For some businessmen, it is a mistake to give out your card at the same time, or if the person with the lowest status starts. To know people’s status, check who enters when in the room (the higher the status, the later the entry) and who sits where (the boss sits in the back). 
  • During the exchange, ensure your card is a bit lower than the other person’s, like your glass during a toast. Offer it with the right hand and hold it by the top corner.
  • Introduce yourself and your company, like ‘Hello, my name is X from Y Corporation. Nice to meet you.’ (初めまして。X の Y と申します。Hajimemashite. X no Y to moushimasu.) If a colleague or your boss already introduced it, saying it again will make people remember your company name better.
  • Do not hide the logo, company name or person name when you receive a card. Use your left hand and consider it a moment. Thank the person with a choudai itashimasu 頂戴いたします.
  • Make a short comment (like ‘Oh, I see you are working at/as… / Oh, you like [insert a comment on the picture…]’ or repeat the name of the person, for example). Usually the visitor speaks first, but it depends on the host.
  • Do not fold it and do not put it away! If you take a seat, put the business cards on the table in people’s seating order (it is also easier to remember who is who). However, don’t be too focused on the cards, listen to what people are saying.
  • Do not write on a business card, use a separate notebook. Everything you need should have already been written on the card by the owner, it would be rude to add something else.

Useful Phrases & Information

If you give your card late: moushi okuremashita 申し遅れました or osakini itadaite moushiwakegozaimasen お先に頂いて申し訳ございません

If you have forgotten your cards: moushiwakegozaimasen. Tadaima, meishi wo kirashiteorimashite「申し訳ございません。ただいま、名刺を切らしておりまして。

If you are with your boss and meet someone else: let your boss start the business exchange. Stand up behind your boss, diagonally, and wait while holding your card.

Business Cards in Practice

Business card rules can seem strange or useless, but it is your entry in the business world. Even if you don’t see the point of those rules, you should know that it is essential for your business. It is difficult to build a good network without good business cards, therefore, it is important to have a card which makes an impression. Even Japanese, before their first professional experiences, find this concept strange. But when they really start to need them (usually around 30 years old), they realize their importance. 

Everyone, however, does not follow the rules. Amy Chavez shared her experience in the Japan Times: she was surprised to see how often Japanese businessmen break the rules. She had difficulties following them sometimes, like when she had to make a comment after receiving cards (when she saw ‘Organ donor’ as the person’s title for example). Also, modern business cards look sometimes more like advertisements than professional and personal cards, according to her (with blogs URLs or QR Codes). Sometimes, cartoons are drawn on the back of cards (the English side). Plus, one of the rules she thought was unbreakable, the ‘do not write on business card’ rule, was challenged when she noticed a ‘memo’ section at the bottom of a card. Finally, she saw at a TV station that cameramen did not have a business card while staff and directors had. The reason was that cameramen were not concerned about business communication, so they did not need cards.

As we can see, business card culture is not an exact science. Yes, there are many rules and it is essential to follow them. But every aspect of a culture evolves, and once we know the rules we can choose to follow them or not – or to take some liberties. At the beginning at least, it is better to go with the flow.

Example in Video

Business Card Exchange in Japan on YouTube.

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