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Creating and Sustaining Important Relationships in Japan!

The etiquette system that began evolving in the earliest period of Japan’s history was to become what was probably the most comprehensive, the most precise and the most rigidly enforced forms of behavior in any society, before or since.      During the long and culturally defining era of the Tokugawa Shogunate [1603-1867] Japanese etiquette was refined down to the point that the rules for presenting gifts to high officials covered over 200 pages—and failure to follow them precisely could have serious consequences.      By the beginning of the 1800s the national etiquette had become so structured, refined and sophisticated that a simple carpenter sent to England in the late 1800s to build a teahouse for a London banker was mistaken for a member of Japan’s royal family when he presented himself at the banker’s home.      Until the mid-1900s all Japanese, on all levels of society, were physically trained and verbally taught to behave in the prescribed manner.  There was no question about whether or not the young, from infancy on, would be trained in etiquette or how they would be trained to behave. It was in integral part of the lifestyle—of being Japanese.      In earlier times, not behaving in the prescribed manner was a serious fault that could get one ostracized, if not eliminated. As mentioned in a previous column, during the last centuries of the Tokugawa period not behaving properly toward a samurai could get one killed on the spot.     The first Westerners to show up in Japan in the 1540s noted that the behavior of the typical Japanese was the kind one might, in fact, expect of royalty. The higher the rank of an individual, the more detailed the prescribed manner of behavior, and the more rigorous the behavior was enforced.      Etiquette in today’s Japan is not nearly as comprehensive or as strictly enforced as it was prior to the introduction of democracy into the country from 1946 on, but it remains far more detailed and important in the daily behavior of adults than manners in most other countries.      Most young Japanese are, in fact, no longer trained in the traditional forms of behavior, but many of the old forms of etiquette are still followed by adults, particularly in formal situations. The young who do not learn the prevailing standards of behavior  by absorption as they grow up are typically required by their employers to attend etiquette classes and pass tests, particularly if they are employed by government agencies and larger companies.      One major aspect of the Japanese etiquette system is covered by the term aisatsu [ay-sot-sue], which translates as “greeting” and “salutation,” and still today the rules and forms involved in aisatsu are especially important personally, in business, and in politics.      There are several times during the year that businesspeople and politicians are expected to make personal, formal visits to the offices, shops or factories of their contacts—to pay their respects those who are important to them in their business or professional lives by bowing and stating formal institutionalized expressions.      These visits include occasions when congratulations are in order and when thanking individuals for their past support and/or patronage and asking them to continue favoring you.      The most important season for making aisatsu visits to customers, suppliers, supporters and people in power positions [government officials, corporate executives, etc.] is during the first week after New Year’s Day.       The Westerner who really wants to “fit in” in Japan should learn a number of the more important forms of aisatsu , such as the formal greetings that take place in the business world during New Year’s and on other auspicious occasions, from weddings to funerals. [See my Etiquette Guide to Japan .] Copyright © 2009 by Boyé Lafayette De Mente ______________________________________ Boyé Lafayette De Mente is a graduate of Jōchi University in Tokyo and Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Arizona. He is the author of more than 50 books on the business practices, cultures and languages of China, Japan, Korea and Mexico. For a list and synopses of his books go to: http://www.boyedemente.com .

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