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Published by Xenophobe’s® Guides London SW9 7QH Telephone: +44 (0)20 7733 8585 E-mail: info@xenophobes.com Web site: www.xenophobes.com Copyright © Xenophobe’s® Guides Ltd., 2013 All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. First printed 1999 New edition 2010, 2012 Reprinted/updated 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2010, 2012, 2013 Editor – Catriona Tulloch Scott Series Editor – Anne Tauté Cover designer – Vicki Towers

For their advice and suggestions grateful thanks are given to Marek and Megumi Gronowski.

Cover: the Sony AIBO robot dog, symbolic of Japanese technological wizardry.

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ePub ISBN: 9781908120632 Mobi ISBN: 9781908120649 Print ISBN: 9781906042400


Contents Nationalism & Identity

1

Character

6

Manners & Etiquette

15

Government

23

Systems

24

Attitudes & Values

33

Eating

40

Business Practice

41

Family Matters

45

Hygiene, Health & Looking Good

57

Custom & Tradition

63

Humour

72

Leisure & Pleasure

74

Language

82


The Japanese call Japan ‘Nippon’ or ‘Nihon’, meaning ‘sun origin’. Japanese mythology says that they, and their country, are descended from a sun goddess which explains the origin of their name. Westerners call it Japan from the Chinese pronunciation of the characters ‘sun origin’.

Japan’s 7,000 islands add up to an area a little larger than Germany and the same size as the State of Montana. At 127 million, the population is 41% of that of the United States. But cram nearly half the population of the United States into 25% of Montana, and you have a more accurate picture of living in Japan.


Nationalism & Identity

The ins and outs of being Japanese

To the Japanese, the world is split into two kinds: ‘we Japanese’ and everyone else (or, vaguely, ‘Westerners’, for everywhere, even Hawaii, is west of Japan). Five-sixths of Japan is uninhabitable because it is so mountainous that it is only suitable for pine trees, and there are no roads, houses, or factories. The remaining one-sixth, mostly on the coast, is uninhabitable because there is nothing but roads, houses and factories. This means the Japanese live on top of each other, so any idea of individuality, of not relying on another person, is well and Individuality and truly expunged from the selfishness are as welcome psyche. as a sumo wrestler barging The Japanese are gregarithe line at a buffet. ous by nature – individuality and selfishness are as welcome as a sumo wrestler barging the line at a buffet. They consider one of their strengths to be their homogeneity: sentences often begin with the phrase ‘We Japanese’, as though they all act identically and hold exactly the same views. The result is a strong sense of uchi, meaning ‘inside’, i.e., ‘us’ or ‘at home’, and soto meaning ‘outside’, i.e., ‘them’ or ‘abroad’. To be taken seriously, for your well-being to receive proper attention, in other words to matter to the

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Japanese, you must be uchi. If you are not, you can expect little consideration: you are soto, and what you will get is benign neglect. You are invisible. To the Japanese, foreigners are soto most of the time. Japan is uchi, everywhere else is soto, so the Japanese can behave differently overseas. There you can express an opinion, admit you don’t actually want to get married or study accountancy – so long as nobody at home hears about Once you are their it. ‘Embarrassment on the road acquaintance, preferably is left behind’ as the proverb their customer, the conveniently goes. Many a red carpet rolls. European man is bemused to find that the sparky, fun-loving, independent Japanese girl he’s met on her travels turns into a meek yeswoman back at home. To your uchi friends, you divulge your innermost secrets. With mere acquaintances you stick to talking about the weather. Under no circumstances should the two attitudes be confused. Thus the existence of a stranger in the lift or the corridor is never acknowledged. Doors slam in your face, elbows ram into your side, briefcases leave marks on your knees and nobody apologises. But once you are their acquaintance, preferably their customer, the red carpet rolls. The Japanese find such sudden switching quite natural. The uchi/soto business is about cutting up the world into manageable proportions. You are brought

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Nationalism & Identity

up to care for each other; but obviously you can’t care for everyone, so uchi comes first, strangers last. You have to draw the line somewhere. And, for the Japanese, the coast of Japan is a convenient place to do it.

How they see others

To be Japanese, you must have a Japanese name and exclusively Japanese blood. Everyone else is a gaijin (‘outsider’) and can never be Japanese. If you are a ‘proper’ Western gaijin, the To be Japanese, Japanese will be disappointed you must have a Japanese if you are not tall, blond and name and exclusively blue-eyed. These looks have Japanese blood. big appeal, especially to the younger Japanese, many of whom wear contact lenses to make their eyes look blue, or dye their hair. Considered the ultimate in visual desirability, Western models, actors and rock stars are recruited by the media to advertise everything from cars to cough drops. To the majority of Japanese, foreigners are classified roughly as a) the dark-skinned, b) Koreans, and c) Americans. (Even the British are regarded as Americans. The Japanese love affair with America runs deep. Asked ‘What nationality would you like to be if you were to be born again?’, 30% of those polled answered ‘American’.)

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Nationalism & Identity

Large numbers of Koreans live and work in Japan due to Korea being a former colony. The Japanese Constitution forbids any discrimination – but only against Japanese citizens, and as the Koreans are not allowed Japanese citizenship they are exempt. Discrimination is a touchy subject – and therefore avoided. The Japanese way of dealing with something they find unacceptable is by not talking about it: if it isn’t acknowledged, then it can be regarded as ceasing to exist. Westerners in Japan are exonerated from following Japanese ways and even the most blatant misconduct will be forgiven on the grounds of The Japanese way them being a gaijin – a word that of dealing with is too impolite to be publicly something they find pronounced; a word that mothers unacceptable is by not scold their children for using. talking about it. Gaijin embodies a combination of fascination and disdain for the ‘unruly’ Westerners, the underlying meaning being ‘S/he is not Japanese. S/he will never be able to be Japanese, no matter how rich, smart or good looking… poor soul… we have to treat him/her kindly’. The Japanese think that, thanks to their learning, studying and research, they know the rest of the world far better than any foreigner will ever know them. Hence a foreigner who speaks Japanese and shows appreciation of Japanese culture is dubbed

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henna gaijin (weird foreigner). The nation is convinced that, though foreigners will never know them, if they suffer long enough, they will know the foreigners.

How they would like to be seen

The Japanese would like to be seen as an orderly, hard-working people, capable of meeting expectations – of being well up to every task. But their ideal is to be super-clever in secret. As they say, ‘The wise hawk hides its claws.’ The reverse is The Japanese the ultimate indignity. would like to be seen as To this end they push thembeing well up to every selves in their work, their sport, task. But their ideal even their leisure. When the is to be super-clever world criticised them for workin secret. ing too hard, they produced television programmes on how to enjoy a leisurely weekend – which everyone watched and studied with intensity at the weekends. For fear of being seen as layabouts, people will not take holidays. In desperation, companies wanting to encourage employees to go on holiday found that the only way they could be persuaded to take even a few days a year was to shut down the works completely, condemning tens of thousands of workaholics to miserable ‘holidays’ racked by withdrawal symptoms.

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5


Character

No ‘Yes’ or ‘No’

Character

The Japanese will seldom answer a question with a straight yes or no. Direct questions are frowned on, as are direct answers. The normal response is ‘Ma’ or ‘Ma-ma’, meaning ‘sort of’, ‘rather’, or ‘more or less’. They will erm and ahh and hesitate and leave things open rather than commit themselves to a decision. For a Japanese man to be called ‘decisive’ is seen as a defective trait, and for a woman to be thought of as opinionated is worse than to For a Japanese man be called ugly. to be called ‘decisive’ is A Japanese business execuseen as a defective trait, tive described the difference and for a woman to be between the Japanese and thought of as opinionated Westerners by saying that the is worse than to be Japanese are analogue, while called ugly. Westerners are digital. A digital clock tells the time precisely, but it gives its information in isolation. An analogue clock, on the other hand, can only give the correct information if the big hand, the little hand and the clock face are read together. The Japanese see themselves as parts of this clock, always working in harmony and progressing logically along the course of their lives. Preferences are rarely voiced. This can lead to expense. For example, when you invite people to a

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meal you don’t ask them their dietary requirements as that would be too direct. So you have to prepare for every conceivable culinary contingency. When talking to the Japanese, therefore, it is best to bear in mind that: • if they say yes, they mean no • if they say perhaps, they probably mean yes, or no, or else maybe • if everyone in the place is beaming at you, it means you’ve done the most offensive and tasteless thing imaginable (for example, speared your food with your chopsticks), and they wish you’d go home.

Mutual understanding

Because of all the indecisiveness, the Japanese are trained from an early age to read each other’s minds in order to ensure some progress. Because of all the The quintessence of unspoindecisiveness, the ken mutual understanding is Japanese are trained from to be found in the word an early age to read each yoroshiku: ‘You have underother’s minds in order to stood what I want you to do. I ensure some progress. have understood that you have understood what I want you to do. Therefore I leave it up to you to finish the task and I expect it to be done in the way I want it to be done. And I thank you for understanding me and agreeing to take the trouble to do the task.’ All this in four syllables.

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Character

Under the mat, behind the words

The Japanese read between the lines, or, to be exact, behind the words. Everyone knows the true state of things, that behind the tatemae – the ‘official position’ or what is expressed in words – is a honne, ‘true voice’, an undefined mass of human emotions reflecting the actual state of affairs. This stays in the background, to be discerned by the discerning. The Japanese will quietly walk away, mentally if not physically, from anyone who fails to recognise this distinction. Understanding each other’s hidden meanings perfectly whatever they appear to say is not as extraordinary as it sounds since, unless they The Japanese are the closest of friends, what they have perfected the say to each other is limited to art of deliberately about twenty phrases. They pick up misunderstanding minute clues to the speaker’s real each other. feelings from, for example, their expression, the tone of voice, the cut of their suit, or the probability of precipitation that day. The Japanese have also perfected the art of deliberately misunderstanding each other in order not to cause loss of face. For instance, you ask at the icecream stall what’s in his Supa-Kureemu. The vendor will give a detailed description: vanilla and strawberry ice-cream, pistachio nuts, topped with glazed honey and chocolate sauce. ‘I’ll have two please,’ you say.

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Character

‘Sorry, none left,’ comes the reply. It’s all a polite way out of any mutual loss of face. The seller forlornly hoped the customer would decide against it so he wouldn’t have to admit he was out of stock. He answers precisely what he is asked. This happens all the time in Japan. If a potentially embarrassing issue can be postponed or avoided altogether, it will be. Great for avoiding offence, but it’s a bit of a bummer if you want an ice-cream on a hot day. Things that might hurt people’s feelings or cause controversy are better left unsaid, especially when it comes to gaffes made by fellow insiders. Since it is of paramount importance in any aspect of Japanese society to save face, to ‘squash a face’ If a potentially is a major offence and must be embarrassing issue avoided at all costs. This often can be postponed or turns out to be the motive behind avoided altogether, actions which otherwise seem it will be. inexplicable, or illegal, like cooking the books to cover someone else’s mistake. Making a clean breast of it is very rarely the preferred option. Letting things out and making them known to outsiders would be a collective shame. So, whatever can be swept under the mat will be – in as thorough and swift a manner as possible. It’s a wonder some Japanese mats aren’t touching the ceiling. In the past, suicide was an honourable way of making restitution. These days apologies are seen as one

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Character

of the efficient ways of dealing with dirty laundry. Once a high-ranking company executive bows his head low and resigns, the slate is wiped clean. In this context, apology is not an admission of guilt, but a means of exoneration, a way of silencing accusers. Nothing is quite what it seems in the Kafkaesque world of Japanese ritual. Form and substance may contradict each other entirely. But it doesn’t really matter so long as people’s faces remain intact.

Reaching agreement

The Japanese will go to great lengths to avoid confrontation. Take the process of arriving at a group decision. To guarantee agreement, the appropriate information is transmitted to the appropriate quarters, those who must be consulted will be consulted, and those who need convincing To guarantee will be convinced. This is the art agreement, those of nemawashi. (The same word is who need convincing used in gardening to describe a will be convinced. method of transplanting something. You first prune the root and wait until it sprouts from the pruned part. Then you transplant it. Ne means ‘root’. Mawashi literally means ‘binding’.) For example, it is common for undergraduates after a class to say to their sensei (teacher): ‘Sensei, let’s go for a drink!’ This means having a couple of beers in a

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nearby watering hole. However, deciding on the place requires group agreement. A process of assessment circulates. No-one wants to make the decision. One student thinks she is too young to make a suggestion. Another thinks that Bar A is best but the teacher may not like it. In the end the oldest or the most senior person in the group will suggest Bar Z and everyone will agree with enthusiasm, even those who detest Bar Z. Harmony is what’s important, and open-mindedness and understanding are In Japanese society, the keys to decision making. your well-being is everyThe sequence in which the one’s business. People are nemawashi takes place is also there for you when you need crucial. If the right people are them and there for you approached but in the wrong when you don’t. order, the whole venture is doomed. If you approach the wrong people in the right order, you may find yourself committed to an unholy alliance totally beyond your control. In that eventuality, the original situation that required nemawashi in the first place would cease to matter much.

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One big group

In Japanese society, your well-being is everyone’s business. People are there for you when you need them and there for you when you don’t. They will follow you to your grave to see that you are properly buried. 11


Character

Everyone is part of some group and the group comes first. Precisely for this reason, the notion of enryo (a respectful distance) is encouraged. You should know when not to intrude. With no clear lines drawn between public and private, or for that matter between anything at all, there is little room for individualism. An art student, for example, must copy the masters for half his life before making his own first strokes which means that there’s not much room for a rebel genius to skip stages and take shortcuts. This does not mean the Japanese lack diversity. Inhabitants of Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo, for instance, find each other different. And Inside their group, the language is spoken with everyone has more or very different accents all over less the same attitudes. the country. Yet they all share As the saying goes, ‘The the basic expectation of being nail that sticks up will cared for by, and depending be hammered down’. upon, one another. Inside their group, everyone has more or less the same understanding and the same attitudes. As the saying goes, ‘The nail that sticks up will be hammered down’. The Japanese cannot understand the self-confidence and self-reliance of Westerners, especially the Americans. ‘A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do’, says John Wayne in Stagecoach. In Japan, a man’s

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gotta do what his peer group gotta do and they’re not in a stagecoach, they’re all in the same boat.

Someone to watch over you

Japanese life swims on a tidal wave of communication and concern. Leave your headlights on in daylight and countless oncoming cars will flash to tell you. Lest you feel insecure as you wait for a train, a constant flow of announcements tells you Japanese life swims precisely where the train is at on a tidal wave the moment, how crowded it is, of communication how to stand back in order to and concern. avert an accident, whether to hurry and get on board or wait until the next one, in which case you might as well get on with reading your paper – always remembering to fold it into a thin strip so that you do not cause obstruction with out-thrust elbows, another thing you are thoughtfully told to avoid. Once inside the train, the announcements continue: ‘Kindly move away from the doors to facilitate the entry and departure of others’, ‘The next stop is Nishinomiyakitaguchi; Nishinomiyakitaguchi is the next stop, that’s Nishinomiyakitaguchi’, or ‘Please do not leave anything behind you when you disembark’ as if there was room inside for you to leave anything behind. All this minding other people’s business tends to

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make the Japanese unable to think for themselves unless presented with options. In restaurants abroad they are flummoxed by being asked if they would ‘like anything to drink first’. How can they know, without being told what to choose from? Every product you buy comes with instructions: chairs, spoons, toilet paper. Machines come with huge manuals which cover every possibility for human error: ‘If the light does not go on, could it be that you have inadvertently forgotten to plug it in?’ Cartoon characters illustrate every step, pressing buttons, opening lids and smiling congratulations upon successful completion.

Know what you owe

The Japanese are moved by human frailty. If someone makes a mistake, apologises, and asks for help to remedy the situation, they can They show their expect to be forgiven. They show appreciation by never their appreciation by never forforgetting as long as getting as long as they live that they live that help help and forgiveness were given. was given. This is when the beneficiary has on towards the benefactor. On means ‘what is owed’. Once you have on towards someone, you had better not forget it – otherwise you will be excluded. Japanese society is an ocean of on with millions of

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people bobbing about in it. Everybody owes somebody, and everybody is owed by somebody else. It is a way of not taking kindness and favours for granted, as well as being another form of the oh-so-important social glue and a reminder In Japanese society, that you do not live alone. everybody owes somebody, Because of this, it is better and everybody is owed not to return all your on to by somebody else. someone in one go as this could suggest you don’t care whether your relationship continues or not. However, as on is not precisely measurable, if you insist that you haven’t returned all your on, even after a particularly grand piece of munificence towards your benefactor, then you haven’t. In the meantime, your benefactor may create a bigger on towards you. Eventually neither of you can keep track of who owes what to whom (or why). But the relationship goes on, and on.

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Manners & Etiquette As everyone knows, the Japanese are the politest people in the world. They are polite to food and drink: they refer to rice as go-han (honourable rice), tea as o-cha (honourable tea). They even refer to toilets as o-toire (honourable toilets). Intimate parts of one’s body are honourable too. The respect, of course, is 15


Manners & Etiquette

not for the object but, rather, is a demonstration of the speaker’s politeness. There is a distinct difference between men’s and women’s way of speaking, and a different form of the language is used when speaking to your boss or your client, or to your student, your wife or your family. The omnipresent struggle of form versus function is exemplified by a scene at a garage. A Westerner who could speak a little Japanese was trying to rent a car. The car hire employee, unable to break the habit of a lifetime and use simple (or to his mind, ‘rude’) language to the customer, responded There is a distinct using a form of Japanese which difference between the Westerner could not undermen’s and women’s stand. Fortunately, a young man way of speaking. who had witnessed the exchange acted as an interpreter between the hide-bound employee and the customer, negotiations were concluded and the visitor finally got his car. The Japanese are polite even when they don’t mean to be. If your taxi-driver, under great stress, shouts at the driver who cut in front of him, the worst he’ll be saying is ‘Go to hell! Honourably!’ The refinement of Japanese presents particular problems for sub-titles for the crude and the rude in, for example, American movies, with consequent oddities like the exclamation ‘shit!’ being translated as ‘yappari’ which means ‘nevertheless’.

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Modesty counts

The Japanese give each other ‘worthless’ gifts, and introduce each other to their ‘stupid’ brothers. Comments and actions are constantly accompanied by regrets that one has been ‘totally unhelpful’. The trick is to read between the lines when faced with this sort of thing, or to ignore the lines altogether and focus on the spaces in between. The verbal pyrotechnics of modesty is something that goes with being a sophisticated Japanese person. Civilization as the Japanese know it is measured by how far you can bend over backwards and fold yourself Comments and double in grovelling humility, actions are constantly in speech if not in spirit. accompanied by regrets All this modesty can be that one has been disconcerting. If you are in a ‘totally unhelpful’. lift with other people, you obviously have to let the others out first. Yet it is not correct to tell other people to get out before you, for that would be presumptuous. As a Westerner you might remain there forever. As a Japanese you will simply intuit who will lead the exodus.

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A matter of degree

Knowing how to bow properly is the sign of a good upbringing and education. Foreigners, being soto, are not expected to bow or indeed to know how, but for 17


Manners & Etiquette

the Japanese the bow is a clear indication of the relative status of the two people bowing to each other. One must learn whether to leave one’s hands at one’s sides or to bring them together in front, when to unbend, and the appropriate degrees of bending. There is a long-standing joke about two people who meet in the street and can never cease bowing to one another because neither One must learn one wishes to stop before the when to unbend and other. In fact, the Japanese the appropriate degrees naturally learn the timing just of bending. as Westerners, when shaking hands, know when to let go. Nevertheless, it is not uncommon for pedestrians to be held up while a pair of polite Japanese, in the middle of the pavement, bob up and down to their mutual satisfaction.

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Cards

The Japanese are devoted to business cards and will expect to exchange one with you even if you’re not in business. The reason for the cards is to establish the social status of the other person (they aren’t able to tell from the outward appearance, of course, as they all wear identical suits) and hence know how deeply to bow, what form of polite language to use, etc. Cards are also handy for finding out how to write one’s new acquaintance’s name in characters. The 18


Manners & Etiquette

only other way of explaining which characters make up your name is to draw them invisibly on your hand, which can lead to all sorts of problems on the phone.

Lots of apologies

The Japanese do not criticise each other, or anyone else, even in trying circumstances. If, for example, a Japanese arrives late for a social appointment (the Japanese are hopeless timekeepers outside of business and will often turn up to meet you at the station an hour or two late), no-one will The Japanese do not say a word in the face of the criticise each other, or miscreant’s profuse apologies. anyone else, even in ‘Sumimasen’, the Japanese trying circumstances. for ‘excuse me’ (literally, ‘I am inexcusable’), pops up constantly. The Japanese hear this seemingly all-purpose word countless times a day from everyone about everything, to the extent that it has been almost deprived of its meaning. So when true harm has been done and they really want to apologise, they use an expression the equivalent of ‘There is no way in which I could excuse or explain myself’. Sumimasen has even come to replace ‘thank you’ because others are taking trouble for you and you are sorry and grateful for this. Double-entendre can go a long way in Japan, and usually it means only one thing: you’re sorry.

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Correspondence

Sending letters involves the Japanese in a lot of protocol. To omit a title when you address an envelope is considered grossly offensive. There must be one, whether it is Director, Section-Chief or Deputy, sama (Mr, Mrs, Ms), or sensei – a term not just for teachers but preferred by medical Japanese views on doctors and politicians as well. modesty reflect the On the other hand, it is equally idea that the sender outrageous to add a title to your should see him- or own name. Both practices endorse herself as inferior to Japanese views on modesty to the recipient. reflect the idea that the sender should see him- or herself as inferior to the recipient. This is routine, even if you are the president of a company writing to an employee. When applying for a passport, you are told to submit a self-addressed postcard. On the front everyone writes his or her name without the sama. Before returning the postcards, the passport office diligently stamps the sama after each name to make sure nobody receives mail from the government without it. Some 17 million Japanese go overseas each year. Imagine the effort saved if the non-crucial practice was dropped altogether. But it is simply not done. Thus the passport office workers go on stamping the sama after each recipient’s name on every postcard. Millions of them.

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Gift-giving

The Japanese are great gift-givers. The summer gift season is called ochugen, the winter one is oseibo. While events such as Christmas are more intimate, the half-year gifts are one’s social obligation, and therefore a real headache. Both individuals and companies become paranoid over who to send gifts to. In days of old, people delivered these gifts to each other by turning up on doorsteps and bowing a lot. Now they have them sent via department stores and the internet. But it’s still a lot of The gift should be work. nothing too fancy, There are a number of criteria nothing too original, that such items have to meet. nothing too specific. Since it is more form than All-purpose usefulness content, the gift must not be too is the thing. personal. It must not imply you know too much about the recipient, nor may it reflect the giver’s personality too much, all the more so in the case of corporate executives exchanging gifts for the purpose of public relations. It should be nothing too fancy, nothing too original, nothing too specific. Allpurpose usefulness is the thing. So if you stay with the utilitarian, you cannot go wrong: soaps, towels, detergents, preserves, live prawns, tea, biscuits, noodles, cooking oil, wine, beer, brandy, fruit, vegetables – though not just any fruit or vegetables, they must be rare and they must glisten.

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Xenophobe's Guide® to the Japanese  

A guide to understanding the Japanese which goes beyond the etiquette to uncover the real nature of the people of the rising sun.