A Former Attaché’s Advice and Cautions for Visiting Japan’s Capital City
As an attaché with the American Embassy in Tokyo for a number of years, I was in frequent contact with my fellow countrymen doing business there. When the contact was with a new arrival, it was rare if the conversation did not very quickly get around to a request for suggestions on how to do business in this new and strange environment.
I could and did sympathize because I had myself gone through that inevitable phase of trying to get comfortable when everything was new, strange and very different. That feeling starts immediately upon arrival at the airport, when one notices that the taxi driver is seated on the right, and it continues as the oncoming traffic whizzes by on the “wrong” side of the road.
Few Japanese speak English and taxi drivers are by no means exceptions. Being able to demonstrate a reasonable knowledge of a city is a requirement for obtaining a license to drive a taxi in most developed countries. Not so in Japan. The driver’s responsibility is to take you where you want to go, but the passenger is supposed to know how to get there. I recall once telling a driver to head for the American Embassy, which was across town. I sat in the back seat scribbling notes for an upcoming meeting. After a while I looked up and, not seeing any familiar landmarks, asked the driver where we were. He shrugged and said he didn’t know. In frustration, I said, “Well then just head for Tokyo Tower,” a central landmark that is as well known in Tokyo as is the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Incredibly, he responded again with, “Where’s that?”
Most Tokyo taxi drivers are Japanese youngsters from out of town. They will be courteous, good drivers and will not charge any more than the meter shows, but the passenger had better know where he is going and be able to make himself understood. The word for our embassy is “America Taishikan,” which sounds like “America trashcan.” For the neophyte who hasn’t yet mastered some basic Japanese grammar, the phrase usually works.
Traffic in most Japanese cities proceeds at speeds that keep most foreigners on the edge of their seats. Telling the driver “yukkuri” or “slowdown” sometimes works. The word for “faster” is “hayaku.” A visiting congressional staffer suffering from a case of extreme self-importance once complained to a friend of mine about the speed of the taxis. In a funny though somewhat cruel response, my annoyed friend told him to just keep repeating “hayaku.”
The bottom line is more important than personal friendships when doing business in the U.S. The opposite is true in many other societies, including Japan. Personal introductions count a great deal and developing a friendship takes time. This can be frustrating, but on the plus side those friendships last and can lead to other introductions invaluable in the world of international business. Japanese almost never invite friends of their own or any other nationality to their homes, as is commonly done in the U.S. Home and business are separate. Entertaining is done in restaurants or in the ubiquitous hostess bars. The latter can be fun and can also be unbelievably expensive.
As for the bar-hopping aspect of warming up a friendship, keep in mind that drunkenness does not carry a social stigma. While “He was drunk” is a quite pejorative comment in the U.S., it passes as an excuse in Japan. The same holds for table manners. To belch loudly after a large meal is a compliment to the chef. Chopsticks can initially be a bit more difficult to maneuver than knife and fork, but can be mastered with some practice. Etiquette requires that chopsticks be placed on the ever-present “hashidai,” a small ornamental object, and never laid on the table. Never, when placing chopsticks down, stick them directly into the rice bowl, as convenient as that may seem. This is a rudeness of symbolic importance.
Japan is not the man’s world it once was, and women are now actually found in a few key executive positions—but the emphasis is on “few.” In addition to the process of building relationships, business is also conducted during the nighttime rounds. Women, except for the bar hostesses, are not part of this. Wives stay at home. It is not unusual for a male friendship to last many years without the wives ever having been seen.
Though definitely not widely understood, especially in rural areas, it is certain that desk clerks at all the major hotels will speak English. Assuming the newcomer speaks no Japanese, the hotel staff and especially the concierge can be invaluable in making appointments and taking messages. Also, it is certain that the business person with whom you are going to be dealing will speak English or make arrangements for an interpreter to be on hand. It is a simple courtesy in any country for the visitor to learn a few basic phrases. Japanese is such an extremely complicated language, however, that I personally would not recommend a serious study unless the person plans to spend a long time in the country.
After a long time and quite intense study, I managed to attain a reasonable level of fluency. Even then, I had to be careful. So few foreigners do speak the language that Japanese will speak among themselves at meetings, secure in the belief that any foreigners present will not understand a word. I made the faux pas once of correcting a statement in a meeting being conducted all in Japanese. The individual, who obviously did not know that I understood, lost face to such a degree that I had to go to great lengths to rectify the situation. That was a long time ago, but there is a happy ending. We eventually developed a friendship that still exists.
Tokyo is one of the largest cities in the world. The imperial palace (where the Emperor is still worshipped despite having renounced his divinity at the close of World War II) takes up a large amount of acreage right in the middle of the city and it spreads out for miles in all directions. It is a terrible place in which to get lost.
Mandarin Oriental Tokyo *****
($449 per night on expedia.com)
“We had high expectations for this hotel, having been familiar with Boston’s Mandarin Oriental, and every single expectation was exceeded. This being our first time in Japan, we were amazed at the hospitality of the Japanese people, but the staff at this hotel took it to a new level. Every single interaction with the staff was genuine, extremely friendly and exemplified the best service we have ever received anywhere. The room was glorious… extremely comfortable.”
Park Hyatt Tokyo *****
($481 per night on Hotels.com)
“I couldn’t fault a single thing from my stay here. The views from our room (Deluxe King) and all of the restaurants were spectacular—I could see Mt. Fuji on most mornings. The room was very spacious and well appointed. The service was impeccable. The breakfast that was included was of a very high quality.”
Hotel Century Southern Tower ****
($158 per night on tripadvisor.com)
“It’s all been said before, but sometimes it’s still nice to know that the reality and the reviews really do match. Super close to a major rail station, and that is key to getting around Tokyo without hassle. The staff is so, so helpful.”
Persistence Pays Off