Probably every American is familiar with the big names in Japanese manufacturing — Toyota, Honda, Canon, Nikon, Sega, Nintendo, Sony, Panasonic. In fact, Japan is our fourth largest trading partner. In 2010 the United States exported more than $60 billion dollars worth of goods to Japan and imported $120 billion.

If we did not quite recognize the critical role that Japan plays in supporting our own economy, the consequences of the horrific earthquake and tsunami are making that clear. As an example of “how the disaster in Japan has immediately affected the supply of all sorts of components used in myriad consumer electronics and other products,” the March 15 New York Times cited a price jump of a little more than 33 percent for the eight-gigabyte chips used in digital cameras, smartphones, and other devices. Due to damaged factories and disruptions in Japan’s power and transportation infrastructure, some U.S. automakers may have to halt production of certain models. And Apple may not be able to get the parts it needs to meet the demand for its recently released iPad 2.

Recognizing the volume of trade and mutual economic interests between the two countries, businesspeople and Americans in general might profit from greater knowledge of Japanese culture, business etiquette, and language.

#b#Michiko Yamashina#/b#, a former human resources officer for Japan Airlines Infotech, is teaching a class on “Japanese Culture and Business Etiquette” on Friday, March 25, and April 1, 8, and 15, at 7 p.m. at the YWCA Princeton Bramwell House. The class will cover aspects of Japanese culture, survival phrases, and etiquette and will feature appetizers of authentic Japanese food provided by Jo-Sho restaurant in Somerset. Cost: $75. Call 609-497-2100, ext. 329, or go to www.ywcaprinceton.org.

Yamashina says she will donate the money she receives from this event to relief efforts in Japan.

Business etiquette exists in the context of an entire culture, and in Japan people value demonstrating their respect for others. In particular they value customers and people of higher rank or age. In America at least the illusion of equality is maintained, and casualness often trumps formality. As a result, Americans may be surprised or uncomfortable in business interactions in Japan. Yamashina explains several aspects of Japanese business etiquette that may make them easier:

#b#A bow is a greeting#/b#. “In America people show their friendliness by shaking hands or smiling,” says Yamashina. “In Japan we bow to express our respect for others.” This led to some misinterpretation and criticism in the United States when President Obama came to Japan and bowed deeply to the Japanese emperor Akihito. “A bow is not subordination,” she says.

Obama was simply following Japanese customs. And he achieved the desired result: “Japanese people feel favorable to President Obama because he learned and practiced Japanese culture,” says Yamashina.

A bow is mandatory in business situations, except with colleagues, where an informal “hi” will do. But for people you are meeting for the first time or for clients or people of higher rank, you must bow any time you see them. “In the morning when I go to the office and see my manager,” says Yamashina, “I would say a greeting word and bow at the same time.” Even the president of a company bows when he meets someone new, and royal family members sometimes bow when greeting the public.

So what exactly is a bow? “A head nod is not a bow,” says Yamashina. “A bow means you should lean from the waist with a straight back, and depending on the angle, the meaning will be different.”

Bows come in three flavors, depending on the extent of the bend: a 15-degree bend is a casual bow; a 30-degree bend expresses general welcome, and a 45-degree bend communicates an apology or appreciation.

#b#Seating#/b#. Positions at meetings, in elevators, and in cars are divvied up according to age and rank. The person planning a meeting gives the best seats to clients and customers and people with higher positions. “The best seat is the one farthest from the door,” says Yamashina. “People come in and out, and at the place near the door it is easy to be disturbed. A place farther from the door is a more relaxed and comfortable position.”

If the best seats go to executives and clients, then usually the younger staff members sit close to the door. This also is an advantage, suggests Yamashina, because when coffee or tea arrives, they can easily serve it to everybody.

Seating in a car varies depending on driver. Because the seat behind the driver or chauffeur is the safest position, an executive will usually sit there. The second safest spot, behind the passenger seat, goes to the next senior person. Because the middle of the back seat is often less comfortable, a young person will sit there. Another young person will sit next to a chauffeur to give directions.

But the “top” seat changes if a client is driving the car. “Then the most senior person sits next to the customer, because it shows their respect,” says Yamashina. The remaining seats are allotted as described above.

The youngest person controls buttons in elevator. A younger employee will enter an elevator first, hold the door for others to enter, and push the open button. Why? “Because he needs to be responsible for the safety of clients or executives,” says Yamashina. “This is also true in normal society, because we respect older people.”

#b#Business cards are exchanged ceremoniously#/b#. At networking events in the United States, exchanging business cards is casual. You hand people your cards and they often stuff them in their pocketbook or pocket. But in Japan, the person sharing a business card extends it to someone while holding it with both hands and facing the card toward the person receiving it. When you receive a card, you don’t just put it on your desk or in your pocket. “You look carefully at it and put the card next to you,” says Yamashina. “In Japan the card represents the person; if you treat the card roughly, it means you don’t respect the person.”

#b#Dining etiquette is according to sex and status#/b#. When dining, women are expected to pour alcohol for men; and between two men, a person of lower status pours for a higher-status person. “If a woman doesn’t pour alcohol for men, people think she is inconsiderate,” says Yamashina. Furthermore, women cannot pour any which way. “Men just pour from the bottle with one hand, like in America,” says Yamashina. “Women put their other hand under the bottle, because it is more elegant. Women are expected to be elegant in behavior and action.”

At the beginning of a restaurant meal, tea will be served along with a small towel to clean one’s hands before eating, and if a large platter of food is to be shared, women are expected to serve.

After dinner, no tips are required. If the diners are colleagues, they divide the bill equally. If executives are at a business dinner or lunch, they normally pay more than others do; for a small group, the executive may pay everything. If a higher-ranked individual has paid for the meal, the other attendees not only need to say thank you at the time, but the next day they should either thank the person again or send a thank you E-mail.

#b#Dress code#/b#. Simple dress is appropriate in large a corporate setting. In big corporations clothes are expected to be simple and functional; the standard is dark-colored suits and white shirts. In smaller companies there is more leeway. “Small companies are more casual regarding attire, behavior, and position in the elevator,” says Yamashina.

#b#International business is conducted in English#/b#. Meetings with businesspeople from foreign countries are usually conducted in English. But because the Japanese language is so different from English in grammar and pronunciation, says Yamashina, many Japanese are not so strong in spoken English. “Moreover,” she adds, “when people translate Japanese to English, some cultural nuance might be lost, because language is always related to cultural background.”

As a result, businessmen who speak Japanese have some advantage, especially since Japanese love to go out drinking with clients after business hours, where they can communicate more casually and often complete business started during the day. Here is where at least a little knowledge of Japanese comes in handy.

“On occasions like these, if you can speak several simple words, Japanese would have a good impression,” says Yamashina. “Americans don’t need to speak Japanese fluently, but it is nice to know how to greet in Japanese and speak several key words to communicate.”

In fact, according to the Asia Society website, in 2006 some 66,605 American students in college or graduate school were studying Japanese, and in 2000 53,896 middle and high school students and 2,189 elementary school students did so.

Yamashina was born in Nagano prefecture, where she remembers watching the skating competition in the 1988 Winter Olympics. She went to Keio University in Tokyo and majored in French literature. She studied English in high school. Her parents own several apartment buildings.

After college she accepted a job as human resources officer at Japan Airlines Infotech, where she worked for three years. She trained new employees in business etiquette, planned education for new employees, and created a brochure that would be delivered to graduating college students to interest them in her company.

In the meantime she had gotten married and was soon pregnant with her twin boys, now 20 years old and studying at Japanese universities. Several months later her husband — who works for Kanematsu, an import-export conglomerate, and is now in charge of its New Jersey branch — was sent to France. Yamashina left her job at Japan Airlines Infotech and joined her husband Pierre (also Japanese) in France.

During the couple’s five years in France, Yamashina studied French at Nancy University for a year. When they moved to Paris from Nancy, she got a business certification at the Sorbonne that would have allowed her to work in France, but then the family returned to Japan for a five-year stint.

Her husband’s next assignment was in California, and Yamashina enjoys moving around.

“It was fun for me,” she says. “I want to learn about different cultures and I like to meet many friends and learn new things.” She studied French literature and early American history at De Anza College in Cupertino and was one year into a master’s degree in linguistics at San Jose University when her husband was sent back to Japan for yet another five years.

While in Japan, Yamashina worked as a lecturer in business etiquette and international communications. She also taught academic writing to Japanese and foreign students and tutored business people for the TOEC test, which assesses English language skills used in the workplace.

Yamashina was also a lecturer in an overseas educational institution — a combination nonprofit and government organization under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Its purpose was to help the many Japanese sent to foreign countries by their companies figure out how to arrange appropriate education for their children.

She discussed with parents issues about English as a second language; preparing applications; getting vaccinations; and finding a good school. “I encouraged and explained how wonderful it is to live in a different culture,” she says. She and her husband came to the Princeton area in 2009.

Yamashina expresses her appreciation for the support of her friends and the American government in the wake of the devastation caused by the recent earthquake and tsunami in her homeland.

“I want to express my condolences to the victims and my gratitude for the government and people of America,” she says.

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