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Japan Considers Changes to Time-Honored Traditions

South Korea's ruling Saenuri Party chairman Hwang Woo-yea, right, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe exchange their business cards prior to their meeting at the prime minister's residence in Tokyo, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013. (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye, Pool)
Japan Considers Changes to Time-Honored Traditions
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Exchanging business cards face-to-face is a time-honored tradition in Japanese culture. Business leaders, government officials and others almost always give the cards to individuals they meet in person.

This ritual, however, is under pressure as Japan’s government urges people to accept a “new lifestyle” to battle the new coronavirus.

Experts this week amended guidelines for person-to-person interactions. The new rules include a call to wash your hands often throughout the day and follow rules for social distancing.

The guidelines also suggest traveling to work at different times of day and using video conferencing for meetings. They also express support for the exchange of “meishi,” or business cards, to take place online.

On Monday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe extended a nationwide state of emergency through May 31. However, he added that some areas with fewer infections could begin to ease public safety restrictions.

Exchanging business cards in Japan is a well-planned ritual that foreign business leaders are often advised to learn. The idea is to avoid offending possible business partners or customers.

The ritual involves taking out a new card from a card holder - not a coat pocket or wallet, then exchanging cards with the right hand. After that, each person looks at the received card while making small talk, often about the information on it.

People depend on business cards to exchange contacts “and start conversation,” said Chikahiro Terada. He is chief of Sansan, an internet-based business card management service.

His company will offer an “online meishi exchange” for business customers starting in June. “It’s ice-breaking,” added Terada.

Japan has not had the explosive rise in infections seen in many other countries. However, public broadcaster NHK reported Thursday that the country had about 15,500 confirmed cases.

The coronavirus health crisis is increasing pressure to change many traditional activities that have long been criticized.

Abe recently told cabinet ministers to amend rules and identify wasteful methods with the idea of cancelling or simplifying them. Among the common customs that critics note is the stamping of official paper documents with traditional “hanko” seals.

The coronavirus “is changing the work culture in Japan in many different ways,” notes Jeff Kingston. He is director of Asian studies at Temple University’s school in Japan. Kingston said the coronavirus has sped up changes, but this takes time. “It’s not like turning a light switch off and on...,” he said.

I’m Mario Ritter, Jr.

Linda Sieg reported this story for Reuters. Mario Ritter Jr. adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

card – n. a small piece of thick paper

ritual – n. a kind of ceremony that is performed in the same way

customer – n. someone who buys goods or services from someone else

ice-breaking – adj. something that puts people at ease

stamping – n. the process of pressing a sign onto a paper or letter meaning with a device, meaning it is approved or ready to be sent to someone

sealn. a piece of lead or other material with an individual design on it, placed on a document to show that it has come from the person who claims to have sent it