The Meishi: The Japanese Business Card

Business cards are big in Japan. Even college students carry them. The Japanese business card is called a “meishi”. The etymology of the name is inspired by the early history of the business card or calling card.

The “mei” part of the word is the first Kanji or Chinese character in the word and it is simply the word for “name”. The “shi” part – the second Kanji – is often taken to mean paper, but this is not the case. The “shi” syllable in this context actually means thorn, and can also refer to the verb to pierce or to prod. The word’s inclusion in the Japanese term for “business card” stems from the tradition of people of upper-class eastern cultures, particularly in China, to leave a calling card in what we would know to be the letterbox of a colleague or acquaintance. They would “pierce” or “prod” the letterbox with their card. The word also carries relevance today, as you could figuratively describe a business card as a “name prod” or prompt.

The Japanese have a strict and formal method of presenting business cards to each other. The person presenting the card holds it with both hands at the top corners and facing the recipient so that it can be easily read. The presenter then introduces him or herself. The receiver of the card should again use both hands to accept it, ensuring that all the writing is still visible on the card. Leather cases are carried around by many Japanese to hold their business cards – it is considered bad manners to place someone’s business card upon receipt into a back pocket. In general, the business cards of those introduced to somebody will be put at the back of that person’s business card case. Folding over or writing on business cards are also considered insulting.

Other Conventions of the Japanese and their Business Cards

If individuals are exchanging business cards in Japan, it is considered ill-mannered for the junior person in the introduction to extend his or her business card so that it is above the senior person’s card. During table meetings, business cards shouldn’t be filed away in the business card case, but rather placed atop the case on the table until the meeting is complete. The person of highest rank who has presented a business card at such a meeting should have his or her card placed on top of the case, and those of lower rank kept on the table beside the case.

Less Traditional Methods of presenting Business Cards in Japan

Young people often don’t adhere to the strict conventions of business card exchange in Japan. Frequently, for example, they will pass a card to a new acquaintance with just one hand. The recipient may also take it in one hand. However, it is still somewhat impolite for the recipient not to give the business card the attention that the presenter might expect. The recipient will “formalize” the receipt of the card by taking it in both corners, with both hands, and perusing it closely before filing it away.

There are many other traditions concerning Japanese meishi. It is remarkable to consider that in a culture that prides itself in being so advanced technologically, there is still a prominent place for business cards in social exchanges.

Article created on 8/11/2008

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