I never felt I was important enough, or worse yet, no one else felt I was important enough to warrant my own business card.
But in Japan, that very first day I walked into my own apartment in Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken, my boss Hanazaki-san presented me with a clear plastic box of my very own business cards - complete with some 100 meishi (business cards).
My meishi had an image of Nasu Yoichi on horseback shooting kyudo. Nasu is the hero of Ohtawara - a bold samurai c. 1169 – c. 1232, who fought alongside the Minamoto clan in the Genpei War.
Kyudo is Japanese archery, but his was kyudo on horseback - an even more difficult task.
On that front side, my place of business, my name (in katakana alphabet) and I believe English teacher were all written out... all in kanji, except where I just noted.
On the reverse, it was written out in English.
My only complaint was that my name was misspelled. Josefh.
I didn't realize just how much of a big deal that was.
By misspelling my name - and not having it checked before giving it to me, Hanazaki-san probably felt like he lost "face" with me.
To me it was no big deal... but I now realize that it was for him.
I did not realize this at the time, but being presented my meishi was a very symbolically important step for the office to me.
It meant I existed in Japanese society.
Sort of. He took the cards back, and immediately went and had them replaced, giving me my new ones the very next day - coming back to my apartment to make the official presentation official.
This time for sure.
Back in 1868 when the feudal system of using style of dress and color of garb denoted your social standing was done away with, the name card became part of Japanese society.
In Japan, it is said that if you do not have a name card, you do not exist. It's one of those half-truths, because obviously you exist without a meishi.. but to the Japanese it means you are not part of Japanese society.
It's why my office felt it was super important for me to have my business cards from my very first day in Ohtawara.
Over the next three years, I went through my stock of cards quickly, getting new supplies often, and with changes to my meishi.
I used a different image of Nasu Yoichi, I made sure Ohtawara was spelled correctly - spelled out as OH, rather than just O with the line atop it (and tried to educate the city officials on its proper usage, as well - I think I failed).
I even came up with kanji (the Chinese-based alphabet) to represent my own name - except I didn't create it surname first.
A-n-do-ryu Jo-se-fu soon became Jo-se-fu An-doh-ryu in kanji... ensuring that the kanji I chose meant something cool... which I didn't realize was actually kindda a taboo thing in Japan... you don't make yourself bigger than the group... but still, I was Peaceful-Leader-Dragon Help-World-Walk.
Ryu in Japanese kanji (depends which one) means dragon. There are two different kanji one can use to write dragon... and I chose the most complicated to write one.
I even had my own printed up once, with some art of a dragon I had - a miniature two panel screen that was only about 10 centimeters high.
On top of my name having a dragon in it, I was born in the Year of the Dragon, and for the Japanese who knew, they got a kick out of it. It was a lucky year for the country. Olympics, shinkansen, etc. If you think that the Japanese aren't really into the zodiac, you are mistaken. In 1966, the year of the Horse, it also happened to be the Year of the Fire Horse - a particularly unlucky year - as a result birth rates plummeted.
Oh... the yearly zodiac is further divided into five elements, implying that every 60 years, a Fire Horse Year will rear its ugly head.
Anyhow, after receiving my very first meishi, Hanazaki-san proceeded to teach me the etiquette about Japanese business cards.
Exchanging meishi is actually a well-planned and thought out thing. I didn't know it at the time, but Japan has something called kata, that essentially implies that there is a proper way for doing every single thing a Japanese person could possibly do. From how to greet someone, to how to hold chopsticks, to how one exchanges one's meishi.
It's meant to present harmony, if not to take away that horrible concept of individuality. (Good and the bad.)
Called meishi kokan, the business card exchange is a formal and very important practice, and I admit it is something I follow to a certain degree today, 28 years later and in Toronto where I exchange business cards on at least three occasions a month.
In Japan, you do indeed keep you business cards in a card case to avoid having them become folded, bent, soiled or stained. To this day, if any of my business cards are less than perfect, I get rid of them.
Even if someone else has already introduced you, you will stand face to face with the new person and re-introduce yourself. My name is Joseph Andrew.
There is no mentioning of job title or even where you work. You introduce yourself and exchange business cards.
Now the Japanese begins of who's the most important.
Each person looks at the meishi they have just received. They see the company name, the job title and the person's name and quickly determine just which of the two is the deserving of the most respect.
They bow accordingly, and give the standard Japanese greeting of "I'm pleased to meet you" or "Please look after me". The latter was what us new English teachers might say.
Because you may be the foreigner and thus a guest in Japan, they may feel that you deserve more honor and thus get the deeper bow. But it doesn't always work that way. Sometimes respect is earned by having been on the planet longer.
For two Japanese people, age can mean one has a more important job than the other, and so the older person receives a deeper bow.
But what if the older man is a bicycle repairman, and you are a 35-year-old bank manager? That's why you look at the job title and bow accordingly. In this case, respect for age is superseded by respect for the power position.
Again... some people will hold the foreigner in high regard, while others who have been in a high position such as a school principal of board of education superintendent might feel that they have earned the respect, and guest gaijin/foreigner or not, they aren't bowing to you in deference.
It's actually okay - what have you done to earn respect other than show up in their country.
Then again, what have they done except be older than others... unless of course they really were smarter than the smarties...
Once the introduction and bowing is over - sometimes I found that because I bowed too deeply, they would bow again, this time more deeply, and then I would do it, and they would do it... it can be amusing to see two Japanese people bow six or seven times as they introduce themselves.
But honestly, it's just a different way of doing things, right? I can respect that.
You never put the business card away, by the way... you keep with you, and if you are like me, keep it on the table near you so you can make sure you have the name correctly as you converse.
The Japanese do the same. Tucking it away as though it was an old gum wrapper shows a complete lack of respect.
You treat the other person's meishi with respect, just as you would treat the person with respect.
It is not unusual for Japanese people to have booklets of meishi they have collected. I have four, I think, just from Japan. Still.
It's almost like if I throw them away, I have thrown the person away. And... to me, that's not respectful.. even after 28 years.
I suppose I was more Japanese than I realized.
By following the meishi kokan ritual, you are showing the Japanese person that they matter, and that you are not completely ignorant of Japanese ways.
You know that old saying how you only get one chance at making a good impression?
This is it in Japan.
When I came back home after three years, I created my own business cards and would give them out to women I met.
No pressure. I said if they wanted to go out, they could give me a call. Four times out of 10, on average, I got calls for a date.
So... I would recommend that if you are going to Japan, you should have some business cards made for you... and have them made with the front side in Japanese, and English on the back.
I'm not even talking about those of you going to work in Japan... I'm talking about the tourist.
It really will make a great impression if you can exchange meishi and officially exist in Japanese society.
It doesn't make you Japanese, but at least you exist.
Josefu Andoryu desu.
PS: I would then say Andoryu-kun to let them know they could use my first name because I now considered them a friend. They still always called me Andoryu sensei (Andrew teacher), which showed respect... much better than "gaijin sensei", which was said once in earshot, and quickly corrected by Hanazaki-san who chastised the Japanese guy who dared call me "Outsider/Foreigner teacher". Love that Hanazaki-san!
PPS: Here's a cool meishi my friend Matthew had: