Strict Etiquette Lives On In Japan: Pick a Seat Wisely

A NEATLY folded pocket square peeking out from under the lapel of his blue blazer, Takeo Sekine beams as he shows off the workbooks that are the tools of his trade.

Carefully combed and politely spoken, Mr. Sekine instructs people in the rituals and etiquette of corporate culture: how to address clients and superiors in polite forms of speech, when to offer one's business card, and even what color socks to wear.

Sekine is a reminder that despite a lot of talk in recent years about Japan becoming a ''normal country'' - a nation whose ways of governance and doing business are becoming more internationalized and less opaque - tradition is tenacious. In many respects, the Japanese remain committed to nurturing their national idiosyncrasies.

The essence of Sekine's teaching, and that of a small industry of ''business manner'' promulgators, is how to communicate and behave within the hierarchies of Japan's big corporations.

In late 1994, for instance, a major bank contacted Sekine and asked if he would adapt some pages from one of his textbooks for inclusion in the bank's pocket date-book. Tokai Bank, based in the central city of Nagoya, gives its date-books to selected clients and its employees.

Sekine provided two pages, including one with diagrams detailing where people should sit or stand according to hierarchies in various business settings. Among the rules:

If businesspeople are traveling together on a train, the most senior executive gets the window seat facing the direction in which the train is moving. The next most senior person sits opposite the boss, and the third most senior settles in next to him (women are rarely top managers in Japanese companies).

In a taxi, the ''top'' seat is behind the driver. If three people ride in the rear, the most junior sits in the middle. The seat next to the driver is the ''lowest'' seat.

In an elevator, the senior passenger stands at the rear, in the center, facing the door. The most junior stands near the buttons.

Guests in an office should be seated in order to appreciate a painting, display case, or a mantlepiece if possible.

When, entering rooms, if the door pulls open, allow the guests to enter first. If it pushes open, you should enter first and hold the door. Do not fail to knock before entering any room, even if you know it is empty.

Woe betide the junior executive who neglects to check his Tokai Bank pocket date-book to remind himself that the seat farthest from the door in a reception room is reserved for the most senior guest. ''If you don't know this order,'' Sekine says, ''you'll be embarrassed.''

Sekine teaches classes and seminars at several major Japanese companies, as well as writing guides on ''business manner.''

But he doesn't see himself as an instiller of order. Instead, he provides employees with the ''relief'' or ''reassurance'' that comes from knowing the correct way of acting and speaking.

He attaches no great social significance to the inclusion of this information in Tokai's pocket diaries; he just seems glad to have the extra exposure. A Tokai spokesman says the bank wanted to add something new to its date-book, in order to distinguish the bank from the competition.

But Sekine says the sort of instruction he provides has become more important as Japan's four-year-old recession has slowly forced companies to lay off workers or encourage early retirement. ''You don't know when you'll be fired in this recession,'' he says, suggesting that workers are trying harder not to give offense to superiors and customers.

''In this country, if you don't know how to greet people properly, you will be looked down upon,'' he adds.

Other observers say the recession has made companies more interested in results than etiquette.

That may be so, but Japan's big corporations persist in requiring that new recruits pick up the manners that are sometimes said to be dictated by ''common sense'' - the ways of behavior and speech that everyone is expected to know.

''The bigger the company, the more it sticks to formalities,'' agrees Makoto Sataka, an author and corporate gadfly. He says some company rituals - such as alcohol-drenched overnight outings - are losing favor, but that in general the mentality in big corporations remains unchanged.

One junior executive at a major communications company says older employees tend to put more emphasis on tradition and hierarchy. In large meetings that include bosses and new recruits, he explains, it falls to the mid-level employees to make sure the younger workers know where to sit.

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