Made in Japan [opinion column]

Brian Covert

The business card — don’t leave home without it.

That proves especially true in Japan, where the business card, or
meishi, is a way of everyday life.

I’ve often heard the importance of the
meishi in Japanese society, but I had a chance to experience it firsthand at last week’s Sanger City Council meeting.

Before the meeting began I was introduced to executives of various Japanese consumer cooperatives, who were in town regarding business with the local agricultural import office.

I was pretty impressed to meet such high-ranking officials of a foreign country. It’s not often you go to a local city council meeting and get introduced to presidents of companies thousands of miles away.

Part of meeting them, however, involved the exchanging of the
meishi to identify each other. In that respect, I’m sure they weren’t as impressed with me.

See, exchanging business cards in Japan is close to being an art. The
meishi is used by just about every professional you can think of, from lawyers to doctors to gangsters, Buddhist monks and taxi drivers. It’s more than a way of life; it’s a means of survival, for without the meishi, it’s not easy getting around.

The Japanese, known for making a good idea better, have done just that with the business card. There is a proper way to present the
meishi and if you don’t do it right, you could outright snub someone.

Though I’m aware of the importance of the business card in personal meetings, I’m afraid I wasn’t all that suave and sophisticated when it came to our Japanese visitors to Sanger. My lack of experience in exchanging the
meishi was quite evident. I just hope the Japanese guests didn’t feel too offended by my inexperience in handing out business cards!

Here’s the right way to do it: With one hand, the giver of the car pulls out from a pocket a special folder (usually made of expensive leather) containing the cards.

With the other hand, he deals out a card with the flick of a wrist. Much like a casino dealer. At the same time, he says his name and makes a quick bow.

Then there’s the not-so-right way to do it: As I was introduced to the first of the eight visitors, I pulled out my wallet (made of cheap leather) and proceeded to give one of the distinguished visitors a
meishi of my own.

“I am Yamamoto,” said one gentleman. He bowed graciously and I received the card. I gave him one of mine and returned the wallet to my back pocket.

The next gentleman did the same thing, I pulled my wallet back out again. About halfway through the procession I found myself juggling a camera, a wallet, a notebook, a council agenda and various Japanese business cards. The way I fumbled through my wallet must have given the Japanese businessmen a few chuckles in their native tongue.

But all’s not lost. Most people outside the Japanese culture are unfamiliar with how to present a
meishi in the true Japanese style.

“Foreigners never quite master the etiquette of the exchanging of cards, no matter how many times they do it,” according to John Burgess, a reporter for the
Washington Post newspaper’s Tokyo bureau. “Japanese often get it right only through formal instructions as company trainees. It is invariably conducted first thing in a first meeting.”

Despite my somewhat awkward introduction into the art of business card exchanging, I do believe that some of our recent Japanese visitors were taken aback to hear a Sanger resident like me speak their language.

I greeted them with the customary
Konnichiwa, or hello. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed one businessman turn his head in disbelief. The group politely returned my greeting in unison.

Had I been really quick on my feet, I would’ve followed the greeting with
Watashi wa Covert desu, introducing myself. As it was, I didn’t have too much time to think before the meishi ceremony began.

But I’ll be ready for the next batch of Japanese guests who enter the sacred halls of the local council chambers. With the help of a friend, I’ve learned how to eat with
hashi (chopsticks) and convert the Japanese yen into American dollars. You have to start somewhere, right?

So until next time, an honorable sayonara.

• • • •

From the LET’S GET PROFESSIONAL department: There’s nothing honorable that I can see about an ongoing exchange of rash words between a former Fresno mayor and the columnist of a regional newspaper.

If you haven’t already caught the feud between former mayor Dan Whitehurst and columnist Eli Sentencich of the
Fresno Bee by now, you haven’t missed much besides a lot of wasted time and childish bickering.

The feud was apparently started by some negative remarks Whitehurst made at a recent meeting attended by the veteran newspaper man. Soon after that the
Bee published Sentencich’s column sarcastically ribbing Whitehurst.

The topper came last weekend when KFSN Channel 30 in Fresno allowed Whitehurst, who has a periodic commentary segment on the station, to come back with a humorous rebuttal just as sarcastic, if not more so, than his predecessor’s.

As predictable as the setting sun, Eli returned this week with yet another column to keep the fire going.

No doubt the two will keep rehashing the battle for some time.

Which brings me to a less-than-glowing critique of the whole mess.

There are far too many
important issues to be dealt with in Fresno and surrounding areas than what a newspaper column writer and a former elected city official think of each other.

Anyone who knows me is aware of how strongly I support freedom of both the press and the airwaves — especially with the Fresno media, which I usually praise as doing a good job.

But there’s a point where you have to say enough is enough, even among colleagues.

The management of the
Bee and Channel 30 should know better than to lend so much news space and broadcast time to such a trivial matter as Whitehurst vs. Sentencich (the latter being a Sanger resident, no less). That news hole or TV time should be given to a subject more worthy of public viewing.

Not every newspaper reader or television watcher gets a chance to repeatedly blast his favorite media target; why should these two be allowed to abuse their privileges at the expense of insulting the integrity of the very public they serve?

Enough said. I already feel like I’m devoting far too much of my own space on such a menial subject.

To both guilty parties and their bosses I have one final word of advice: We’re all in the same business together; let’s eliminate the schoolyard name-calling.

It’s time to show a little more professionalism.