Meishi: The Art of Introductions

What makes a good business introduction? Should it follow a pattern of prescribed behaviour in which both parties gradually come to understand how they might exploit one another?

poster for Exhibition of 'Introductory' Business Cards

Exhibition of 'Introductory' Business Cards

at P&P Gallery
in the Ichigaya, Kagurazaka area
This event has ended - (2007-02-06 - 2007-04-08)

In Reviews by David Willoughby 2007-03-20

 Or should it be a loose, anything-goes affair in which both parties gradually come to understand how they might exploit one another? To be more precise, should it be conducted in Japanese or Western style? Let’s look at the example of a typical foreigner-to-foreigner encounter in Tokyo.

On a recent night in Ginza under the cheerful red lanterns of one of those below-the-tracks joints, I happened to find myself seated next to another foreigner who recognised me from the gallery event we had both just attended. We chatted amicably for a while – me about the gallery, he about his work in advertising sales – before turning our attentions to our respective partners.

A little while later and he stood up to leave. “If you like art,” he said to me, almost as an afterthought, “you might be interested in this.” And he nonchalantly tossed onto my table his business card on which he had biro’d the details of some upcoming event he was attending.

It wasn’t just the contrived nature of his networking spiel that made the exchange so unforgettable, it was in the small details. It was in the way in which he dealt his card onto the table rather than to me directly, minimising the chance that it might be rejected. It was in the fact that he waited until the final seconds of our encounter to produce it so that neither of us would have to endure the awkwardness of the moment. Before I had a chance to digest what was written on the card he had vanished.

The exchange would have been amusing for any watching Japanese who are, of course, far more comfortable with the use of business cards, or ‘meishi’. In the West, business cards are strictly for networking and careful consideration must be made about if and when to proffer the card. Not least because it can also leave a negative impression: “flash” and “presumptuous” were some of the opinions offered by non-Japanese friends about those who dish out the card too readily. While they do serve an important networking function in Japan, the primary function of the meishi is to be an emissary of the owner, the body’s paper envoy preparing the grounds for exchange with the precise written instructions of how its owner must be treated. While the English term ‘business card’ is merely a bland description, the Japanese term ‘meishi’ contains two characters which literally mean ‘point at the name’. If the Western business card is something meant for future reference, the Japanese meishi is a way of smoothing communication by revealing one’s true status.

The Exhibition of ‘Introductory’ Business Cards at The Printing Museum’s P&P Gallery in Iidabashi is an opportunity to get inside the unique self-perceptions of the Japanese. It’s a shame that such little effort has been made for the foreign visitor: you’ll need a pretty good command of Japanese to follow the written explanations, though arguably just as much can be learned by viewing, holding and comparing the meishi on display. These divide neatly into two categories: those belonging to real individuals and those conceived by the Toppan company, the owner of the museum, to promote its own printing business.

The ‘real-life’ meishi can be further subdivided into company-issue meishi and the meishi of small business owners and other self-employed Japanese. Those donated by large corporations are, naturally enough, displays of corporate philosophy and hierarchy, laid out like squadrons of aircraft in colour-coded formations of rank. New recruits must learn to recognise them at room’s length and proffer the right level of respect if they want to get ahead. These systems of meishi serve to distinguish various roles within the company whilst simultaneously unifying them with thematic consistencies. As individual meishi, they generally stick to the classic format: company, name, title and contact details in Japanese on one side and English on the other. One small flaw in the exhibition is that it’s entirely ahistorical. I would like to see how a 21st century Sony meishi has changed from one brandished in the 1970s, but that’s mere quibbling when compared with insights such as the fact that even the CEO of McDonalds Japan wears his meishi hanging from a strap that says “I Love McShake!” eight times as it loops around his neck.

Then there are the personal meishi of various entrepreneurs, freelancers and shop owners. These meishi don’t have the magical aura of corporate names to grant them status so they tend to overcompensate with extravagant concepts to grab your attention: peculiar shapes, unusual textures, folding designs, cellphone-readable barcodes. English speakers will get a kick out of the tortured jargon the Japanese sometimes use to describe what it is they actually do. One man’s meishi boasts the job description ‘Collaboration Market Produce’, printed on a stick of edible gum.

All that creativity barely prepares the visitor for the new concepts in meishi design produced by Toppan, some of which you can see spread throughout this article. Here, as with all the other meishi, two countervailing tendencies seem to be locked in combat. First there’s the well-documented ingenuity of Japanese creators working within self-imposed restraints, in this case the 55 x 91mm standard size meishi. Every little detail that can be adjusted to create a different impression generally is: the texture of the card itself, whether warm and fibrous with rounded edges or crisp and clinical with razor-sharp corners, can speak volumes about the name on the card. No detail here is considered too small for improvement.

But there’s another trend that many Westerners are equally familiar with and amused by: the tendency of the Japanese to create joyously and earnestly, unaffected by the classical self-censorship that we usually refer to as reason or common sense. So there’s a meishi for your baby, a meishi for your dog. A meishi that can be totally immersed in water but doesn’t go soft – perfect for those business contacts you simply must call from the bath. Fold-out, pop-up meishi displaying festive scenes. A meishi that can be reassembled as buttons for your shirt. A meishi made of nori seaweed but which, on lifting it to your nostrils, smells disappointingly of glue. A planetarium meishi that when viewed in total darkness displays the constellation of The Plough in tiny lights. A rocket-propelled meishi that can intercept and destroy incoming nuclear warheads before they reach Tokyo. All true, almost. But where is the meishi that folds out into a comfortable chair so we might sit down and recover from all this meishitivity? Well, in fact there is a folding chair meishi but you must be exactly 91mm tall to use it.

The bland title of this exhibition barely hints at the delicious secrets about the Japanese that are on open display. It’s well worth a visit before someone in authority gets wind of it and decides to close it down.

David Willoughby

David Willoughby. Tokyo resident and writer for TABlog 2007-2008. » See other writings

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