What is the historical origin or background of the Meishi tradition in Japan?


The tradition of exchanging business cards, known as “Meishi” in Japan, is a revered custom deeply entrenched in the cultural fabric of the country. This ritualistic exchange, so integral to contemporary Japanese business etiquette, finds its roots in a historical journey that spans centuries, evolving from ancient customs to its present-day significance.

The origins of Meishi can be traced back to the early 15th century, an era marked by the reign of the Ashikaga shogunate, a pivotal period in Japan’s history. During this time, the practice of presenting “ninsōgami” or “calling cards” began among the samurai and nobility. These intricately designed cards, adorned with the individual’s name and other relevant details, were used to announce one’s arrival or convey greetings when visiting.

Initially, ninsōgami were utilized primarily by the aristocracy and samurai class, serving as a form of identification and social status. The cards were adorned with elaborate calligraphy and often featured decorative elements, reflecting the refined tastes and status of their owners.

Over time, this tradition of announcing oneself via these calling cards expanded beyond the samurai class, gradually permeating various strata of Japanese society. By the Edo period (1603-1868), the practice had become more widespread, extending to merchants, artisans, and other social classes. These cards, however, were more simplistic in design compared to those of the elite classes but continued to serve the purpose of introductions and social protocol.

The Meiji era (1868-1912) marked a significant shift in Japan’s socio-political landscape, leading to rapid modernization and westernization. It was during this time that the concept of Meishi, as we recognize it today, began to take form. The Meiji era’s emphasis on industrialization and international trade fostered a need for standardized contact information exchange in the emerging business landscape.

Western influences further shaped the Meishi tradition, leading to the adoption of standardized business cards akin to those used in the Western world. The cards became simpler in design, focusing more on essential information such as names, job titles, and company affiliations, aligning with the efficiency demanded by modern business practices.

In contemporary Japan, the Meishi tradition remains deeply ingrained in social and business interactions. Despite technological advancements and the prevalence of digital communication, the exchange of physical business cards persists, upholding the cultural values of face-to-face introductions, formality, and respect.

The historical journey of the Meishi tradition reflects a cultural evolution—a transformation from ceremonial calling cards of the aristocracy to the practical and standardized business cards prevalent in modern Japanese society. Its historical significance endures, serving as a tangible link between Japan’s rich cultural heritage and its dynamic, ever-evolving business practices.

In conclusion, the Meishi tradition in Japan has traversed centuries, evolving from aristocratic calling cards to contemporary business cards, mirroring the nation’s historical transitions and embodying the intricate interplay between tradition and modernity—a testament to Japan’s rich cultural legacy and its adaptability in a changing world.