Is meishi kokan, Japan's well-known business card exchange, just a polite formality? If you view it as such, you will indeed have a difficult time performing it with sufficient care and attention to convey that you value its meaning and significance. As a consequence, you may inadvertently be sending the message that you consider the encounter superficial.
Japanese business etiquette dictates that the protocol of the meishi kokan custom contain a number of conventions designed to convey respect to the other party: the use of two hands, presenting your card so the other person can read it without turning it around, using a card case rather than your wallet, and so on. However, the part that seems hardest for Westerners - taking time to carefully read the card they've received - is more than just a matter of etiquette.
One could find many nuanced reasons for this part of the ritual, but two Japanese concepts might be helpful to keep in mind as you approach this practice: the inherent suspicion of strangers and the importance placed on implicit communication.
One familiar Japanese proverb warns: "When you see a stranger regard him as a thief!" This gives rise to the custom of getting an introduction before meeting or speaking to someone (even within a company). Whenever possible, Japanese will try to learn whatever they can about a person before meeting him or her, but will certainly not pass up the opportunity to glean even more, even a small detail they may have missed, from the card. Without all these avenues to determine that you're not "a thief," trust takes much longer to build.
The second important thing to remember is that implicit communication is highly valued in Japan. To explicitly tout your talent or position smacks of cheap salesmanship. Yet without getting a "fix" on the other party, it's difficult to proceed. Here's where studying the business card's handy haiku-style resumé fits in.
Rather than featuring the person's name, a Japanese business card is usually designed to provide you with the context within which the person functions. The company name comes first (what's its reputation?), then the division (is this an influential division?), the group (what's it's specific focus?), then the person's title (how high up is he?). All these, in addition to the company location, give you a framework for better understanding just "who" the person is, how he or she fits into the overall organization, and how you can proceed to establish a rapport - the first step to building a business relationship.
Your relative status is telegraphed by how high or low you offer your card: if you are the seller, supplier, or junior person, you present your card lower than the other person's card.
Another other aspect of implicit communication is conveying that you place enough value on this relationship to want also to know everything possible about the other person. In this regard, taking time to read the card becomes a sign of respect.
So the next time you receive a Japanese business card, it behooves you to read every detail. You may find something important that helps to begin the relationship and build trust. In the process you'll show that you value the opportunity to know more about the other person. After all, if you consider this more than a superficial meeting, you too probably want to know whether or not the person is trustworthy or a thief!