Japanese Business Etiquette

Doing business in Japan requires an understanding of local customs. This is not to say that you need to behave like a local; Japanese business has obviously had a lot of contact with foreigners so there will be a certain level of understanding. However, you will want to avoid the things that are considered disrespectful and which would cause offence to your Japanese partners. Furthermore, showing a willingness to respect local customs and to show the appropriate consideration and courtesy to your hosts is a great way to start any business venture.

How to dress: Japanese dress code is formal. For men this means a dark suit with a white shirt and a tie. For women this means conservative attire, avoiding high heel shoes, jewellery, and short skirts. Focus on looking professional rather than on standing out.

Greeting your Japanese partners: The customary way to greet someone in Japan is with a bow. The deeper and longer the bow the greater the respect. When bowing, keep your back straight, your hands to your sides, and your eyes low. If your Japanese partners offer you a handshake, accept it, but otherwise use the bow.

The importance of business cards: This is a major issue when doing business in Japan. For this reason, I am tackling it separately. Always remember to:

  • Have plenty of business cards. These should be professionally made and be in Japanese.

  • Always treat a business card that you receive with great respect. Accept it with both hands, offer a short bow, say thank you, and examine the card carefully. Then, place it in a business card holder or keep them neatly in front of you during the meeting. Never shove it into your pocket, write notes on it, play with it, forget it, etc. as it is regarded as a sign of great disrespect.

  • Present your card to the most senior member first. Hand it to them with both hands, with the text facing towards them.

 Meetings:

  • Acquaint yourself with your host’s company and personnel beforehand. It is very likely they will have done their research on you.

  • Always arrive a bit early.

  • Notify your hosts in good time if you are going to be late.

  • Wait to be seated in the conference room. The Japanese typically use seating arrangements which are quite complex.

  • Take notes (or delegate the task). Your Japanese counterparts will take meticulous notes and will quote you on everything you said years later.

  • Bring Japanese translations of your documents to show your commitment. Hiring an interpreter is also a good idea if you want the nuances of your message to be properly conveyed.

  • Remember that Japanese culture does not like uncertainty. They require a lot of planning, fact checking, and so on before committing to a project. Be prepared and do your research.

  • Plan an agenda for the meeting.

  • Remember that Japanese culture seeks to avoid conflicts. Therefore you will rarely get a direct “no”. Keep in mind that “yes” most often means “I hear you” rather than “I accept your proposal”.

  • The Japanese value silence and use it to reflect upon things, so do not feel the need to talk during these moments.

How to behave:

  • Do not blow your nose in public

  • Do not put your hands in your pockets

  • Wear socks without holes in them as you may have to remove your shoes in certain settings

  • Be courteous, humble, and compromising. Abrasive behaviour is looked down upon.

  • Do not ask personal questions

  • Do not show off

  • Avoid physical contact and respect personal space

  • Avoid big hand gestures – Japanese people do not communicate this way

  • Do not point at someone

  • Avoid excessive eye contact

  • Be prepared for high context communication

  • Do not do anything that may cause someone to lose face. Losing face is an important concept that you should familiarise yourself with.

 

Things are changing and doing business in Japan and with Japanese people in general is easier than it once was. However, it is always good to make sure that you get off on the right foot and to show your hosts a certain level of respect.

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