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Navigating Japanese Business Etiquette

Japanese Business Etiquette

Foreign business cultures can be hard to navigate. It is certainly worth acquainting yourself with the business etiquette of the country you are visiting or hope to trade with. This is especially true if you intend to establish business relationships in Japan.

Understanding and observing Japanese business etiquette will enhance communication and could give you that crucial edge as you strive to achieve your goals. 


Culture heavily impacts the conducting of business in Japan and will influence decision making. It is dangerous to assume that the right approach to business in your own country will prove effective in Japan. Sticking to what you know could work against you and prevent you from making a favourable impression.

Here's everything you need to know if you wish to lay the foundations of successful business relationships in Japan:


Punctuality

Don't be late - Japanese Business Etiquette

You will find that punctuality is essential in Japan. Timeliness is fundamental to

business operations as is amply demonstrated by the efficiency of the public transport network. You will be expected to anticipate any issues that could delay your journey and so plan to arrive early. Ensure that you are close to the location of your meeting with time to spare and then enjoy a coffee before entering the building at the appropriate time.




Dress

Business suits - Japanese Business Etiquette

In Japan, business attire is conservative with the emphasis being on conformity rather than individual expression. Men wear dark business suits with white shirts and women tend to wear subdued colours and to keep jewellery and other embellishments to a minimum.





Bowing and handshakes

Bowing and Handshakes

The Japanese bow to those who are senior to them both as a greeting and to demonstrate respect. It is the junior person who initiates the bow, bending from the waist to an angle of 30 to 45 degrees. The senior person then reciprocates with a bow to around 15 degrees. It is considered bad manners to hold eye contact while bowing.


Always greet the person with the highest status first, followed by the oldest person present. You could decide not to bow but to extend a hand instead when greeting or leaving. Never bow and shake hands at the same time – do one or the other.


Language

English is not widely spoken in Japanese business and so an interpreter is often required. If a meeting is conducted in English, always speak clearly and slowly, avoiding colloquialisms, idioms and humour.


Hierarchy 

Hierarchy

Respect for those older or more senior than yourself is a fundamental aspect of Japanese society, including the business environment. Don’t address most of your comments to a junior person just because they speak your language.

You should always greet the most senior person before the more junior executives, and you should offer your business card to the most senior person first.

An adherence to this etiquette will be noticed and appreciated.


Privacy

Japanese people tend to be more reserved than those in the West. It is impolite to ask personal questions at the beginning of business relationships. Doing so would be regarded as too pushy and could ruin your relationship with your intended client before it has begun.


Japanese names

 Japanese Honourifics

In Japan, family names come first and are followed by given names. For example, if someone is introduced as Nakamura Junshiro, Nakamura is their family name. It is usual to address someone by their family name followed by the honorific word san which is similar to Mr or Mrs in English, but which is not gender specific and which can also follow given names. For instance, you would address Nakamura Junshiro as Nakamura-san. Always address people using their family name until you have been invited to call them by their given name.


Business Cards

Business cards

Business cards are extensions of executives’ identities in Japan. There are specific practices relating to business cards which you should observe. It is advisable to have double sided business cards printed with one side being printed in Japanese. 

When presenting your card, you should hold the two corners closest to you with both hands and with the Japanese- language side facing the person you are passing the card too. Never push your card across a table. You should always get up and walk over to the person you wish to present the card to.


When receiving a card, thank the person presenting it, accept it with both hands, read it and then place it in your business card holder, if you are standing.

When seated, place the card on the table during the meeting and then put it in your business card holder. Never write on a business card or fiddle with it during a meeting as this would be disrespectful.


Gift exchanges

Gift exchange

The exchange of gifts is a significant tradition in Japanese business. It is customary to exchange gifts at the first meeting but be careful to choose something appropriate. Avoid lilies, lotus blossoms and any white flowers as these are used for funerals.


Potted plants are associated with certain negative superstitions. Sets of four of anything can be viewed as unlucky. The number nine is also thought to be unlucky.



Meetings

It is best to have an agenda for a meeting established in advanced and translated into Japanese. Always take a company profile and any product brochures that you have with you when you meet executives for the first time.


On entering the meeting room, wait to be seated as there are customs regarding where each person sits based on their position in the company. The Japanese tend to take plenty of notes during meetings as this is seen as good business etiquette. This note taking indicates greater interest in what the other party is saying.


Less is certainly more in business meetings. Don’t speak too loudly when pitching and allow time for questions which can be incredibly detailed in nature. Silence can be golden and is certainly valued over excessive talking. Silence is thought to be indicative of wisdom and self-control.


Consensus and Japanese business etiquette

Japanese society is group-orientated, and this culture extends to business practice. Internal consensus must be achieved before decisions are made and so you should not expect or push for any on the spot decisions.


Japanese executives are unlikely to respond well to pressure. Similarly, you should not single out individuals for praise as this would cause embarrassment. Give credit to the entire group instead.


Building relationships

Trust is fundamental to success when doing business in Japan. The Japanese will only trade with you if they feel that they can trust both your company and you as an individual. For this reason, it is crucial to build relationships effectively.

Building relationships

You can do this by always attending meetings yourself rather than sending your staff or business partners to some of them. It is also worth going out for drinks or dinner with your proposed clients to get to know each other better.


Business dinners are an important aspect of doing business in Japan. It is worth noting that spouses do not usually attend such occasions.



You should observe Japanese etiquette when attending dinners. Use the damp towel provided to wash your hands, but never your face, prior to the meal. When serving yourself from shared dishes, use the utensils provided or the opposite end of your chopsticks.


Never pierce food with chopsticks. When you have finished eating, leave your place setting as close as possible to how you found it including placing your chopsticks in their paper envelopes.


Creativity

The Japanese are excited by new ideas and tend to be early adopters of new concepts. Given the formality of business etiquette, it can be all too easy to allow your creativity, unique ideas or special edge to become lost in your attempt to remain culturally sensitive.


Don’t forget to properly showcase your offering. It is hard balance to strike when you need to be somewhat understated while also pushing your products, services and ideas. Think carefully in advance of any meetings about exactly how you intend to present yourself and your business.


Planning your approach will enable you to both adhere to Japanese business etiquette and allow your offering to shine.


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Noel Myatt

5 min read

Jun 4

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