These tips on Japanese business etiquette are not intended to stereotype Japanese people or insist that all Japanese businesspeople and companies operate in exactly the same way. Rather, they are here to serve as a guide, providing you with greater cultural awareness and understanding of Japanese cultural norms when it comes to doing business. Remember to always respect the culture, value and traditions of your prospective partners.
Japan is a highly structured and traditional society that places high value on hierarchy, mutual respect and politeness.
In Japan it is customary to bow to greet people. Bowing is very important in Japan. To bow correctly, bend at the waist with your hands at your sides and back straight. How low you bow depends on the amount of deference and respect you wish to show. Don’t panic, though! Many Japanese businesspeople will understand that bowing is not customary to many from the Western world and may offer their hand to shake instead.
Before any business can begin, the ritualised exchange of business cards (meishi) must take place. Business cards are highly important to the Japanese and you must ensure that you have a large supply with you to give out in any business situation. Business cards are proffered with both hands and you must also take it with both hands, offer your thanks and ensure that you look at it before placing it down. Do not place it in your bag or pocket without looking at it – this is seen as extremely impolite and is probably the worst faux pas you can possibly make.
Ensure that your business card is of a high quality and mentions your title and qualifications. It is also worth getting your business card translated – it shows your prospective partners that you’re willing to go the extra mile for them. Have one side in English and the reverse side in Japanese.
Planning your business meeting:
Be punctual to business meetings. If you are going to be anything more than ten minutes late, you should call ahead to apologise and tell them when you will be there.
Hierarchy is respected in Japanese business dealings, and you should not simply enter the meeting room and sit down. Where somebody sits is determined by their status, with person of the highest rank sitting at the head of the table, and those of lower ranks sitting on either side. To make things more complicated, those of higher ranks sit closest to the most senior person, with those of lower ranks being seated further and further away. It is best to wait for direction on where, and when, to sit.
Certain aspects of meeting etiquette can be confusing to foreign businessmen and give them the wrong idea about their Japanese hosts. For example, nodding does not necessarily indicate acceptance or agreement; it is done to show that your business colleagues are listening to and considering what you are saying. Likewise, do not be offended if your Japanese counterparts have their eyes shut while you are talking – they are not asleep, it is simply another way of expressing concentration and interest in what you are saying.
An important aspect of Japanese business negotiation is the idea of politeness and saving face. Indeed, this can be the most confusing aspect of doing business in Japan, because rather than saying “no” to a suggestion or request, their unwillingness will most likely come through non-verbal cues and body language, or they may say something like “maybe” or “it is under consideration”. They are also less likely to speak up if they do not understand something. For this reason, it is best to book an interpreter for meetings and have your promotional material and important documents translated into Japanese. Not only will this facilitate understanding, but will also show your Japanese business colleagues that you’re willing to go the extra mile for them.
Do not directly disagree with or criticise your Japanese hosts or put them in an on-the-spot situation. Try to phrase your questions so that they can answer in the affirmative.
At a business meal, it is customary for the party that extended the invitation to pay for the meal. It is polite to offer to pay, but you should not display any money while at the dining table, as this is considered impolite.
While dining, it is polite to try a little bit of everything you’re offered. Usually, rice and other foods are not mixed like they are in other cultures. You should also finish all of your rice, because if you leave a small amount in the bottom, this indicates that you want more. Also, only pour yourself as much soy sauce as you think you need – it is not the done thing to leave a large puddle of dirty soy sauce! You can always pour yourself some more if you run out. To dine successfully in Japan, you should learn to use chopsticks. It is highly inappropriate to stab your food with the point of your chopsticks.
Never pour your own drink. It is up to the host or those sitting around you to pour it for you. Likewise, you should be attentive to those sitting near to you and pour drinks for them. Drinking is an integral part of Japanese business culture, and if you finish your glass it will be assumed that you want more. If you have had enough, leave a little in your glass.
Japanese business is formal and protocol-driven, and you should dress accordingly. It is always best to play safe. For men, conservative business suits in dark colours (black or dark blue) are best, while women should also dress conservatively and avoid wearing high heels or too many accessories. For men and women, ensure that you are wearing shoes that can be slipped on and off easily, because you will be doing so often.
The idea of casual business attire is not one that is entirely accepted in Japan. If you are at all unsure, dress conservatively. It is always best to be overdressed than underdressed.