Japanese Business Etiquette: Building bridges overseas

Overview

Japanese Business Etiquette is quite separate from others, even from those in neighbouring countries in North East Asia.  Amongst themselves there is a clear Japanese Business Etiquette in terms of hierarchical structure and coded behaviour for interaction. The most noticeable feature to external eyes is the bowing culture.  There are subtle differences between bows, reflecting both social and gender differences.

The good news is that none of this should concern people who are not Japanese!  A simple rule of thumb for a UK national dealing with the Japanese is to act politely in the way that you normally would and this will usually be more than enough.

There are, however, a few things that might be worth bearing in mind.

Punctuality

In Japan it is impolite to be late.  Japanese will err on the side of being much too early, and wait, rather than be late.  If you are going to be late, then it is important to contact your host in advance and warn them, if a delay is inevitable.  At receptions, Japanese turn up exactly on time and, when the senior man present decides it is time to go, those in his group will all leave together.

Business Cards and Introductions

In Japan the exchange of business cards is important.  It establishes affiliation which brings the ability quickly to trust.  A Japanese will hand you his business card, usually with both hands, with the face up and script towards the recipient, so that it is easy to read.  The normal response is to spend a little time looking and perhaps to make a little small talk, such as “I see your office is in Tokyo” or something similar.

You should not write on someone else’s business card when they are present.

When meeting several people for the first time, it is often customary to place cards in front of you, with cards reflecting the seating plan, so that you can remind yourself who is who.

Business cards should be put away carefully, preferably in a business card holder, but a wallet or Filofax or similar neat storage is fine.  Best not to follow one senior example of throwing all cards away as you leave a function! Also, do not put in your back pocket and then sit on them.

For those introducing people, particularly in a business context, there is a responsibility to ensure that the introduction has a good chance of success.  The role of the intermediary in Japanese culture is highly respected and important. If an introduction leads to a bad experience, the reputation of the intermediary will be adversely affected.

Names

Japanese usually call each other by surname plus san. First names are rarely used, unless someone has spent a long time living abroad and says that he prefers it.

When referring to yourself or a close colleague you would not normally use the suffix “san”.

Amongst Japanese themselves, there is a strong sense of social hierarchy, generally age related.  Two Japanese from the same background will refer to themselves as senior (senpai) and junior (kouhai).  This relative relationship is lifelong, even though the junior may in due course exceed his senior’s career trajectory.  Chairmen and Presidents of companies are obliged to consult with their predecessors (but not necessarily follow advice) when making major strategic decisions.  

Face

The concept of face is common throughout East Asia, but probably most important in Japan.  To lose face is to be humiliated and whilst no one wants to lose face in negotiations, the Japanese will often go to some lengths to ensure that their counterparts do not lose face either.  Consequently, strong or assertive language will not normally be used by them, and they will be confused by aggressive language or behaviour from others in meetings.

The watchword is courtesy.  The Japanese will normally go out of their way to be courteous and will greatly appreciate similar behaviour.

Gender

Japanese business culture is still male dominated.  Women are often in larger teams but women in positions of real responsibility are still rare.  Things are slowly changing, and the current government is committed to changing this, but a western business person is likely to be struck by the relative lack of female participation.

Meetings

Japanese companies will often bring several representatives to a meeting.  Government meetings may well be smaller. The less they know you, the more are likely to attend.  Traditionally, only the senior Japanese representative will speak, and others (more junior) will say nothing.  This has begun to change, at least with those who are more comfortable in English. From a Japanese perspective, a meeting’s purpose is to confirm relationships and endorse work already prepared.  It is not a proactive environment in which new ideas will be immediately accepted, although new ideas can be introduced, as long as there is no expectation of immediate response.

Consensus

Japan is a consensus society, with everyone buying in to what has officially been agreed.  Consequently, each individual represents his whole organisation at meetings. Do not, therefore, expect decisive responses to suggestions which have been made for the first time at a meeting.  They will need to go back and consult widely before responding. The best meetings will have been well prepared in advance.

A secondary aspect of this consensus culture, is that Japanese effectively do their “due diligence” before committing to a project.  The process can be time consuming and frequent questions will often be repeated. This is because they have come from a different stakeholder, and the answers will be checked for consistency.  If an inconsistency is not explained, it may cause confusion.

The corollary of this initial slow decision making is that, when consensus is reached and a decision is made to commit, the whole organisation will swing behind and move extremely quickly and effectively.  

One of the means by which consensus is achieved for major decisions is through a process called ‘nemawashi’.  Literally, this means going around the roots of a tree when transplanting, and refers to the wide networking through all stakeholders that needs to be undertaken when proposing major change.  

Culturally, both through their education system and the collective approach to society, Japanese are encouraged to focus on precise detail, and to be wary of a conceptual approach.  Change tends to be incremental (kaizen means continuous improvement) and radical change is unsettling.  Processes are agreed through wide consultation; once agreed they can be repeated forever.  However, even the smallest change or discretion can be seen as too much for an individual to approve.  Creating precedent is time consuming, and something that most Japanese would prefer to avoid.

Face value

As part of the collective or consensual society, a Japanese is representing the group at any official event.  He will only answer a question with approved wisdom. Pressure to give an honest opinion will cause confusion.  The Japanese word for the official opinion is ‘tatemae’ or outward face.  Genuine personal opinion is called ‘honne’.  This may be obtained when your trusted relationship has deepened, or during a social event when alcohol has loosened inhibitions.  As all discussion under the influence is considered ‘off the record’, you cannot refer to this in subsequent meetings, even if everyone knows what has been said.

Language

The Japanese language is linguistically extremely different from English and other Indo-European languages.  Syntactically, sentences are constructed in the opposite way so, when interpreting, it can take until the end of the sentence before the meaning is clearly positive or negative.  Translated answers will also seem long as interpreters will use more formal, honorific language. Japanese all learn English at school for several years, but the majority do not practice regularly and have little self confidence.  

Many businesses will have trusted English speakers, but the layer of confidence is often very thin.  Colleagues with less exposure to international contacts may have very little competence, although listening ability is often better than they let on.

Ambiguity is often a virtue in Japanese, as traditionally it can allow both parties to emerge from a meeting with face intact.  Business meetings will need clarity, but this is usually achieved by coordinating the agenda and content before a meeting so that there are few surprises.

Taking an interpreter to meetings in Japan, at least until you are confident about the English language capability of your counterparts, is a sensible precaution.

Nommunication

Traditionally, Japanese will want to add social events to formal meetings.  This allows a more relaxed setting in which to get to know each other and build the necessary trust.  The Japanese word “nomu” means to drink, normally alcohol, and “nommunication”, is the process of talking in a relaxed setting with a drink and some food.  The Japanese will tell you proudly that this is the most important part of any business relationship. Karaoke often follows at a second party, but is not obligatory!

When in a social setting, you will probably find that the Japanese sense of humour is quite closely aligned to British humour.  They love word play and subtle irony. You will also find that their English language ability improves with a couple of drinks!

Long term relationships

It is often said that Japanese make relationships and that business will follow.  There is some truth in this. Taking time to build relationships is of critical importance and once made, you can expect them to be honoured for a long time.  Breaking off a business relationship, particularly abruptly, can badly affect a reputation.

Japanese business etiquette is something often seen in Japan as well as their other customs. Japan continues to take care to support these traditions. When you order from Atelier Japan, you’re directly supporting the culture and the spirits of Japanese makers that have kept traditional Japanese craft alive for centuries. Browse our website to discover more of our range of artisinal fans, tea, jewellery and pottery.