Business in Japan
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If you go to Japan on business, it's important to bear in mind certain cultural differences and customs in order to avoid any embarrassing situations. Whether you deal with clients or providers, business relationships will be strengthened if your Japanese companions appreciate the effort you make to learn about their culture and respect their customs. Cultural observations made here are based on stereotypes and generalisations, and it's possible that as you get to know your business contacts you'll see that they don't fit the classic stereotype. In Japan, just like here, it is true that everybody is different.
Japanese people are taught to be respectful from a very young age. Their manners, from a western point of view, may seem cold. In their culture, hierarchy is essential: age, social status, position in the company... When addressing another person, you should never use their first name unless you are related or have a close friendship. Instead of their name, you should use their surname followed by "san", equivalent to our "Mr." or "Mrs.".
Punctuality is essential. Arriving just before the agreed time is the most acceptable. Avoid arriving late or missing deadlines for proposals and reports at all costs.
Cleanliness, beauty and order are the three key words. During visits, Japanese businesspeople will take into consideration the state of the company they are doing business with. A bad impression could hinder a possible agreement, as they may feel that you are not taking enough care of them, by showing them disastrous, dirty or disorganised offices.
One of the main characteristics of the Japanese is a lack of physical contact with people outside of their private circle. This makes them uncomfortable as they have been taught to maintain the utmost respect. The most appropriate way to greet somebody is with a bow. The inclination and length will depend on the rank of the other person. For example, if you are addressing a business owner, the bow should be more inclined and longer than if you are addressing a worker of a lower rank. Furthermore, bows should start with the most important person, and finish with the lowest ranked person. When saying goodbye it is also customary to do so with a bow, just like when introducing yourself or greeting somebody. For more information regarding bows visit the website Japan: The Official Guide.
There are three types of bows:
1. Eshaku: bow with about a 15 degree angle. When exchanging a casual greeting or passing by someone of a higher social status it is common to lightly dip the head and give an "eshaku" bow.
2. Keirei: bow with a 30 degree angle. It is generally used in business interactions and is used when entering and leaving reception rooms and meeting rooms and when greeting customers.
3. Saikeirei: bow with a 45 to 90 degree angle. This is the most polite bow and is used to express feelings of deep gratitude or apology.
Offer a well presented card, without tears or folds, and made with high quality paper if possible. If you are given a card, take a moment to read it, as the Japanese would consider it disrespectful if you put it away directly.
Individuality is not well received. Decisions are made as a group, not only in the work environment, but also in everyday life. For Japanese people, the common good has priority over individual interests.
It is common for Japanese businesspeople to discuss business or close agreements over dinner. These meetings are a part of business life and should not be rejected. At business meetings at the company premises, guests sit with their backs to the door.
The typical clothing of a Japanese businessperson is subdued. Dark suit, white shirt and black tie. Women should dress conservatively with minimal accessories. It is essential to wear dark coloured socks without any holes, because in Japan it is common to take your shoes off at the entrance. If you are going to have frequent meetings in Japan, I recommend the book "Japanese Management: Tradition and Transition" by Arthur M. Whitehill.
When discussing a proposal, bear in mind that moments of silence are perfectly normal. They are a sign of reflection and respect towards the matter being discussed. Some listeners may even close their eyes, which should not be considered a lack of interest but rather attention to what you are saying. Business will be discussed 15 minutes after the meeting has begun. Avoid direct confrontations, an excessively high tone of voice and careless or defiant body language.
It is common to give and receive gifts when doing business with Japanese companies. They are not considered as a bribe, quite the opposite, they show interest and respect towards the person receiving the gift. Gifts must be hierarchised, so the same gift must not be given to people of different ranks, as it would be disrespectful. It is customary to open gifts in private, to avoid comparisons. It is important to bear in mind that the Japanese will reject gifts several times before finally accepting them. This is a well established custom and is even deep rooted in the Japanese language. Gifts will finally be humbly accepted, making it clear that the personal relationship is more important than the gift received. The duly wrapped gift will be given with both hands and with a slight forward bow.
You only have to observe the behaviour of the Japanese, who are educated in honesty and protocol from a young age, to understand their commercial and business relationships. If you maintain the utmost respect towards Japanese businesspeople, success is guaranteed.