16 Aug Cultural Intelligence: Japan

Dominika V. introduces the essential business etiquette of the Land of the Rising Sun, Japan.

  • ‘Japanese Business Etiquette’ is one of the most frequently searched business- related keywords worldwide according to Google.
  • The Japanese business etiquette is very formal and almost ritualistic at times in comparison to European or American business conduct.
  • In business settings as well as after hours, men should wear dark suits and ties in very subtle colors.
  • Japanese business women dress very professionally ­ when you visit a Japanese company, you observe a sea of black & white as both men and women predominantly wear these two colors to work.
  • Having double-sided Japanese business cards printed in English (even if it’s not your mother tongue) on the one side and in Japanese language on the other is essential while doing business with the Japanese. You can estimate that you will need around a hundred business cards per week. It is very important to always carry them on you!
  • Hand over your Japanese business card while holding it with your both hands, with the Japanese side facing up, and bow your head.
  • The bow is a highly regarded greeting in Japan. It shows respect and is very much appreciated by the Japanese.


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  • While accepting a business card from your Japanese counterpart, you should act in the same manner, adding a ‘Nice to Meet You’ in English or Japanese ­ which would be: ‘Hajimemashite’.
  • The first person to present with your business card at the meeting is the Senior Executive.
  • When going into a meeting or starting business negotiations, always make sure that the representatives involved are on approximately the same executive level. For instance, having a Western Junior Operations Officer talking to a Japanese Senior Operations Executive would be a huge sign of disrespect towards the latter.
  • Treat the business cards you received with visible respect; never ever fold them, write on them, play with them, throw or toss them across the table! Make sure you carry a neat business card case with you at all times and place all business cards received in it.
  • Never leave a received business card behind as it is perceived as disrespectful and a capital offense.
  • Treat everyone present at the meeting with deliberate respect ­ including assistants and waiters.
  • After entering the conference room, wait to be shown to your seat. The sitting order at the table is determined by the status of the attending persons. Also, never be the first to sit down ­ wait for the others to take their seats first.
  • It is always a great idea to take notes ­ and lots of them! It not only shows your interest and the willingness to learn, but will help you recall everything you spoke about. You can be certain that your Japanese partners’ notes are impeccable!


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  • Do not blow your nose in conference rooms or anywhere else in public for that matter. Excuse yourself politely and leave the room or find a private place.
  • Don’t shake your Japanese business partner’s hand at your first meeting ­ for many Japanese, this gesture can feel rather uncomfortable and embarrassing as they are not used to physical contact with strangers. When shaking hands at any other occasion, note that the Japanese handshake is very gentle and involves no direct eye contact.
  • Remember to never pat a Japanese man on his back or rest your arm on his shoulder. This would make him feel very uncomfortable and might result in his avoiding further contact.
  • Do not criticize anyone openly ­ not even your competitors or your own employees.
  • Use your smile often, be approachable, friendly and open to learning about their company and culture.
  • Do not use red ink for taking notes or signing contracts. In Japan, the names of the deceased are being written or engraved in red on gravestones which is why you should rather avoid writing in this color.
  • Do not bring a lawyer along ­ especially not to your first meeting with Japanese businessmen ­ as it communicates that you’re not trusting them. It might be a good idea to hire your own Japanese translator though.
  • Always honor Japanese traditions and culture. The more knowledge you can show in this regard, the more sympathy and respect you will gain.


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  • Avoid using the number 4 if you possibly can ­ in Japan, it is strongly associated with death as it has the same pronunciation.
  • In business settings, you may never ask questions about private life, family or anything related. Detailed questions regarding the business on the other hand are very appreciated and show interest and respect on your part.
  • Gifts are a very common occurrence in Japanese business settings. You should be prepared for it and bring an adequate gift with you to your first meeting.
  • Japanese businessmen don’t use the word ‘NO’ ­ they prefer to say ‘Maybe’ when actually rejecting an idea.
  • The word ‘ganbarimasu’ is usually used in situations where your counterpart is not sure if he can fulfill a business partners’ or superior’s request. It literally means, “I will do my best!” Depending on the context, it can also be a hidden ‘no’.
  • In general, understanding the Japanese behavior has a lot to do with grasping the context as it often can be more important and stating than the spoken word itself.


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