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Japan Business Culture: Five Things You Should Know

Key Takeaways

1. Japan business culture is relatively traditional and Westerners will need to acclimatize to this to establish a successful business presence in Japan

2. Dressing conservatively in a dark suit, shirt and subdued tie is the typical attire for the Japanese mainstream business professional

3. Business card exchange forms part of the early and most formal order of business and therefore you need a plentiful supply when doing business in Japan.

4. Self-introductions can be perceived as out of place in Japanese business circles; it is more customary for business introductions to occur through a mutually recognized third party. 

5. Consensus building, or Nemawashi is one of the most important decision-making tools prevalent in Japanese management processes and practices, despite it being more time-consuming. 

Introduction

While Japan is arguably one of the most technologically advanced nations, Japan business culture is more traditional and westerners will need to acclimatize to this to establish a successful business presence in Japan.

Japanese organizations overall remain very hierarchical, conservative in nature, detail-obsessed, and have a focus on consensus building which may require patience from westerners who may be used to a more economical decision-making process. Certain interactions such as greetings and introductions are very ritualized, an adherence to which can determine the health of any existing or future business relationship

Here we offer some tips to help a Westerner conducting business or working in Japan to navigate the somewhat delicate Japanese business culture.

For an alternate take, see CNBC’s analysis below of why Japan business culture emphasizes long work hours. 

1. Being introduced through a third party

Walking up to strangers and announcing yourself is par for the course in the more gregarious Western business culture but is generally considered too close for comfort in Japanese business culture. In line with the more conservative relationship-orientated business culture in Japan, the Japanese place more emphasis on knowing and trusting someone before engaging in business with them. Successful introductions are orchestrated carefully and tactically through a well-chosen third party and tend to happen at informal gatherings often involving food and drink and some social rituals. Status and seniority are crucial, so target introductions at the same rank, because an out-of-turn approach to an executive above your pay grade is unlikely to be rewarded.

If you are the one doing the introductions, doing business in Japan requires you to respect the order of seniority and you may need to do some research to establish the correct hierarchy and therefore order of introduction, (from most senior to junior).

2. Greetings and titles

This is perhaps one of the most formal and ritualized aspects of Japan business culture. Expect to see Japanese employees greeting each other with a bow which is held longer for those of senior rank, while westerners tend to be greeted with a handshake, (and can opt to bow the head slightly as a gesture of humility).

If you do engage in a bowing ritual, avoid holding eye contact during this act, as this is seen as bad manners and is more akin to a martial arts, pre-combat bowing ritual! When addressing people Japan business culture dictates that you use the person’s surname, followed by “San”.

3. Gifts policy

While corporate gift-giving is carried out with caution in the west, due to its links with corruption and bribery, it’s an important and respected part of business culture in Japan. It communicates respect, friendship, and appreciation and the surrounding ritual is more important than the actual gift. As with business cards, present the gifts with two hands and avoid gifting too early in the relationship as it could be viewed insincerely. The gift should be boxed, (if appropriate) and wrapped and should ideally have some personal relevance to the recipient, but gifts from your home country or culture are especially well-received.

4. Dress code

The more communally minded eastern cultures like Japan are known to emphasize the value of society over the individual. Dressing conservatively, (as if representing the financial services sector in the west) in a dark suit, shirt and subdued tie is the typical attire for the Japanese mainstream business professional and will express your willingness to work as part of a team. You may be required to remove your shoes before entering the room in certain situations, (just follow the lead of others), so clean shoes and feet and subdued socks are a must.

5. Meishi koukan – the exchange of business cards

While the exchange of business cards is a customary practice in Europe and North America, it does not carry the ritual significance and symbolism that it does in Japanese business culture.

In fact, a failure to conduct Meishi Koukan (business card exchange), correctly can jeopardize your business chances. Business card exchange forms part of the early and most formal order of business and therefore you need a plentiful supply when doing business in Japan.

Business cards should have the information printed on the underside in Japanese and should include your title. There is an appropriate order to giving business cards which must be observed, beginning with the senior officer working down to the more junior.  Business cards should be presented and received with two hands with the Japanese language underside facing up. Without getting too spiritual, the Japanese believe that the business cards embody its owner and it should be treated with respect as a result, e.g. it should be carefully examined, placed carefully in front of you in the meeting with the senior one on top and should not be written on or left behind.

Bonus Tip: Consensus building (Nemawashi) in decision-making

Consensus building, or Nemawashi is one of the most important decision-making tools prevalent in Japanese management processes, despite it being more time-consuming.  The business culture in Japan demands nemawashi which requires the building of consensus using one-on-one discussion with decision-makers and stakeholders prior to the associated formal meeting. This is not driven by opportunism, but rather a profound belief that engaging decision-makers in a more vigorous and honest preliminary discussion will get people on the same page and enable the main meeting to run more smoothly. As a result of the detailed-conscious process of Nemawashi, negotiation and decision-making may take longer than westerners are used to and may require more patience as a result.

Understand Japan business culture with Horizons

This may all sound intimidating but the good news is that since you are non-Japanese expectations are lower and just making a noticeable effort to conduct business the ‘Japanese way’ will make a good impression. Some experts even suggest that minor transgressions, (within the context of a conscientious attempt to conform), may work in your favor by helping to break the ice

Even so, if you are conducting business in Japan and your organization needs help adapting to Japanese business culture, or hiring there,  please contact us at Horizons and we can discuss our Japan PEO service

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Common business practices in Japan include:

  • Meishi Koukan – the two-handed, ritualistic exchange and mutual examination of business cards
  • Consensus building, or Nemawashi, which requires the building of consensus using one-on-one discussion with decision-maker priors to the associated formal meeting.
  • Introduction via a mutually recognized and respected third party are valued and favoured over more socially awkward self-introductions.

Japan is known for having a traditional, formal, and very ritualistic approach to conducting business which demands a focus on detail, consensus building and a conservative outward manner.

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