Business etiquette in Japan: 4 ‘Do or Die’ Areas to Note

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The Japanese’s stickiness for punctuality is legendary the world over (for the uninitiated, punctuality means turning up for an appointment ten minutes before the meeting time!). But what are some business practices that underpin how Japanese companies manage dealings with their partners? What is the rule of thumb to follow in regards to business etiquette? Well, if you have been tasked to handle negotiations with Japanese firms, this comprehensive guide will surely come in handy for you!



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Japanese people regard their meishi (business card) as an extension of their identity, so it is important that you do not inadvertently offend them when exchanging meishi.

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Be sure to hand over your business card with a slight bow while receiving your Japanese counterpart’s meishi with both hands. Don’t be in a rush to put the meishi away as he will probably be informing you of his name and position in his company. Read the meishi carefully so as to imbue this name card exchange ritual with a sense of solemnity and sincerity. After that, place all the meishi you have gathered on the table in front of you – preferably in accordance to where the Japanese personnel are sitting on the other end of the table. What’s more, don’t make the mistake of scribbling notes on the meishi during the meeting; this would be seen as a sign of disrespect. Do so after the meeting at your own privacy. Of course, it goes without saying that you ought to pocket meishi in your wallet – or better still, in a card holder – at the end of a meeting rather than shove them down your pant pocket!



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Given that Japanese people habitually bow even when they are having a phone conversation, this should say volumes about how deep-seated the practice of bowing is in Japanese society. Without a doubt, Japanese businessmen, especially the younger and more globally-oriented ones, are accustomed to shaking hands, but displaying a gung-ho attitude to engage the Japanese with their preferred mannerisms will help put them at ease and defray any tension that might arise during the meeting. Besides, bowing is not all that hard to learn, especially since we foreigners are not expected to know the subtle nuances in bowing that govern hierarchical relationships among the Japanese! Just straighten your back, keep your hands by your side and be careful not to stick your butt out while bowing. You will certainly impress the Japanese if you learn to bow appropriately in your interactions with them!


Saying Yes and No

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In Japan, being an attentive listener requires one to verbally acknowledge that he has heard what his interlocutors are saying. Hence, the peppering of “hai” (yes) throughout their speech. However, it is important to note that “hai” in this case does not mean an affirmative response, but rather a plain indication of “yes, I have heard what you have said”. To assume that your Japanese partners are agreeing with your proposed terms and conditions for business transactions would be presumptuous; usually, Japanese people would need to report the proceedings of a meeting to their higher-ups, so it is unlikely that they would readily agree to a proposition on the spot. Another trait of the Japanese is that they find it hard to give a direct refusal as this might lead to a potentially awkward situation and loss of face for both parties. Thus, instead of an outright “iie” (no), prick up your ears to register phrases like “I’d like to give this some more thought” and “that sounds great, but might be a little bit difficult”. This is the Japanese’s indirect way of saying no.



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Punctuality was briefly discussed in the introduction. Indeed, it is good practice to learn to arrive at meetings ten minutes before the agreed-upon time. Do note that punctuality extends to all aspects of your working relationship with the Japanese. Being raised to protect the sacredness of time (jikan wo mamoru) from a young age, the Japanese plan their schedules thoroughly down to the very minute, and do not appreciate last-minute occurrences. As such, keep your meetings to-the-point and don’t overrun them (unless when your Japanese partners request for an extension so that they can discuss things further). Be sure to respond to their emails as soon as possible, preferably within 24 hours. If you are unable to give them a prompt and comprehensive reply, drop them a brief email first, giving them succinct answers to their enquiries and promising to respond to them more fully at a later date. Also, in order to nurture a robust long-term relationship with Japanese firms, never fail to send them crucial documents or deliver your shipment on time! Brownie points if you can slip in this old adage “toki wa kane nari” (time is money) during your negotiations with them as this shows how you empathize with their time-cherished tradition of optimizing time!

Are you raring to go for your first meeting with Japanese stakeholders after reading this article? As long as you come early, handle meishi properly, bow respectfully, and understand how they say yes and no, your meeting will surely run smoothly. Gambatte kudasai!



Kai Le likes nothing better than exploring a foreign city and meeting fellow travelers along the way. He hopes to write about cross-cultural commonalities and differences.