Country Crash Course: Japan

The importance of hierarchies and saving and losing face

When doing business in Japan, it is important to remember the key values that play out in business situations, such as saving/losing face, harmony, paying attention to hierarchical structures, and non-verbal communication, as these underpin all business practicalities and protocols.

Relationships & Communication
The Japanese prefer to do business on the basis of personal relationships. In general, being introduced or recommended by someone who already has a good relationship with the company is extremely helpful, as it allows the Japanese to know how to place you in a hierarchy relative to themselves. One way to build and maintain relationships is with greetings and seasonal cards. It is important to be a good correspondent as the Japanese hold this in high esteem.

Greetings & Introductions
Greetings in Japan are very formal and ritualized. It is important to show the correct amount of respect and deference to someone based upon their status relative to your own. If at all possible, wait to be introduced. It can be seen as impolite to introduce yourself, even in a large gathering. While foreigners are expected to shake hands, the traditional form of greeting is the bow. How far you bow depends upon your relationship to the other person as well as the situation. The deeper you bow, the more respect you show. A foreign visitor (“gaijin”) may bow the head slightly, since no one expects foreigners in general to understand the subtle nuances of bowing.

Business Meeting Etiquette
Appointments are required and, whenever possible, should be made several weeks in advance—telephone for an appointment rather than sending an email. Punctuality is important. Arrive on time for meetings and expect your Japanese colleagues will do the same. Since this is a group society, even if you think you will be meeting one person, be prepared for a group meeting. The most senior Japanese person will be seated furthest from the door, with the rest of the people in descending rank until the most junior person is seated closest to the door.

It may take several meetings for your Japanese counterparts to become comfortable with you and be able to conduct business with you, so it is important to take time initially to get to know your counterparts. You may be awarded a small amount of business as a trial to see if you meet your commitments. If you respond quickly with excellent service, you prove your ability and trustworthiness.

Never refuse a request, no matter how difficult or unprofitable it may appear. The Japanese are looking for a long-term relationship. Always provide a package of literature about your company including, articles and client testimonials. Always give a small gift, as a token of your esteem, and present it to the most senior person at the end of the meeting. Your Japanese contact can advise you on where to find something appropriate.

Business Negotiation
The Japanese are non-confrontational. They have a difficult time saying “no,” so you must be vigilant at observing their non-verbal communication. It is best to phrase questions so that they can answer yes: for example, “do you disagree with this?” Group decision-making and consensus are important. Written contracts are required.

The Japanese often remain silent for long periods of time. Be patient and try to work out if your Japanese colleagues have understood what was said. Never lose your temper or raise your voice during negotiations. Some Japanese close their eyes when they want to listen intently. The Japanese seldom grant concessions. They expect both parties to come to the table with their best offer. The Japanese do not see contracts as final agreements, so contracts can be renegotiated.

It is important to bear in mind that the tips we have provided act as basic and general introductions only. They are not in any way definitive. We do not intend to stereotype, pigeon-hole or try to quantify any culture or people. Each society, country and culture will have numerous nuances that would make it irresponsible to suggest a uniform approach to understanding any country’s social/business culture or etiquette. One also has to take into account the personal cultures of individuals, whether they be religious, regional, gender, corporate or other. However, loose guidelines can assist in bettering understanding and avoiding offence, and these tips are meant only to achieve that.

As this may be a lot of information to take in, we will leave you with three final tips for your own cultural insurance policy:
•    Be self-aware of your own behaviour and how other people are reacting to you.
•    Watch what other people do and learn to copy the behaviour of others for things like touch, eye contact and speaking distance.
•    Develop listening skills to make you a more effective communicator.

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Caroline Osinski is global training manager at Kwintessential, a cross-cultural communications consultancy that provides intercultural training, translation, localization, interpreting and design services, based in Somerset, UK. She can be reached at Or follow on Twitter at @kwint_train

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