In the 1992 novel Rising Sun, author Michael Crichton wrote that in Japan “Business is war”. He’s not alone in that sentiment either: Many Japanese people consider business dealings to be a battle, complete with winners and losers. Yet with Japan having the world’s third largest economy, it’s easy to see why people still want to do business there.
If you want to be successful in your business endeavours in Japan, then it’s important that you learn about how business and business relationships are handled there. When compared to Western countries, the differences are striking.
Nevertheless, if you prepare correctly, you can set yourself up for success. Read on for an introduction into both Japanese business etiquette and useful Japanese phrases.
As mentioned previously, Japan handles business relationships differently from the West. What might seem like good manners to you could come across as rude to a Japanese businessman. As such, it’s important that you study up on your business manners. Let’s go through some of the big ones.
Bowing might seem like a strange action to us Westerners, but in Japan it’s a key part of not only business etiquette, but more ordinary manners too. Failing to bow when you’re expected to in a business meeting can be the difference between a deal being made or not. Here are the main scenarios in which you should be bowing:
To do the perfect bow, you should bend from the waist whilst keeping your back and neck straight. Your face should be facing towards the ground. Men keep their arms straight at their sides, whilst women tend to clasp their hands in front of their legs. The deeper your bow, the more respect that it shows.
The exchanging of business cards in Japan is the equivalent of a handshake. It’s an essential first step for building a professional relationship with someone and is not something to be overlooked. You should always ensure that you carry a sufficient number of cards with you at all times, as being caught without one can leave you with a lasting bad reputation.
So, how exactly does the exchanging of business cards work? First, you should bow and hold your business card out face-up with both hands. Then you should introduce yourself like so:
Pleased to meet you.
X (Company name) の Y (Your name) と申します。 (X no Y to moushimasu.)
I am Y from X.
よろしくお願いいたします。(Yoroshiku onegai itashimasu)
I look forward to working with you.
Following this, the other party will do the same in return to you. When accepting their business card, you should always remember to thank them and receive it with both hands. You can thank them with the following phrase:
At this time, you should read their card in order to confirm both their name and official position. Lastly, carefully place the business cards either into a neat pile on the table, or into your card-carrying case.
Printing your own business cards can be a pain, so most people in Japan use one of the other services available to them. You can order them online, head to a printing store and order them, or use a printer in a convenience store. Just make sure you don’t run out of them!
Japanese society places a great deal of importance on respecting one’s elders. This goes double for the business industry, where many senior positions are held by older members of the workforce. When forging a relationship with a new business, it will serve you well to show a little more respect to the older businessmen you deal with.
Whilst only a small gesture, offering them your business cards first will show that you’re a respectful individual, a trait that many Japanese businessmen value a lot in their business partners. Giving them a slightly deeper bow will also help your case.
In the West, the head of a table is typically the most important seat, whilst the other seats have no real significance. In Japan however, where you sit is entirely down to your social-standing within the meeting.
The general rule is that the seats closer to the door are for the low-ranking members of the meeting, and the seats furthest away are reserved for the high-ranking members. If you’re unsure of where to sit, then it’s best to stand and wait until someone shows tells you which seat you should take.
People taking part in the meeting will normally wait for the most senior member of staff to sit down before doing so themselves. Sometimes you’ll be urged to take a seat by them instead. They’ll normally do so with the following phrase:
どうぞおかけください。(Douzo okake kudasai.)
Please take a seat.
Working with Japanese businesses requires more than an understanding of Japanese culture. You’ll also need to know about the formal variant of the language too. Whilst many sentences are largely unchanged, there are a lot of phrases that are unique to the business environment. Let’s go through some of the most commonly used ones here.
Greetings are considered an important part of having good manners in Japan, and manners are the backbone of a good business relationship. There are three commonly used formal greetings which are:
Morning is considered to be before 10am, daytime is between 10am and 6pm, and evening is after 6pm. You should use the appropriate greeting for the time of day. However, if it’s the first time you’ve seen someone that day, good morning is still commonly used regardless of the time.
The pronouns and honorifics used in formal Japanese differ from ordinary Japanese in most situations. Let’s look at the pronoun ‘I’.
私 (Watashi) > turns into > 私 (Watakushi)
Whilst it has the same kanji, the reading of ‘私’ changes in formal language. The formal reading is used almost exclusively in business, though more relaxed businesses may ask you to use the standard reading instead.
To address customers, there are two terms that are commonly used. The first is さま (Sama), which is used following the customers surname and means ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’. The other term is 客様 (Kyakusama) which simply means ‘Customer’. If you deal with the customer regularly then use さま, otherwise use 客様.
When addressing colleagues or business partners, you should use one of the two following honorifics. They are さん (San) and さま. さん is a slightly less formal version of さま. Use さん when dealing with colleagues of a similar rank to you, and さま for high-ranking employees and visitors to your company.
Lastly, let’s look at words for addressing companies. With companies, there are two words for both ‘My company’ and ‘Your company’. Some of them are only used in either written or spoken language, so be careful to remember which is which.
Our company – Mostly spoken language
Your company – Written language only
Your company – Spoken language only
When you leave the office, it’s good manners to announce that you’re leaving to your colleagues. If you’re heading out on a work-related task and will be returning the same day, you should say:
I’m leaving now (and will be coming back).
When someone has finished work for the day and is leaving before their other colleagues, they will use the following phrase:
お先に失礼します。(Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu.)
Pardon me for leaving first.
In return to this phrase, the colleagues will politely reply with:
お疲れ様です。(Otsukare sama desu)
Thanks for your hard work.
These announcements are normally said loudly from the entrance of the office/workroom, whilst bowing towards your colleagues. Although this might feel a bit awkward to you at first, it will quickly feel commonplace as it happens many times every day.
In Japan, meeting people face-to-face is highly valued in business relationships. As a result of that, many businessmen will regularly find themselves having meetings in more informal settings, such as restaurants or people’s homes. Even in these more informal meetings, minding your manners is of the utmost importance. Here are some of the main points to be aware of.
Having business meetings at restaurants or cafes is quite common in Japan. If the meeting isn’t taking place in an office, then it’s most likely going to be at an eatery. There are a few points to be careful of so that you don’t make a bad impression whilst you eat.
The first is to ensure you’re being polite to the restaurant staff. Before you dig in to your dish, you should always say the following:
Thank you for the food.
After you finish your food and are about to leave the restaurant, you should use this phrase:
ごちそうさまでした。(Gochisou sama deshita.)
That was a wonderful meal.
You should also mind your manners during the meal too. This mainly revolves around the use of chopsticks. There are a great number of rules, but provided you avoid the following you should be okay:
And the last rule to remember is not to tip the restaurant. Doing so is incredibly rude, and is likely to cause a scene and embarrass whoever you met with.
Gift giving is a very important part of Japanese culture, and it carries over into business culture as well. Giving gifts is seen as a way of showing that you still value a relationship, with the act of giving the gift being more important than the gift itself. Gifts are generally given in more informal settings outside the office. There are a number of dos and don’ts to be aware of.
Provided you follow this list, then your gift is sure to be warmly received. You will also likely receive gifts throughout your business relationship, so be sure to thank them properly.
Some meeting places will require you to take your shoes off. These rules are normally in place in order to keep the floor clean, and are most common in traditional Japanese rooms with either laminate wood or tatami flooring. But how do you know when to take them off? Often there will be a sign saying something like:
くつをぬいでご使用ください。(Kutsu wo nuide goshiyou kudasai.)
Please take off your shoes before entering.
There may also be a shoe rack or ‘cubby hole’ by the doorway in some locations. They will also provide you with some slippers or sandals for you to wear as well. If you know you are headed to this kind of location, it’s best that you wear solid-colour socks that are in good. Having business shoes that are easy to slip on and off can also be very handy, given how frequently you can have to take them on and off.
So, are you ready to make some deals and have some meetings? Whilst there’s a lot more to cover on this subject, this article will have prepared you for at least some of the difficulties you may come up against during your business career. Best of luck out there!