Business etiquette in Japan is highly influenced by social structure and culture, cultivating a very specific way of behaving during social interactions and business deals. Understanding the business culture do and don’ts in addition to Japanese body language, negotiations and ethics can help you a lot.
Currently Japan has the highest outbound investment ratio in the world and the government is providing so many subsidies to encourage foreign startups to come to Japan and do business here. This means that more people are learning the more intricate ways of social interactions in Japanese businesses.
While there are likely more than the unspoken rules of manners and etiquettes listed below, here are 11 important things to remember when conducting business meetings in Japan:
1. Be early
Time is an important resource in any business. But in Japan, time is strictly observed to the point where it is normal and respectful to arrive at least 10 minutes early to any meeting. Besides being polite, this is also in consideration of potential delays or setbacks, as well as unexpected problems.
Being early, in general, is also seen as a responsible trait that makes someone appear reliable, which is ideal for making a good first impression on a future business partner.
2. Be prepared
A lot of the preparations before a business meeting such as printed documents and business cards are symbolic as everything can be accessed digitally or online.
However, it is a courtesy to the other party to be ready with documents, and business cards, as well as a personal briefcase and card case to keep everything organized.
In the case of printed materials, it is ideal to provide a copy for everyone attending the meeting. But as it’s not always fixed how many are attending, it’s best to ask the associates from the other party an appropriate amount of time before the meeting, like a day or two before, to prepare the documents.
However, there may be a case when the meeting will not require printed documents. So when in doubt, simply ask.
3. Business cards
While business cards may seem like a small thing, there are proper ways to give and receive them in Japan. The order of giving business cards starts with the senior officer, working its way down to the most junior.
Business cards are given and received with two hands and with a short bow as if for a greeting or a thank you.
However, instead of immediately storing them in a business card case, they are normally placed on top of the table until the end of the meeting. This is also a good habit to use when trying to remember the names and titles of the people in the meeting.
4. Mind your clothes
Presentation plays a big role in making an impression on people, especially when it comes to conducting business. In Japan, business people would usually stick to simple and dark colors such as black or greys since they tend to look clean and more professional. Besides the normal suits, it is also acceptable to wear trousers during meetings.
While there may be exceptions such as during summers where a shirt and a pair of khakis are acceptable, jeans are too casual to conduct any sort of business with.
Any outerwear such as winter coats and jackets should always be taken off outside the office. Suit jackets should always be worn in the office and during meetings unless it becomes too uncomfortable or hot in the summers.
5. Wait for your seat
It is normally seen as rude for someone to sit down before the host or before they are directed to their seat. Guests during a business meeting are normally ushered towards the seat or seats farthest from the door. This practice stemmed from old habits from when samurai attacks or intruders were common in old Japan. Although it is nearly impossible for there to be a samurai attack today, the seats farthest from the door will have the least disturbance when someone comes in or goes out of the room, and it serves as a courtesy to the visiting party.
Of course, designated seats can still change as situations may not follow a uniform format. When you’re unsure of what to do, simply wait for the host to lead you to your seat or you can ask about it.
6. Accept the snacks
During meetings, participants are normally served green tea or a snack. While it’s not unusual to find something you don’t like being served to you, refusing to accept the offerings is seen as rude. You don’t actually need to consume the snack or beverage as you get offered them, you can simply leave them aside.
If you do and you finish your drink, the host will normally refill the cup or get you another. When you would rather not have a replenished drink, you can simply leave it without completely emptying it. This way, you don’t actually have to say no to a refill.
7. Be attentive
Taking notes during a meeting gives the impression that the person is paying attention and respects the speaker. This also implies that the person is responsible and is interested in the subject.
In another case, glancing at the clock or a wristwatch may signify impatience or disinterest. While this can be a subtle way to show the other party that the subject or proposal will not fall through, this can also mean that, if there is an allotted time slot for the meeting, the scheduled hour is almost over.
8. Give out compliments but be modest
Although it can sometimes be seen as sweet-talking, flattering the other party is a good way to establish a business relationship on a positive note. The business culture in Japan tends to focus on the relationship amongst associates instead of the benefits of a deal. Making a good first impression is one of the initial steps for creating a long-term partnership.
Complimenting your own product or service is another story. As you can guess, going overboard with complimenting yourself can come off as arrogant or self-centered, which is looked down on.
On that same note, the Japanese value modesty. The way you normally conduct yourself can be abrasive and obnoxious without you realizing it. During a business meeting, it is important to take this into consideration and speak in a calm tone without making too much of a commotion.
9. Respect age and status
While the oldest male in the room is traditionally considered as the most senior associate, this is not always the case anymore. This is where business cards can be useful to help you think on your feet, and dictate your social interactions with everyone in the room.
In the case where it is unclear, doing a small research on the people involved in the meeting can help you determine who is the most senior and the hierarchy to follow during the meeting.
The social interactions with regards to the seniority among a group decide the order of interactions during a meeting, or even outside. Seniors would normally be introduced first, then followed by the juniors.
When it comes to things outside the office like traveling in a cab, the tasks are left to the most junior while the most senior will not have to worry about anything. The seating arrangement for this case would put the most junior in the passenger seat where they can give directions to the driver and pay the fare, and the most senior would sit right behind the driver.
10. Do not pressure
Business deals in Japan are very rarely closed in the first meeting, so don’t be too discouraged to find yourself walking away empty-handed. Japanese businesses tend to plan for the long-term, preferring to get to know you, and your products and services and establishing a business deal – a lot like making friends or courting.
Similarly, it is off-putting to put pressure on the host or the other party to make a decision on the spot.
The Japanese are known to avoid direct statements, making it easy for someone unfamiliar with this nature to misinterpret responses such as “it is difficult” or “we’ll think about it”. Although these phrases seem hopeful, they are also a polite and indirect way of saying “no”, as well as changing the topic or pretending not to understand.
11. Bow as a sign of respect
Unlike in Western countries, bowing is a way to greet someone in the majority of East Asia, Japan included. There are mainly 3 ways to bow, depending on how much you respect someone or how apologetic you are.
Bowing slightly at 15 degrees is the more casual or informal way of greeting someone. During meetings, however, people would normally bow at 30 to 45 degrees and hold it for a couple of seconds.
In this same aspect, when the host shows you to the elevator, don’t be surprised if they bow for a few seconds or until the elevator comes. When this happens, it’s good to mimic the motion for about the same time to be polite.
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