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Business Etiquette in Japan – Tips for the First Time Visitor to Japan

Etiquette generally is an important aspect of Japanese life and culture, so it should come as no surprise that business etiquette in Japan is one of those things Westerners would do well to learn a little about ahead of their first business trip.

It won’t take you long to see evidence of the importance of etiquette when you arrive at an Airport in Tokyo for example. Narita, Tokyo’s main international airport is around 90 minutes drive from the centre of Tokyo and one of the easiest and most cost effective ways into the city is by using The Airport Limousine Bus. You will find the ticket desk in arrivals where you can buy your ticket and then step outside to join the queue. You will notice as a bus pulls in, at least one attendant on the kerbside will welcome the bus with a polite bow. Once parked up, the door will open and the driver will step out and bow to his colleagues and customers waiting for the bus. This is closely followed by a frenzy of activity while the attendants load luggage into the bus and as the luggage doors are closing one of the attendants will go into the bus and, with a bow say a few words of thanks to everyone on the bus before resuming their duties. The driver now gets back on and he too bows to everyone before taking his seat. As the door closes and the bus pulls away, all the attendants that have been working on that particular bus line the kerbside and bow politely towards the bus as it leaves. Having witnessed this, you can be left in no doubt that some understanding, or at least an appreciation of business etiquette will help greatly during your visit to Japan.

Business Cards

When people meet for the first time, business cards (‘meishi’) are always exchanged before discussion starts. This would replace the Western handshake normally, but it’s unlikely you will cause offence if you also reach out for a handshake particularly with those Japanese that have some exposure to business practise in the West. But the handshake is not necessary. Business cards are regarded with much more reverence in Japan so always keep your cards in an inside front pocket and NEVER take your card from a trouser pocket which would be regarded as bad manners.

You will need both hands to present your business card. Hold it at both side edges between thumb and forefinger so that the card is the correct way up to the receiver, your thumbs not obscuring your details. Hold it out towards the receiver, give your name, your position and your company and make a slight bow. You will need to receive cards in the same way, with both hands and do take a moment to look at the card (even if it is entirely in Japanese and you don’t speak or read a word!), bowing again as you receive it. Observe how Japanese business people exchange cards and you will soon get the idea!

You will find most Japanese have a special wallet for business cards. If you plan to visit Japan regularly, I would suggest you go to a department store and buy one of these. You will find them among the wallets, belts and other leather goods.

Having exchanged cards with a business contact, it will not be necessary to do so again with that contact on subsequent visits unless some of your details change e.g. job title. If your meeting is to be on foot e.g. at an exhibition you can safely put the card into your inside front pocket. If you are to be seated, place the card(s) carefully on the table in front of you and perhaps arrange them to match the seating plan as a reminder of who’s who. Once they are on the table, forget about them because…

NEVER write notes on a business card, including your own during a business meeting and NEVER use a business card as a prop to help explain something. Simply leave them alone until you collect them at the close of the meeting and you can’t go wrong.

Business Lunch or Dinner

Your business host may offer to take you for lunch or dinner once your business meeting is concluded. Personally, I would always accept such an invitation as Japanese business is all about relationships and these relationships are built and maintained outside of the normal working environment. Besides which, Japanese cuisine is a truly wonderful experience for literally all of the senses!

There are a few things you need to consider however, when using chopsticks and the following is a list of things that would be considered as bad manners and should be avoided;

  • Standing chopsticks vertically in a bowl of rice, as this is how a meal is offered on a Buddhist altar to the spirits of the dead.
  • Holding them in a fist as this is how they would be held if they were to be used as a weapon.
  • Spearing pieces of food with your chopsticks.
  • Using chopsticks to move dishes around the table.
  • Picking up a dish with the same hand that you are currently holding your chopsticks in.
  • Waving chopsticks in the air over food while deciding what to take.
  • Using chopsticks to rummage around for pieces of food in a shared dish.

Silence is Golden

Very often in business discussions, your questions are met with a long, silent pause. The first time this happens can be quite disconcerting because it’s not what we are used to in the West. Don’t panic! You’ve asked a good question, it deserves to be considered carefully before an answer is given, but the answer will come. Don’t be tempted to fill the silence because you are feeling uncomfortable. Accept this is normal in Japanese culture and wait politely. Equally, and in some respects this is even harder, when you are asked a question, resist the temptation to do what you normally would and just take a few moments to collect your thoughts. Perhaps use a little body language to show that you are thinking carefully and then offer your answer. I tend to lower my eyes to the table and nod slightly while I count to 5 and then lift my eyes to look at the questioner and give my answer. Again, observe what Japanese people do themselves and emulate their approach.

Insight Management Services provides a range of services for companies wishing to do business in the Japanese market. Japan is the third largest economy and offers many opportunities but market entry and management of existing partners can be a cultural and communications minefield. Insight can help navigate these issues with our own English/Japanese speakers on the ground in Tokyo. If you need help with market research, finding distributors, managing existing distributors to improve their performance or you would like to establish a subsidiary, we have the expertise to help you optimise your business activities in Japan. Email [email protected] for more details.

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