Japanese Business Culture: Mind Your Manners!

japanese business cultureThere are many aspects of Japanese business culture that are different from the way American business is conducted, even if they are already greatly influenced by the West. To be successful with Japanese businesspeople, knowing a few things about the business culture in Japan is essential, as it will show your appreciation and respect for their culture. When you do business in Japan, a great relationship with a Japanese client or colleague is based on three things: trustworthiness, compatibility, and sincerity.

In the business culture of Japan, trustworthiness relates to the faith put into you to protect from loss. You establish compatibility when you are seen to be concerned about personal relationships and the company’s well-being and not just focused on gain financially. In Japan, sincerity means that you are understanding, are willing to compromise, and want to conduct business on a level that is personal.

Here is a course you might want to check out entitled Japanese in Context- Elementary Japanese Course, which will help you learn how to write, read and speak authentic and practical Japanese to enrich your life and boost your career. It’s a great introduction to Japan if you’ll be doing business in this country.

Behavior during Business Hours

When you meet someone from Japan for the first time,  whether for business or otherwise, it is considered impolite to introduce yourself. Rather, wait to be introduced. Once you are introduced, you can say your full name followed by your company name. Use the right titles when you address someone to establish their position.

A pleasant attitude should be maintained by professionals. When talking to business people in Japan, it is the custom to often smile. This is not too different from the way business is done in the USA. As many questions as necessary should be asked by international professionals, as this shows respect and enthusiasm for the culture of Japan.

Remember that unlike in the USA, Japanese do not shake hands when they first meet, so resist the urge to give a warm, firm handshake upon meeting. Rather, bowing is the correct greeting method. Remember too that when you are in a meeting, remain standing at your seat until the highest ranking person tells you to sit down.

When the meeting is done, wait until this person first stands up before you stand up. You can take notes during a meeting, as this shows that you are interested and your hosts will appreciate this, just like in the US and other Western countries. On the other hand, make sure you don’t write anyone’s name (including your own in ink that is red), so use a blue or a black pen only.

Japanese businesspeople like dealing with compromising, sincere and quiet individuals. They see extroverts as arrogant and brash. Negotiations early on remain indirect, non-threatening and humble. Do not openly disagree and do not put anyone on the spot. Employ diplomatic language at all times when you do business. Be sure to hold of concessions until the proceedings end. If you make them too early, they might question your integrity.

Being extremely courteous in a business meeting. The Japanese use manners excessively, sometimes to the point where someone from America would think that they are overdoing it. Also when conducting business with the Japanese, it is a must that you be as gracious as possible.

There is a Pecking Order

Become aware of the pecking order of the participants of the meeting. I already mentioned making sure you sit and stand only when the host does, but it goes beyond that. In the business culture of Japan, the higher your status in a meeting, the closer you ought to be seated to the ‘head honcho’ of the host company. If your status is somewhat on the lower end, do not be offended or surprised if you are served beverages of food after the meeting heads. This is the way companies in Japan motivate their workers to keep the status they have attained as they work for a higher status.

Before and After the Meeting

Before you attend the meeting, it is thought to be good form to give a comprehensive presentation of your business literature. Include client articles and testimonials. This lets the Japanese attendees in the meeting prepared well. Follow-up after the meeting with a thank you letter and don’t forget to keep communication regularly. (Of course, these are good practices in other areas of the world as well.)

Gestures are valued by the Japanese such as seasonal cards for greeting. There is a Japanese culture that once you have established closer relations, a trip to the bar follows a day’s discussion. This usually means men only, though. Remember that it is going to be considered very rude if you don’t go after being invited. For even better rapport, you might want to accept the invitation in Japanese, which is made possible by this course.

Business Cards

When you receive business cards in Japan, it is a must to do say thank you, ‘hajiememashite,’ and receive it with both hands as you take the card. Business cards should be given out to all meeting participants and should have 2 sides: one side in Japanese and the other side in English, no matter what the non-Japanese professional’s native language is. During business meetings, business cards should never be tossed to the side or written on.

When the meeting is over, cards should be put in a card case or wallet. There really is a degree of ceremony when exchanging business cards in Japan. Cards are thought to be representatives of the person, and need to be treated with respect. Before you travel to Japan, make sure you have more cards than you think you will need. Offer your card with both hands and present the side up with the Japanese rather than the English words. Make sure there is no barrier between you and the person you are giving the card to such as a plant, chair or a table.

No Flashy Clothes

Remember that saying from Japan, ‘the hammer hits the nail that sticks out.’ In the business culture of Japan, it is not appropriate to wear anything that could be thought of as flashy. There is a feel for conformity among the Japanese which creates a united feeling with the company. For this reason, wearing anything that sort of makes you stand out apart from the team might be viewed as an offense by the business standards of Japan.

For men, dark-colored business suits in black, blue or gray are acceptable. Pocket squares and ties should not be in colors that are loud or bold, as this does not keep with the subtle image of professionals that executives from Japan deem acceptable. Women should wear business suits that include a jacket and a skirt. According to the business etiquette of Japan, pants are not acceptable for women to wear in a business set-up. In the workplace, women are also expected to wear low-heeled or flat shoes so that they don’t tower over the men.


An important part of doing business in Japan has to do with gift-giving. You won’t be expected to give gifts at the beginning of a meeting. It does not have to cost an arm and a leg but it should be wrapped properly in wrapping paper. Small cakes and good quality chocolates are some great gifts.

Avoid giving flowers that are white as these make them think of funerals. Also, it might be a good idea for you to know that in Japan, the protocol is not to open gifts the moment you receive them. Rather, the gifts will be opened when you leave.

Be Punctual

To Japanese professionals punctuality is very important. This is not unlike the sentiment that business people from the USA hold, since it is disrespectful to show up late. On the other hand, it is the custom in Japan to confirm your attendance by calling the coordinator of the meeting two hours before.

In the event you are going to be late for the meeting, the right etiquette would be to call an hour before the time you are supposed to be there and re-schedule. Arriving ten minutes before the meeting at the location you are supposed to meet in is what professionals are expected to do. It is recommended that you arrive even earlier when meeting with executives.

Yes Doesn’t Always Mean Yes

Okay, this is the tricky part. You will need to watch out for visual cues to decipher true aims and feelings. Be conscious of facial expressions and body language. Since the Japanese are so polite, they sometimes feel it is rude to say ‘no’ to requests that they actually have no intentions of fulfilling. You will know what they really mean by watching their body language closely. Here is a course entitled Casual Japanese conversation- Absolute Beginner which helps you talk in Japanese and is great for people who are unsure about where to start.

Silence is Golden

You know how awkward a long silence feels? Well, in a meeting with people from Japan, you will need to resist the urge to break long silences. In a meeting, the Japanese don’t mind sitting in silence. They have even been known to use this to their advantage when they conduct business. They know it makes people from the States worried that they have displeased their Japanese counterparts in some way.

Actually, the truth is that in Japan, silence is thought to be a virtue. Don’t panic when doing business in a meeting, as people are reflecting. Closed eyes might even accompany the silence. Never attempt to break or interrupt the silence.

Here is a course entitled Japanese KanaBeats- Hiragana and Katakana that is a rhythmic, innovative approach to learning phonetic systems of writing in Japan.

After Hours

After work hours, Japanese professionals may entertain current and potential partners in business and this usually happens at a restaurant. It will be his responsibility to pay for the meal if your Japanese host invites professional guests out to dinner. Going Dutch is just not a Japanese thing. Unlike meetings for business, it is acceptable to be fashionably late when going to a dinner. Japanese view drinking as a method of relieving the stress of the work day, so it is acceptable to drink at dinner especially during the toast, or the ‘kampai.’

Hope this helps! Here is a course you might be interested in entitled Speak Japanese Fluently- Master Conversational Japanese that will help you move beyond the basics. This course is great for people who want to live or travel to Japan.