"A traveler without observation," said Persian poet Saadi, "is a bird without wings." The same can be said of a business traveler doing business in a foreign country. Paying attention to Japanese business practices and observing Japanese etiquette opens doors to more successful communications. This is important when doing business in Japan, where cultural elements can profoundly impact decision-making and, ultimately, the effectiveness of a business relationship.
There is an element of sophistication and worldliness to those who can effortlessly navigate in foreign waters. It signals executive presence. It also bespeaks a concern for civility, grace and consideration of others, which doesn't go unnoticed. It almost always has a boomerang effect, especially because it isn't the norm. Many people assume that what is logical and common practice in their home turf is also ipso facto the right path in the world. But this mindset can inadvertently work against you when doing business in Japan.
So, before visiting Japan, it pays to spend some time acquainting yourself with the country's values and accepted behavior patterns. Adherence to Japanese business etiquette can give you an edge and create a favorable impression of you and, by extension, your business.
Japanese Business Etiquette Rules
It's important to understand that observance of cultural norms varies from individual to individual within a culture. Communication takes place between one human being and another, and not, of course, between one culture and another. So, when you consider Japanese etiquette rules, it's prudent to approach these as guidelines rather than gospel. When in doubt, it pays to err on the side of conservatism in matters of Japanese business culture.
With this in mind, let's look at some of the most widely acknowledged tenets of Japanese business etiquette.
Silence Is Golden
In a business setting, silence is valued over an overabundance of talking. Silence speaks loudly about wisdom and emotional self-control. This may run counter to a Western approach, where being more outgoing can facilitate communication. Japanese business culture is characterized by a more introverted, formal approach, especially at the beginning of a business relationship. This approach is likely to be better received when doing business in Japan. To respect Japanese business etiquette, resist the urge to fill the silence with more talk about an issue your Japanese counterpart would rather avoid at the moment.
Group Solidarity Is Paramount
It's widely known that Japan is a group-oriented culture—group solidarity can often be valued over individualism. As the famous Japanese saying goes, "A single arrow is easily broken, but not ten in a bundle." This cultural mindset impacts certain behaviors, such as how praise is received. While Western cultures may value individual contributions and strongly believe in recognition and individual praise, the opposite can be true in Japanese business practices. Singling out an individual in the group for special recognition, no matter how helpful he or she is to you, may likely embarrass that individual. Remember, when doing business in Japan, the team concept is crucial for Japanese employees, so give public credit to the entire group.
Business Cards Are Talismans
For Japanese business professionals, a business card (meishi) is an extension of their identity. Therefore, according to Japanese etiquette, it's essential to observe ingrained practices that signal respect for the person. For example, accept the card with both hands, briefly read it, and place it in your business card holder if you are standing; if you are seated, put it on the table for the duration of the meeting and then place it in your business card holder. When presenting your business card, have the Japanese-printed side facing the person you are offering it to, and give your card with both hands. Even if you are sitting further away, don't toss or push the card across the table. Instead, proper Japanese etiquette mandates that you get up and walk over to them.
Age Equals Seniority
Notwithstanding the many changes in modern Japan, age is revered and can be synonymous with rank in a business setting. In line with Japanese business culture, older executives are treated with more marked deference than the younger ones in the group. Be sure to greet the most senior person before you greet others. Likewise, offer your business card to the senior person first. These subtle aspects of Japanese business etiquette are sure to be noticed and appreciated.
The Hard Sell Doesn't Sell
When doing business in Japan, it's important to remember that a hard-sell approach will not succeed.
Check any aggressive-leaning tactics at the door. Instead, adopt a gentle, persuasive tone that showcases the virtues of what you are proposing. Find points of agreement and build on those. Once you've made your case, don't drive too hard on decisions and deadlines. Understand that the Japanese decision-making style relies on consensus. Trying to speed up the process may come across as disrespectful. Japanese business etiquette mandates patience and the view that time and careful consideration help build trust and cement relationships.
Privacy Is Valued
Compared to some Westerners, Japanese people can be private and reserved. It would be a breach of Japanese etiquette rules to ask many personal questions at the beginning of the relationship, which may be regarded as pushy or rude.
Gift Exchange: What You Don't Know Can Hurt You
Doing business in Japan requires you to learn a few rules about gift-giving. A business gift exchange is an important tradition in Japanese business etiquette, especially at the first meeting. What can go wrong when giving a small gift? Many things, it seems: Flowers such as lilies, lotus blossoms and camellias are used for funeral services and should, therefore, be avoided. The same applies to any white flowers. Potted plants also carry negative superstitions. And a set of four of anything is deemed unlucky. The number nine is also inauspicious. Furthermore, avoid red if you send Christmas cards, as funeral notices are customarily printed in red.
Dinner Manners Speak Loudly
Business dinners are an integral part of doing business in Japan, so it pays to know Japanese etiquette at the dinner table. Wipe your hands only, not your face, on the damp towel (oshibori) provided at the meal's start. When you serve yourself from shared dishes, if there are no utensils for helping yourself, use the opposite end of your chopsticks to pick up food to add to your plate. Another rule of Japanese etiquette is not using chopsticks to pierce food—pick it up, even if it is slippery. When you finish eating, leave your place setting close to how you found it; this means placing your used chopsticks in their paper envelopes or holder and replacing lids on small dishes.
Honor the Unofficial Dress Code
Another key aspect of Japanese business etiquette is the Japanese business dress code. The operative word here for business clothes is conservative. Men wear conservative business suits and blend in with the group. Women traditionally keep jewelry to a minimum.
The Small Stuff Matters
A significant part of Japanese etiquette is observing the small details of politeness to show respect. For example, blowing your nose in public, such as in a meeting room, is considered in poor taste; best to excuse yourself and walk out. One of the common Japanese etiquette rules include taking your shoes off at the door and wearing the slippers your Japanese host will provide. However, Japanese etiquette doesn't stop there. When invited to a Japanese home, you might have to remove your slippers once inside if you encounter a tatami floor—a type of mat which should only be stepped on with bare feet or socks. If you go to the washroom, you might find a pair of slippers reserved for use in the bathroom in some households. Remember to remove them before going back to your seat. While you're not expected to know all of this, it's noticed and appreciated when you do. It simply means you've done some homework to honor your hosts.
Japanese society pays meticulous attention to punctuality in business which is at the center of Japanese business etiquette. Being on time for meetings shows that you respect your Japanese host, strengthening their favorable impression of you as a reliable partner, engendering trust and collaboration. It’s advisable to arrive 10 minutes early for an appointment.
Obviously, if you can't be on time, be sure to notify your Japanese counterpart well in advance and apologize. Provide a reason, and the time you will arrive.
A version of this article was originally published on August 5, 2013.
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