Doing Business in Japan: 10 Etiquette Rules You Should Know

If you're doing business with a Japanese company (or hoping to win one as a client), here are 10 key ways to prepare yourself for the cultural differences.
President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.
August 05, 2013

"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. Observing another culture's etiquette opens doors to more successful communications. This is of particular importance when doing business in Japan, where cultural elements can have a profound impact on decision-making and, ultimately, on the effectiveness of a business relationship.

As Boye Lafayette De Mente said in Etiquette Guide to Japan: Know the Rules that Make the Difference, "Japan is an example of a country in which the code of social conduct became so formal ... and important, that proper behavior became the paramount law of the land."

There is an element of sophistication and worldliness to those who can effortlessly navigate in foreign waters. It signals executive presence. It also bespeaks of 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 our home turf is also ipso facto the right path in the rest of the world. This mindset can inadvertently work against what we are trying to accomplish. So, before packing your briefcase to travel to Japan, it pays to spend some time to acquaint yourself with the values and accepted behavior patterns of that country. Adherence to protocol will give you an edge and create a favorable impression of you and, by extension, your business.

It's also 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 we consider matters of cultural etiquette, it's prudent to approach these as guidelines rather than gospel. When in doubt, it pays to err on the side of conservatism. 

With this in mind, let's take a look at Japan's values and what it means for you in observing the country's etiquette rules:

Silence is Golden

In a business setting, silence is valued over an overabundance of talking. As Larry Samovar, Richard Porter and Edwin McDaniel put it in Communication Between Cultures, "silence is linked to credibility." Silence speaks loudly about wisdom and emotional self-control. This may run counter to our approach back at home, where being more outgoing can facilitate communication. A more introverted, formal approach, especially at the beginning of a business relationship, is likely to be better received when doing business in Japan. The Japanese have many proverbs that signal the importance that they place on silence, such as, "The duck that quacks is the first to get shot." Take a cue from your Japanese counterparts and tailor your approach.

World Business Culture, a company that specializes in global cultural differences, made this astute observation about silence: "In times of stress or difficulty during a meeting, the Japanese will often resort to silence in order to release the tension in the room and allow people to move away from the area of difficulty (to preserve harmony which is tantamount)." 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 is valued over individualism. There is strength in the group, as the famous Japanese saying implies: "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 we value individual contributions and strongly believe in recognition and individual praise, the opposite is true in Japan. Singling out an individual in the group for special recognition, no matter how helpful he is to you, is likely to embarrass that individual. Always remember that the team concept is very important for the Japanese and strive to give public credit to the entire group.

Business Cards are Talismans

For Japanese business professionals, a business card (Meishi, pronounced "MAY-SHEE") is an extension of their identity. Therefore, it's important to observe some engrained rules of etiquette that signal respect for the person. 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, place it on the table for the duration of the meeting and then place it in your business card holder. It's considered a big faux pas to place their business card in your back pocket or wallet. 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 far away from the person in a group, don't toss or push the card across the table. Get up and walk over to them.

Age Equals Seniority

Notwithstanding the many changes in modern Japan, age is revered in that country and can be synonymous with rank in a business setting. A survey of companies in the Nikkei 225 Index shows that the CEOs of these companies were consistently older than those of other countries, with an average age of 62. The youngest CEO was 43. Hierarchy is paramount. Treat older executives with a more marked deference than you do younger ones in the group you're interacting with. For example, be sure to greet the most senior person before you greet others. Likewise, offer your business card to the senior person first.

Hard Sell Doesn't Sell

A hard-sell approach will not succeed in Japan. Replace the high pressure, confrontational approach with a more gentle, persuasive presentation that showcases the virtues of what you are proposing. Find points of agreement and build on those. Don't drive too hard on decisions and deadlines. Understand that the Japanese decision-making style is by consensus—trying to speed up the process may appear to be disrespectful of their way of doing business. Rather than be impatient, try to see the long process as an opportunity to build trust and cement the relationship.

Privacy is Valued

Japanese people are notoriously private and reserved. As businessman Jeffrey Hays puts it: "Privacy is important in Japan. People can have their names removed from phone books if they want. Windows are designed so people can't look in." So, asking a lot of personal questions at the beginning of the relationship—which to us is a way of building rapport—may be regarded as pushy or rude. This might be the reason why Japan lags the world in social media adoption. According to a 2012 article in Ad Age Digital, only 28 percent of Japanese Internet users visit social media sites on a monthly basis, and time spent on social networking in that country is a mere 2.9 percent, compared to 16.8 percent in the U.S.

What You Don't Know Can Hurt You

We all know that a business gift exchange is an important tradition in Japan, especially at the first meeting. What can possibly 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 for any white flowers. Potted plants also carry negative superstitions. And buying a set of four of anything is deemed unlucky. The number nine is also inauspicious. Furthermore, if you send Christmas cards, avoid red, as funeral notices are customarily printed in red.

Chopstick Manners Speak Loudly

Unlike on airlines, wipe your hands only, not your face, on the damp towel (o-shibori) provided at the start of the meal. When you serve yourself from shared dishes, if there are no utensils for serving yourself, use the opposite end of your chopsticks to pick up food to add to your plate. Don't use 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. It may have been quaint at one time to be ignorant about the different types of sushi. Today, with the prevalence of sushi restaurants in North America, it pays to know some of these differences so as not to appear unsophisticated. (Here is a brief sushi primer. And here is a more hardcore sushi guide.)

Honor the Unofficial Dress Code

The operative word here for business clothes is conservative. Men wear conservative business suits and blend in with the group. Women are encouraged to keep jewelry to a minimum so as not to stand out. It is also considered in good taste for women not to wear high heels if this results in towering over their male Japanese counterpart. And if you wear a kimono, says Terri Morrison, in Doing Business in Japan, "wrap it left over right! Only corpses wear them wrapped right over left."

The Small Stuff Matters

Observing the small details of politeness is a big way of showing respect in Japan. 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. We all know about taking our shoes off at the door, and wearing the slippers your Japanese host will provide. However, it 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 have yet another pair of slippers that's reserved for use in the washroom. 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. There is a lot of goodwill in this—or as David Syrad, CEO of AKI Japan Ltd., put it: "Use your knowledge of Japanese business etiquette to demonstrate your flexibility and sensibility." It will pay dividends.

You can gain more information in this area from sites such as Japan Business Etiquette, Culture, and Manners, and Terri Morrison's book: Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands (The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More than 60 Countries.)

Read more articles on company culture.

Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

Photos: Thinkstock