5 Etiquette Tips for Doing Business in Japan

Japan is known for having a relatively strict code of conduct that extends from the home to the office –and everywhere in between. If you’re planning on doing business in Japan, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the rules of etiquette in order to avoid making a social blunder that could hinder your future professional relationships. Here are five things to keep in mind:

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1. The Truth is in the Cards

If you’re going to be doing business in Japan it is essential that you invest in business cards printed in Japanese on one side and English on the other. The exchange of business cards goes beyond the boardroom; people in Japan hand out their cards to anyone and everyone. Cards are also exchanged before meetings during introductions—sometimes even before a handshake or bow.

Hierarchy and titles are very important in Japan so make sure your title is clearly stated on your card. When receiving cards, show interest in the person giving their information to you and feel free to ask questions in regard to their role within the business. Figuring out with which person you share similar rank will establish with whom you’ll be communicating most.

2. Know Your Place

When participating in a meeting, the person of the highest rank from the host business sits at the head of the table and the seats closest to them go to those who have the next level of power. As a guest, you’ll be politely directed to your appropriate seat. Wait for the people of highest rank to sit down before you do—the leader of the meeting will most likely direct you to take your seat when it is time. Furthermore, do not rise from your spot at the end of the meeting until the head person has. It all seems very orchestrated but all will come easily once the hierarchal order has been established.

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3. Gifting

It is customary to bring a gift to a first time meeting especially between foreign partners. Like a diplomatic exchange, Japanese gift giving is more about the ceremony and presentation than a showcase of wealth. When choosing a gift opt for something that is representative of your home. Assure the receiver that you’re simply giving a humble token and politely insist that they take it—Japanese people will modestly refuse it a couple times before finally accepting the gift. When receiving a gift accept it with both hands and a slight bow of gratitude. Make sure your gratitude is known whether or not you love the gift.

4. “No” Isn’t Always No

In the Japanese business world there is a desire to keep things polite and cordial at all times. In order to continue saving face, Japanese people will avoid saying “no” at all costs. Negative language is considered rude and is often replaced with “maybe” or well-intentioned lying. That is why it is important to pay close attention to body language and conversational context. Likewise, avoid using the word no during negotiations. If you think you are unable to do something requested, opt to say, “This may be difficult” instead of a straight-up “no. 

5. The End of a Meeting Isn’t the End

It is very common to go out for dinner after a business meeting. These dinners are used as a tool for building trust and getting further insight into the people you’re doing business with.. Drinking is very common during dinners so prepare to drink modestly and keep your composure.. In Japan an empty glass or plate means you want more, so keep your glass half full and leave a bit of food on your plate when you’re finished. Sample each dish provided; you don’t have to eat a lot but it is necessary to show that you appreciate the bounty.

Perhaps on of the most important etiquette tips for any country is to attempt to learn the language. After all, you want to be able to understand your business card information in Japanese. Prepare yourself for doing business in Japan by taking a Japanese language course tailored for those travelling for professional reasons. If you or your company has interest in organizing individual or small group language classes for internationally expanding business, contact Language Trainers for more information on locations, prices, and languages available.

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