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Japanese Business Etiquette

In Japan, small details matter a great deal. Understanding and respecting the nuances of Japanese business etiquette is crucial for building strong professional relationships. From the exchange of business cards, known as meishi, to the art of gift-giving and even the subtlest forms of bowing, each element plays a significant role in shaping impressions.

In the evolution of Japanese culture, adaptation has been a defining characteristic. The Japanese have skillfully incorporated and transformed religions and schools of thought from outside the country. Confucianism and Buddhism, originally from China and Korea, were adapted to suit local conditions and sensibilities. Moreover, Japan embraced Western ideas and institutions from the 1860s onward, with remarkable success. Today, modern Japanese culture harmoniously blends ancient Shinto, Buddhist, and Confucian traditions with modern institutions.

This article will be your practical guide to mastering Japanese business etiquette. Whether you’re an entrepreneur expanding your ventures to Japan or simply intrigued by global business practices, we’ll equip you with essential insights to navigate the Japanese business world with confidence and respect. 

Be sure to check out our previous article on Japanese corporate culture. It lays the groundwork and provides valuable insights that will complement your understanding of the business landscape in Japan. Additionally, don’t miss the corresponding podcast episode, Understanding Business Culture in Japan with Rochelle Kopp, which will equip you with the necessary tools to navigate the world of Japanese business interactions with confidence.

Why is understanding Japanese business etiquette beneficial for foreigners and their clients?

In today’s interconnected global economy, forging strong international partnerships is essential for business growth. When it comes to engaging with Japan, a country known for its rich cultural heritage and unique business practices, understanding Japanese business etiquette becomes a paramount factor in achieving success. 

Rochelle Kopp highlights the importance of understanding Japanese business manners to build trust and rapport with Japanese colleagues and partners. In Japanese culture, following proper manners signifies respect and effort to adapt to local customs. It becomes a signal that the person values the Japanese way of doing things, positively impacting work quality and interactions.

Even seasoned professionals can benefit from embracing Japanese business manners, as it creates a sense of trust and comfort, potentially outweighing other factors in successful collaborations. Understanding and respecting these customs is essential for anyone working with or in Japan, regardless of their tenure in the country. Check out our podcast episode How to Conduct Sales in Japan with Beau Becker for good examples of conducting successful sales through observing proper Japanese business etiquette.

What are the consequences of disregarding Japanese business etiquette?

Failing to grasp Japanese business etiquette can lead to unintended missteps, resulting in misunderstandings or even damaging business relationships. Disregarding established customs may be perceived as disrespectful or unprofessional, potentially hindering progress in negotiations and collaborations.

In Japan, the concept of “saving face” and “losing face” (mentsu wo ushinau) carries significant weight, and unintentional breaches of etiquette can cause embarrassment and discomfort for both parties involved. Such missteps might result in missed opportunities, loss of credibility, or, at worst, the termination of potential partnerships. Rochelle Kopp talks about the importance of “saving face” in her article titled A Little Discretion Can Go a Long Way in Japan.

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What are the Top 5 business etiquettes that cannot be overlooked in Japan?

  1. Greetings and Titles: Properly greeting others with the appropriate honorifics is deeply ingrained in Japanese culture, reflecting respect and courtesy. Failing to do so is considered impolite and can create a cold impression. Demonstrating respect through greetings is essential for fostering strong professional relationships and building trust in the Japanese business environment. Addressing people using their family name with suffixes like “さん” (san) or “様” (sama) is a common practice. We will talk more about keigo (honorific language) later on.

    In our podcast episode with Rochelle Kopp, she shared her experience at a Japanese branch of a bank where every employee, regardless of their role, greeted customers entering and leaving the premises. This practice emphasizes the importance of greetings in Japanese culture. Failure to greet can be perceived as cold and rude, impacting professional relationships negatively. An American consultant learned this the hard way when she forgot to thank a colleague for an early morning meeting, resulting in a perception of rudeness.
  2. Bowing and Handshakes: Bowing is a fundamental aspect of Japanese business etiquette, symbolizing respect and politeness. Understanding the appropriate depth and duration of a bow for various situations is crucial. Typically, the junior person initiates the bow, bending from the waist to an angle of 30 to 45 degrees from vertical. The more senior person acknowledges with a less accentuated bow of around 15 degrees. When greeting a group of Japanese individuals, it’s essential to greet the highest-status person first, followed by the oldest. Holding eye contact while bowing is considered rude, similar to competitors in martial arts before a fight. Handshakes are also common in business settings, especially with international partners.
  3. Dress Code: Japanese business attire emphasizes formality and conformity. Both men and women should dress conservatively in subdued colors. Men typically wear dark-colored business suits with ties and white shirts, while women should also opt for conservative business attire. Jewelry for men should be minimal. Adhering to the dress code showcases professionalism and respect for local customs.
  4. Expressing Gratitude: In Japanese business etiquette, expressing gratitude through words like “ありがとうございます” (arigato gozaimasu) or “お礼申し上げます” (orei mōshiagemasu) is highly valued. Forgetting to say thank you is considered a serious lapse in manners. Use “お疲れ様です” (otsukaresama desu) or “ご苦労様です” (gokurosamadesu) to acknowledge someone’s hard work and contributions at the end of the day or after a task is completed. Acknowledging the efforts and favors of others in a clear and appreciative manner is essential. 
  5. Meishi Koukan (Business Cards): The exchange of business cards is a significant ritual in Japanese business etiquette. Always present your business card with both hands, facing the recipient, and receive theirs with a similar level of respect. Take a moment to read the card before storing it carefully. Treating business cards with respect symbolizes your commitment to building strong professional relationships. Read more about meishi koukan in our article about Japanese Business Cards
Japanese business etiquette

How do you practice Kuuki Yomu (reading the air)?

In Japanese business etiquette, mastering Kuuki Yomu, the ability to “read the air” or unspoken messages in a conversation, is highly advantageous. Japanese communication heavily relies on non-verbal cues, and picking up on these subtle signals is essential for effective business interactions. Understanding the appropriate behavior for specific situations and settings demonstrates sensitivity and adaptability. For the Japanese, it is a crucial skill, and foreigners who demonstrate proficiency are highly respected. Adopting Japanese common sense is essential, as certain manners are non-negotiable, like showing gratitude and avoiding blowing your nose in public. 

In our podcast with Rochelle Kopp, she explained how Japanese business culture relies heavily on non-verbal cues. A foreign executive, by observing body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions, could adapt and respond appropriately, earning respect and improving communication effectiveness. For instance, picking up on a subtle sign of discomfort during a meeting allowed the foreign executive to address concerns proactively.

To practice Kuuki Yomu, carefully observe how native speakers conduct themselves in different situations. Pay close attention to their body language, gestures, and use of silence. Engage in active listening and remain attuned to the atmosphere during meetings. A useful guideline is to observe and follow the behavior of those around you; if an action is considered rude in your culture, it is likely to be impolite in Japanese culture as well. By immersing oneself in Japanese customs and traditions, individuals can enhance their ability to interpret non-verbal cues, navigate social dynamics, and build positive and harmonious professional relationships in Japan. Embracing Kuuki Yomu plays a vital role in excelling in Japanese business etiquette.

What is Keigo (honorific language) and why is it important?

In Japanese business etiquette, using the appropriate honorific language, known as Keigo, is of paramount importance. Mastering Keigo is considered a sign of good manners and respect in Japan’s professional settings and can greatly enhance business interactions and foster a culture of respect and professionalism in the Japanese business environment, otherwise you will be perceived as incompetent.

Japanese honorific language consists of three main forms of respectful speech. Here are two of the most used ones:

EnglishBasic Verb丁寧語 (Teineigo) – Polite Language尊敬語 (Sonkeigo) – Respectful Language
To giveあげるあげます差し上げる

In this example, the verb “to give” is あげる (ageru). In 丁寧語 (Teineigo) – Polite Language, it becomes あげます (agemasu). In 尊敬語 (Sonkeigo) – Respectful Language, it changes to 差し上げる (sashiageru), which is used when referring to someone of higher status, such as a customer or a superior, giving something to someone else.

To effectively use Keigo and avoid potential mistakes, it is crucial to study and practice its nuances diligently. To learn more about using business phrases in Japan, check out our Guide to Japanese Business Phrases.

How should you navigate specific situations?

In Japanese business etiquette, effectively handling specific situations is crucial for successful interactions. This section provides practical insights on navigating common scenarios and specifies key phrases and cultural nuances to confidently foster positive professional relationships in Japan.

Dining Etiquette

Navigating specific situations in Japanese business etiquette requires understanding the intricacies of dining customs. When it comes to seating arrangements, it’s essential to wait for the host to indicate where you should sit. Typically, guests sit away from the door on the farther side of the room. The most senior person occupies the middle of the table with less senior individuals flanking them. However, it is crucial to follow the host’s instructions, even if it means adjusting your initial choice. For example, a foreign employee in a Japanese company choosing a seat without guidance can be considered inappropriate.

Proper use of chopsticks is vital to avoid etiquette faux pas. Do not point with chopsticks, spear food, or pass food directly from one set of chopsticks to another, as these actions are considered impolite.

During the meal, it is customary to say “itadakimasu” before starting, which expresses gratitude for the food, and “gochisousama deshita” after finishing to show appreciation for the meal. Paying attention to how others behave during the meal is essential, as it helps you follow their lead and avoid potential missteps.

You should also respect the pace of the meal. In Japan, meals are often served in multiple courses, and it is crucial to match the speed of eating with others at the table. When the meal is finished, do not leave the table immediately. Waiting for the host or the most senior person to signal that the meal is over is considered respectful.

By adhering to these dining customs and demonstrating respect for Japanese business etiquette, you can create a positive impression during business meals and foster stronger professional relationships.

Nomikai (Drinking Party)

Nomikai, or drinking events, hold significance in Japanese business culture as they provide opportunities for bonding, networking, and team-building outside formal work settings. While not obligatory, participating in nomikai can enhance camaraderie and strengthen professional relationships. However, it’s perfectly acceptable to decline alcohol at business drinking events by providing a reason, such as health concerns or medication. This respect for personal choices is crucial in maintaining comfort and professionalism in Japan.

Japanese business etiquette for nomikai

When offered alcohol, Japanese politeness dictates that your glass will be continuously refilled. To manage your alcohol intake, leave your glass full when you’ve had enough. To maintain hydration, it’s wise to request a glass of water as it won’t be automatically provided.

When pouring drinks, it’s courteous to offer to pour for others, as this gesture fosters bonding and displays politeness. Additionally, it allows you to pour less for yourself and avoid overconsumption.

In recent years, low-alcohol beverages like “Beary” with 0.5% alcohol content have gained popularity among businesspeople who wish to maintain a sense of participation without getting intoxicated. Non-alcoholic beers are also available, providing options for those who don’t drink alcohol.

Knowing and using some of the key phrases below will enhance your communication and cultural understanding during nomikai:

  1. Kampai (乾杯) – Cheers!
  2. Otsukare sama desu (お疲れ様です) – Thank you for your hard work.
  3. Mizu onegaishimasu (水お願いします) – Water, please.
  4. Mo ippai (もう一杯) – One more drink, please.
  5. Iie, kekkou desu (いいえ、結構です) – No, thank you.

Remember that each individual’s drinking preferences may vary, so it’s essential to respect their choices without judgment. Embracing nomikai with cultural understanding can lead to enjoyable and meaningful interactions, contributing to a positive experience of Japanese business etiquette.

Aside from Nomikai, Lunch gathering is also a popular event for new startups in Japan within the younger generation. Our CEO, Tyson Batino, also shared a practice with his co-founder at One Coin English, who regularly took the founding team and managers out to lunch. These informal gatherings, held at least once a month, provided a relaxed setting for open communication and strengthened team bonds. This approach is particularly effective as Japanese employees may feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts outside the formal office environment.

Want to know what to put these phrases to use? See our article on business networking events in Japan.

Handling Claims

In Japanese business etiquette, effectively handling claims and complaints is crucial for building and maintaining strong relationships with clients. Understanding the cultural nuances and expectations surrounding complaint resolution is essential. Let’s explore some key insights from experts in the field.

When dealing with claims in Japan, a prompt and sincere apology is paramount. Demonstrating genuine remorse for any inconvenience caused is highly valued. It is essential to communicate clearly about the steps being taken to address the issue and prevent its recurrence. Building trust by showcasing a commitment to customer satisfaction is critical.

For example, when a company delivered a faulty product, the Japanese company’s priority was a sincere apology and a clear plan to prevent future issues. This approach ensures the client feels heard and respected, reinforcing trust and reliability in the business relationship.

Clear and transparent communication is very important. Proactive and early communication about potential delays or issues is appreciated. Being honest about the reasons for any budget overruns and offering viable solutions shows professionalism. Here’s how to handle common claim situations according to Rochelle Kopp:

  1. Wrong or Faulty Product Delivery: Respond promptly with a sincere apology. Clearly explain how the issue will be resolved and what measures will be taken to prevent a recurrence. Show a strong commitment to customer satisfaction and reliability.
  1. Late Deliverables: Communicate proactively and as early as possible if there’s a possibility of delay. Provide a detailed explanation of the reasons for the delay and a new estimated delivery date. Offer any possible solutions and emphasize your dedication to meeting deadlines.
  1. Additional Payment for Budget Overruns: Address this matter proactively by discussing potential scope changes and extra costs before they occur. Clearly explain the reasons for additional expenses and present a revised budget. Be open to negotiation while demonstrating a willingness to find a mutually acceptable solution.

What are the expectations regarding punctuality and time management?

In Japanese business etiquette, punctuality and time management are of paramount importance. Japanese culture places a high value on punctuality, and arriving on time or even a few minutes early is seen as a mark of respect and professionalism. This value for punctuality extends beyond just business settings and is evident in everyday life, even in public transportation.

Etiquette in Japan being on time

A prime example of this is the Japanese train system, where punctuality is taken extremely seriously. If a train is delayed, even by just a minute, train companies issue “train delay certificates” known as “chien shōmeisho” (遅延証明書). These certificates are given to passengers upon request, and they serve as proof of the delay. Commuters can use these certificates to provide evidence to their employers in case they are late due to a train delay.

This practice reflects the high standards of punctuality and accountability in Japanese society. The issuance of train delay certificates demonstrates a commitment to keeping track of time and ensuring that customers can rely on the train system’s timeliness.

In a business context, being aware of and respecting these cultural norms surrounding punctuality is crucial. Arriving on time for meetings, appointments, and other engagements showcases professionalism and respect for the Japanese sense of punctuality. It contributes to fostering positive business relationships and building a reputation as a reliable and conscientious business partner in Japan. Understanding and meeting these expectations can contribute significantly to earning respect and trust in Japan’s business etiquette.

What are some cultural taboos and sensitive topics in Japanese business?

One of the most sensitive topics to avoid in Japanese business settings is discussions related to politics, religion, and controversial historical events. These subjects can evoke strong emotions and potential disagreements, leading to uncomfortable situations or misunderstandings. To maintain a positive and harmonious atmosphere, it’s best to steer clear of such topics and focus on neutral, business-related discussions.

Another critical aspect of Japanese business etiquette is the significance placed on personal space and physical contact. Japanese individuals value their personal space, and excessive gestures or intrusive physical contact, such as hugging or overenthusiastic handshakes, can make them uncomfortable. Instead, it is customary to maintain an appropriate distance and use bowing as a form of greeting, which reflects respect and politeness.

Gift-giving is a common practice in Japan, and it’s essential to be mindful of cultural considerations when presenting gifts in a business setting. Gifts should be thoughtful and appropriate for the occasion, but they should not be overly extravagant. An excessive or lavish gift might be perceived as an attempt to influence or gain favor, which could be counterproductive. Keeping gifts modest and respectful demonstrates a genuine desire to foster a professional relationship.

Compliments should also be offered with humility and moderation. While acknowledging someone’s achievements or qualities is appreciated, excessive praise might be seen as insincere or even embarrassing. Being mindful of the cultural norms around giving compliments will help foreign entrepreneurs navigate interactions gracefully and avoid inadvertently causing discomfort.

How do you practice effective communication?

In the dynamic world of Japanese business, effective cross-communication training plays a pivotal role in establishing successful relationships. Understanding cultural nuances and communication styles is crucial for foreign entrepreneurs aiming to navigate the complexities of the Japanese business context.

Japanese business etiquette

What are common Japanese communication styles?

One fundamental aspect of Japanese culture is its indirect and less explicit nature. Unlike some cultures that prioritize directness, the Japanese often express themselves subtly, leaving room for interpretation. This can sometimes pose a challenge for foreign entrepreneurs, as messages might not be conveyed as explicitly as they are accustomed to. For example, instead of saying “no,” a Japanese businessperson might say, “We will consider it” or “we will think about it.” Understanding this indirect communication style helps foreigners navigate conversations without misinterpreting vague responses as positive.

In Japanese business etiquette, non-verbal cues carry significant weight in communication. Paying attention to tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language is essential for grasping the true meaning behind conversations. While words might not reveal everything, the nuances in non-verbal expressions can provide valuable insights into the emotions and thoughts of Japanese counterparts.

When communicating in English with Japanese colleagues, it is crucial to speak clearly and avoid using overly complicated words or grammar. Many Japanese professionals have learned English primarily from textbooks, which might not expose them to informal communication, slang, or idiomatic expressions. Hence, adopting a straightforward and concise approach to language can greatly enhance mutual understanding.

What are some do’s and don’ts for communication in Japanese business etiquette?

Do: Be Clear and Concise in Written Communication

When writing emails or other forms of communication, aim for clarity and conciseness. Avoid using long, complicated sentences that may lead to misunderstandings. Proofread your message to ensure accuracy and eliminate any potential language barriers.

Do: Use Visual Aids for Enhanced Understanding

Incorporate visual aids such as charts, bullet points, and section headings to enhance clarity and understanding. Visual elements can help convey information more effectively, especially when dealing with complex topics or data.

Do: Respond to Compliments Humbly

Handling compliments appropriately is crucial in Japanese culture. Instead of accepting praise directly, respond with humility and modesty. A simple “thank you” accompanied by genuine appreciation is a culturally appropriate way to acknowledge compliments.

Do: Express Gratitude for Support

When receiving compliments on your work or achievements, express gratitude for the support. For instance, you can graciously respond with “Thank you so much for your kind words. I truly appreciate your support.”

Don’t: Use Direct “No” Responses

In Japanese business culture, directly refusing a request or declining an offer can be perceived as impolite. Instead, find subtle ways to convey a negative response without using the word “no” explicitly.

Don’t: Offer Vague Answers

Avoid providing ambiguous or vague answers that may lead to confusion. Be mindful of expressing yourself clearly, even if the response is negative. Ambiguity can create misunderstandings and hinder effective communication.

Don’t: Change the Topic Abruptly

Resist changing the topic abruptly to avoid giving a direct negative response. Sudden topic shifts can be seen as an evasive tactic and may affect trust and rapport with Japanese counterparts.

Don’t: Show Overwhelming Enthusiasm for Decline

While expressing faint enthusiasm when declining a proposition can be a polite way to say no, be cautious not to appear overly enthusiastic about the refusal. Striking a balance is essential to maintaining harmonious interactions.

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How do you improve effective cross-communication?

For foreign entrepreneurs seeking to improve their cross-cultural communication skills, learning some basic Japanese words or phrases can be beneficial. Simple expressions like “thank you” (arigatou gozaimasu) or “please go ahead” (dozo) can convey respect and effort in understanding Japanese culture.

One of the most valuable tips for better cross-cultural communication is to listen actively. Allow your Japanese counterparts to express themselves fully without interrupting. Providing space for silence is culturally accepted and encourages Japanese speakers to share their thoughts more openly.

If you’re eager to unlock the secrets of Japanese business etiquette and strengthen your relationships with Japanese counterparts, our cross-cultural training sessions and workshops are the perfect solution. Led by experienced professionals, including Rochelle Kopp of Japan Intercultural Consulting, these programs offer invaluable insights into the intricacies of Japanese culture and communication.

Final Thoughts

Mastering Japanese business etiquette and manners goes beyond mere formality; it serves as a gateway to building strong and enduring business relationships in Japan. Cultural competence plays a pivotal role in achieving success in this diverse and dynamic market. As you embark on your journey to conquer the Japanese market, remember that cultural competence is not a destination but a continuous process of learning and adaptation. Embrace the challenge with an open mind, and you will discover a world of opportunities and fruitful collaborations in this fascinating realm of business.

Our heartfelt gratitude goes to Rochelle Kopp, founder, and managing principal at Japan Intercultural Consulting, for providing invaluable insights and information on Japanese business etiquette, which has been instrumental in our mission to raise awareness and support companies in navigating this unique environment. 

For further guidance and in-depth discussions on Japanese business etiquette, we invite you to explore the podcast series Understanding Business Culture in Japan with Rochelle Kopp and Understanding Business Manners in Japan with Rochelle Kopp.

These podcasts delve into various aspects of conducting business in Japan, offering valuable insights and tips from industry experts. Gain the knowledge and skills needed to navigate the intricacies of Japanese business etiquette, and watch your endeavors flourish in this land of endless possibilities.

If you’re seeking expert referrals and guidance on Japanese business etiquette, connect with us through our contact form to access personalized recommendations and insights.

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