Japan Business Etiquette

Posted by Michela Ferullo

Nihon e yōkoso!  (“Welcome to Japan” In Japanese)

Japan, an archipelago, located off the coast of East Asia separated by the Sea of Japan, is home to about 127 million people. Due to the country’s massive population, and the fact that a whopping 99% of citizens primarily speak Japanese, Japanese is ranked the 9thmost popular language on Earth. Home to one of the most polite cultures, business relationships in Japan are treasured and long-term, built on mutual trust and respect.  In this nation, actions speak volumes louder than words and can be a make or break point while doing business. Respect between people is conveyed not just through language and tone, but through body language, behavior, and other forms of subtle non-verbal communication that is normally overlooked in other countries. The business culture of Japan is one of the biggest perceived obstacles for businesses and companies when looking into expanding into the Japanese market.

The Lowdown

  • Typical office hours in Japan are from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., however most workers put in major overtime. The government is currently trying to pass a law that mandates minimum vacation time.
  • Avoid doing business around New Years (January 1st), due to most businesses being closed three days prior to and three days following the holiday.
  • The most common and efficient form of transportation to and from work is the subway, especially in the larger cities.
  • In the Japanese business culture, most believe that if you aren’t 10 minutes early to a meeting or an event, you are late. Plan to arrive even earlier than that if your meeting is with senior executives or upper management.

Dressing Sharp

  • For men and women, dark colored, navy or gray suits are most appropriate, however, avoid combining a black suit, white shirt, and black tie since it is usually funeral attire.
  • Men typically have shorter haircuts. If you’re the president of a company or in a position of power in the business world, then a ponytail is acceptable.
  • Women in Japan are very fashion conscious, usually donning high end labels in business attire. It is unacceptable to wear short skirts, high heels, or be overly accessorized.
  • One should always dress to impress since the Japanese perceived well-dressed people positively.

Make or Break Meetings

  • In introductions, use the person’s last name plus the word “san,” which means Mr. or Mrs. The Japanese prefer to use last names.
  • Business cards are a must have at any meeting; the exchange alone is an event that occurs every time. Your card should always be presented by holding it with both hands, having your name facing the recipient. Business cards, or “meishi” in Japanese, must always be treated with the utmost respect.
  • Bowing is extremely important in the Japanese culture, the deeper and longer the bow is signifies the increased level of respect towards a person. While hosting Westerners, the Japanese may realize they’re not accustomed to bowing and will offer a handshake instead.
  • Prolonged eye contact can be considered rude or aggressive. Acknowledge your acquaintance with brief eye contact then look away to not offend them.

Dining Decorum

  • Meals are always commenced with the saying, “itadakimasu,” meaning “I humbly receive.”
  • Always wait for everyone’s glasses to be filled before drinking and never pour your own drink, always allow it to be poured for you. Remember to refill your associate’s beverages for them.
  • Slurping foods is not only accepted, it signifies you’re thoroughly enjoying your meal.
  • It is considered proper etiquette to finish your meal down to the last grain of rice, or else your dining companions may think you didn’t enjoy it or, that you’re being rude.

Giving and Getting Gifts

  • Generally, gifts are given to show gratitude or a means to thank someone for a hospitable act. If you’re presented with the honor of being invited to a business associates house you should bring a small gift as a thank you.
  • Avoid giving gifts in sets of three, four, or nine. The number three is considered unlucky, the word four (shi) is the same as the word for death, and the word for nine (ku) can mean suffering.
  • Always follow up a gift given to you with a small reciprocate present as a gesture of appreciation. A thank you note or phone call will suffice.
  • Good gift ideas include: special teas, books, foreign handicrafts, “lucky” objects, nice pens, etc.

Down to Business

  • It takes multiple meetings to establish a deal or contract. Japanese businessmen put high importance on establishing a secure and trusting relationship prior to launching agreements.
  • Just because your Japanese acquaintance seems interested and excited about your business does not automatically assume they will complete the deal. This is a misleading side-effect of the extreme politeness of Japan’s culture.
  • Japanese people, out of respect, won’t flat out say “no”. Instead they may indicate that the request is difficult, tilt their head while sucking air between their teeth, change the conversation topic, or stay silent.
  • The saying “silence is golden” is pertinent to your time spent in Japan. In Japanese business specifically, silence speaks loudly regarding wisdom and self-control.

Public Behavior

  • Avoid blowing your nose in public places, particularly in meeting rooms.
  • In the Japanese culture tipping is not required and can be considered rude, service quality is expected and not to be paid extra for.
  • Meeting at bars or restaurants for drinks after hours is a common occurrence and always accept the invitation to do so.
  • Try to not make any drastic hand gestures while speaking, many have altered meanings in Japan and some could be detrimental to forming relationships.

Now that you’re well prepared for your next jet-setting business trip to Japan, don’t forget to stay tuned for our next Business Etiquette blurb!

Sayōnara! (“Goodbye” in Japanese)