Business Etiquette in Japan

Japanese business culture is pretty strict. Whether it’s the exceptionally polite use of language, the long working hours, or the inability to interrupt, Japan has a very hardcore view on business and business etiquette. But luckily for foreign business visitors, not all Japanese companies expect you to know all the ins-and-outs of business etiquette. However, it’s still a good idea to know at least some of these basic rules when you’re coming through to Japan on business.

In fact, as a by-product of my one-on-one English teaching job, I learnt plenty of business etiquette that visitors should be aware of. Therefore, as a break from my more chillaxed articles, I decided to focus on a few of these common manners.

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I’m sure everyone in the world knows that the Japanese greet each other by bowing – especially in formal situations. But did you know that many Japanese people do not expect you to know how to bow? That’s right, when dealing with foreign business people, many Japanese people will either not notice that you do not bow, or they will in fact choose to shake your hand.

But if you do really want to impress your Japanese counterpart, then copying them is key. Just bow as low as they do (normally at a 30-45° angle) and say “Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu” – an official greeting said to those you’re meeting for the first time.

Otherwise, a simple “Hajimemashite” will also suffice.

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In South Africa, I honestly never gave this one a second thought. You give and receive a business card and immediately put it into your pocket or wallet – it’s as simple as that. But in Japan, business cards are seen as a representation of the person on the card – therefore, they should always be given with respect.

So, if you ever exchange a business card with someone in Japan, then remember the following steps:

  1. Give your card using both hands and bow slightly
  2. Receive the other person’s card using both hands and bowing slightly
  3. Do not put the card into your wallet yet
  4. Place the card on top of your wallet/card holder while speaking with your counterpart (not on the desk)
  5. Once you’ve left your business partner, then you can place the card in your wallet

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In Japan – especially Tokyo – the vast majority of companies require their employees to wear business attire when dealing with clients, customers, and other companies. Therefore, it’s a good idea to mirror this dress code during your business meetings in Japan. Overall, it is recommended to wear darker colour suits (black or blue) that is conservative with minimal accessories.

And it’s good to know that despite the rigid formality, many Japanese companies have actually implemented a ‘cool biz’ dress code for summer – it’s the same as winter, but without a tie (and sometimes jacket).

Another huge point that’s worth noting about Japanese culture is that tattoos are a serious no-no… and I mean no-no. Tattoos and body art are often associated with the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia), and is therefore a huge taboo in Japanese society. Now, while the Japanese know that tattoos are common in other countries, they still often frown upon exposed tattoos. That means you should always ‘dress to impress’ and cover them up… even in the hot springs!

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Taken from ancient Japanese tradition, the seating arrangement in Japanese life is extremely important. Back in the day, when wars were abound in Japan, the leader – or most important person – would sit furthest away from the door, so as not to get sucker-punched by an invading enemy. And this old-school practice has stood the test of time, as it has been adopted into the Japanese business culture.

Therefore, you should be aware of the fact that in Japanese business meetings, the most superior and important person will mostly definitely be sitting furthest away from the door – while the lowliest person will be sitting closest.

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Okay, now this one might sound like a no-brainer – in many societies, rude interruptions are often considered insulting. However, if you think about it, interrupting is often involved in business life – whether it’s briefly interrupting to clarify a point, or asking to go to the bathroom, it is often socially acceptable to interrupt the speaker during a natural pause or change of topic.

However, in Japan, it’s a little different. You see, it is not common to interrupt people during meetings – at all. Generally, you have to wait until the very end of someone’s speech or presentation before asking questions.

In fact, interrupting is so rare in Japan that many eikaiwa’s (English conversation schools) include a lesson on interrupting in the work environment – something that many Japanese people struggle with.

Well, that’s it for some of the business etiquette in Japan. Of course, if you’re really concerned about any other etiquette that you should know before I big business trip, then I recommend asking your Japanese counterpart. It’s better to look like an idiot for a moment, then to be remembered as that weirdo gaijin forever.

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