Japanese Culture

Business Culture

Meetings

  • Punctuality is highly valued in Japan. Everyone is expected to be on time for meetings and appointments. Aim to arrive some time before or exactly on the designated time. If you expect delay, politely and apologetically inform your Japanese counterpart.
  • The most common form of greeting in Japan is a bow, which varies depending on the context and social relationship between the two parties (see Bowing (Ojigi) in Greetings). However, when meeting with foreigners in a business context, Japanese may choose to shake hands. Follow the lead of your Japanese counterpart and greet in the same manner.
  • When meeting a business partner for the first time, it is polite to use formal titles. In Japan, people are often referred to by their surname and titles or honorifics are added as a suffix. The most common honorific to address someone for the first time in a business context is ‘-sama’ (e.g. MIYAMOTO-sama).
  • It is respectful to greet everyone in the room individually, regardless of the size of the group.
  • Business cards are usually offered when first meeting someone. The way someone treats a business card is seen as indicative of the respect and consideration they have for the person and their business. As a general principle, treat your own and others’ business cards respectfully and carefully.
  • When offering a business card, the card itself should be in good condition. Present the card with both hands and a slight bow. Your hands should not block any writing on the card, and the writing of the card should be faced towards the receiver. Do not pass business cards around like playing cards as this may be interpreted as rude.
  • When receiving a business card, use both hands with a slight bow to take the card. Thank the person for offering their card and take time to carefully regard it. Place the card in front of you on the table until everyone is seated. Do not fold the card or place it in the back pocket of your pants. Similarly, do not write on the business card unless directed to do so.
  • Allow for some socialising before mentioning business matters.
  • It is common for hosts to indicate to guests where to sit. The higher the ranking of the person, the closer they will sit to the leader (gicho). Often, guests will be offered to sit close to the leader, which is usually farthest away from the entrance. If your Japanese counterpart does not indicate where to sit, the most appropriate choice is to sit closest to the entrance to demonstrate humility. In large meetings, common practice is to have people from the same company sit on the same side of the table, with the highest ranking farthest away from the door.
  • It is common for the host to give a quick speech greeting everyone before discussing the topic of business.
  • Tea may be offered during the meeting. Wait until your Japanese counterpart begins drinking before you begin. Try not to ignore the tea, as it may be interpreted as a sign of disrespect.
  • You should not pour your own beverages, but rather wait until someone offers to fill your cup. Similarly, you should offer to fill someone else’s cup once it is empty.
  • It is rude to answer or use mobile phones during a business meeting. Ensure your phone is on silent to avoid interruptions.
  • It is common for there to be periods of silence during the meeting. Avoid the urge to fill the silence as it may be viewed as impatient.
  • Try not to interrupt someone or talk over someone if possible. It is also important to speak slowly, pause between points, and provide your Japanese counterpart the opportunity to respond. You can show your attentiveness to the speaker by using interjections or nodding your head (see Communication for more information).
  • Consensus is foundational in Japanese business culture (see below). This means that meetings and negotiations may take quite some time as consensus is built among the relevant parties. Patience is critical during negotiations.
  • Consider using physical aids for your presentation, such as handouts or writing on a whiteboard. These are preferred over PowerPoints or overly technical presentations.

 

Decision Making, Nemawashi and Hierarchy

In larger Japanese businesses as well as in other institutions and services such as the government, consensus is stressed as the primary way to arrive at decisions. Decisions are understood as the sum of all contributions. Because of this, the role of a manager or leader is often as a facilitator of building consensus. The primary role of a leader is seen as maintaining harmony rather than a source of authority or head decision maker. For instance, the verb matomeru (‘to decide’) literally means to unify or bring together.

 

An important part of building consensus is the informal process referred to as nemawashi. The term literally means ‘go around the roots’ and refers to how a gardener digs around the roots of a plant to prepare for it to be replanted. Thus, the process of consensus requires the leader to prepare the foundations for the proposed change or project by talking to others, gathering information and feedback and so forth. Though a time-consuming process, it is seen as a necessary way to promote both group and individual interests. Moreover, once a decision is made, implementation is usually relatively smooth since most stakeholders have already been involved and feasibility has already been established.

 

Hierarchy plays an important role in the consensus building process. The leader is expected to have one-on-one discussions with each member of the decision making group. Consultation and feedback from higher-ranked members is particularly important. Higher-ranked members in a company or institution expect to be informed and consulted of a decision prior to the formal announcement at a meeting. Failing to do so may mean a rejection of the proposal.

 

The importance of consensus building and hierarchy is reiterated through problem-solving processes. In Japanese business culture, employees are generally not expected to attempt to solve a problem themselves. Rather, they follow the process sometimes referred to as horenso. As an acronym, ‘hōrensō’ stands for koku (‘report’), renraku (‘update’ or ‘contact’), and dan (‘consult’ or ‘discuss’). When a problem occurs, employees are expected to first report the problem to their superior, who then updates their boss to find a solution. Finally, the boss is again consulted once the problem is resolved.

 

Group Identity and Loyalty

Collectivist characteristics found in Japanese society extend into business culture. Individuals tend to regard themselves as a representative of the group or company. Within organisations or corporations, there is a clear hierarchical structure that clearly defines the role of each person and their relationship. As such, everyone is acutely aware of each others’ roles and strives to achieve goals and deadlines as a group. Maintaining harmonious relationships and respecting hierarchy is paramount. People tend to regard themselves as a representative or spokesperson of their company and credit for accomplishments is shared as a group effort.

 

Employees are often loyal to their organisations and companies, in part due to the nature of their lifetime employment. In corporate or professional organisations, individuals are usually recruited directly out of university and only leave once they reach the mandatory retirement age. Attaining a corporate job in large companies is highly competitive and is largely based on the individual’s academic ability and the reputation of the university. Companies will also provide training; thus there is a preference for younger employees who can be trained to fulfil the exact needs of the company. Employees are expected to be dedicated, work hard and demonstrate loyalty in exchange for job security and other benefits such as bonuses and housing subsidies. The hierarchical and uniform nature of employment in these organisations means that career progression is often highly predictable, regulated and automatic. People usually gain promotions based on ability and seniority (i.e. how long they have been in the company).

 

Japanese society often encourages a sense of light-hearted competitiveness between groups.1 From a young age, children learn about group competitiveness through classroom activities, which often divide the class into smaller groups who compete for the highest academic achievement or best classroom behaviour.2 This competitive drive is followed through to corporate roles, where employees often work in a team motivated to beat competitors. There is also a common attitude of striving towards perfection in artisanship and manufacturing (monozukuri), services (such as hotel and restaurants) as well as in presentation.

 

Relationship Oriented

Building and maintaining relationships are a fundamental part of Japanese business culture. People generally expect and desire long-lasting partnerships. As a part of this long-term approach, Japanese people tend to want to know a great deal about their partners. Your Japanese counterpart may ask questions or for details that seem irrelevant or unrelated, engage in small talk and exchange business cards. Though these processes may seem cumbersome, they are an important part of establishing the relationship and building the trust and loyalty needed to support future business. As a way to establish rapport, there also tends to be socialising outside of the office, especially activities such as evening drinks or dinners. While business meetings may seem slow and formal, nighttime relationship building activities are often the time when more detailed information is relayed.

 

People also generally aim to build strong relationships with colleagues and staff. Internal relationships are very important due to the decision making process of building consensus (see Hierarchy, Decision Making and Nemawashi above). Managers and employees are expected to have close communication and express a commitment to teamwork and harmony within the group. For example, if someone takes time off work to travel, it is common for people to bring back an ‘omiyage’ (souvenir) to their coworkers to demonstrate thoughtfulness. Failing to do so may be seen as rude or inconsiderate. Importantly, people generally maintain a distinction between business relationships and personal relationships. As such, nepotism or favouritism are not commonly found in Japanese businesses and it is usually rare for employees to receive special privileges based on their relationships.

 

Gift giving and maintaining correspondence is an important aspect of maintaining all kinds of business relationships in Japan. Gifts are often exchanged when meeting for the first time. A good quality gift that shows originality or thoughtfulness will suffice, especially a gift from your home country, such as local food specialties. Avoid giving company merchandise as this may be seen as thoughtless or a promotional item. Aim to wrap the gift nicely and present it humbly with both hands, as the act of gift giving is often more emphasised than the gift itself. There are also other instances where giving gifts may be expected. Failing to do so may be seen as rude or inconsiderate (see Gift Giving in Etiquette for more information).

 

Other Considerations

  • In Japan, a stamp with a registered seal (jitsu-in) is often used as an alternative to or alongside signatures. Similar to a signature, a seal is unique to each individual, and is legally binding when placed on a contractual document. In some cases, such as certain government documents, a seal is required rather than a signature.
  • In many Japanese companies, deadlines are strictly respected. In some cases, employers may expect employees to meet a deadline by working overtime, though such strict attitudes are changing. It is important to deliver by expected deadlines to avoid tension with your Japanese business counterpart.
  • Many Japanese employees will continue to work if their colleagues are. Some companies are starting to change their practices, i.e. turn the light off at 10pm to encourage people to go home.
  • It is common for departments or small companies to gather for food and drinks after work. Consuming large amounts of alcohol is normal and acceptable in these contexts. A potential lack of adherence to formal rules and conventions is generally ignored in these moments.
  • English is not widely spoken in business and government contexts, though there are some exceptions such as trading companies. Because of this, meetings rarely occur in English and require an interpreter. In cases where a meeting is conducted in English, it is best to speak clearly and avoid idiomatic expressions or jokes.
  • As indirect communicators, Japanese people often avoid direct refusals or negative responses and instead may provide an ambiguous response. Indirect responses are often a way to maintain harmony, prevent a loss of face (menboku), or out of politeness. For example, someone may respond to a request with ‘I will consider it’, “that may be difficult” or “maybe”. Pay attention to the tone and body language of your Japanese counterpart, and aim to avoid giving direct or blunt responses to questions.
  • Disagreements that must be discussed are usually done so in private and at a later time. If a resolution cannot be reached, a superior is often asked to step in.
  • Business attire for men is traditionally formal with a blue, black or grey suit. Avoid wearing a white shirt with a black tie underneath, as this is more common for funerals.
  • For women, neutral-coloured clothing such as blue, black, grey and brown is common. Popular options are a dress or a business suit with a blouse and matching skirt or trousers. Clothing is usually not tight-fitting or sleeveless.
  • For both genders, it is important to wear close-toed shoes that can easily be removed with clean well-kept socks, in case you may be required to remove your shoes. Coats should also be removed and carried in your arm prior to entering a building. There is usually a coat rack to hang your coat once inside.
  • There are social stigmas associated with tattoos. Consider concealing any tattoos if possible (see Other Considerations for more information). 
  • Many national dates of significance (see Dates of Significance) are not public holidays where businesses and schools close for the day.
  • On the Corruption Perception Index (2020), Japan ranks 19th out of 180 countries, receiving a score of 74 (on a scale from 0 to 100). This perception suggests that the country’s public sector is somewhat free from corruption.

 

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1 Hofstede Insights, 2020
2 Sugimoto, 2021
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