There was a time when an error in etiquette would have killed any chances for a successful business interaction then and there. Japanese business was done in a certain manner and, if you didn’t do it right, you were done.
It’s not quite that strict nowadays. Japanese people are more familiar with Western business traveller’s etiquette (or lack of it) and can be forgiving of a foreigner making an error here and there, especially if they can see you are trying.
That said, there is nothing like making a strong positive impression, and the best way to do that when dealing with a Japanese counterpart is to show not only willingness to respect their culture and methods, but also to show skill.
Don’t underestimate the power of that kind of respect, either. If it comes down to a decision between you and a rival, the one with the best Japanese business etiquette often wins out. It is seen as an indicator of a great many things, including character, attention to detail, respect, honour, and trustworthy business practice.
Worried? Don’t be. Just do a little homework, practice before you go on your business travel, and pay attention when you’re there.
Here are a few tips to get you started.
What is Japanese business etiquette?
Indoors versus Outdoors
There is a strict – and very important – distinction between indoors and outdoors.
Do not wear outdoor shoes past the porch of a home. You’ll be expected to take them off and put on a pair of slippers provided by your host.
For office buildings and restaurants, you can leave your shoes on unless it is clear that slippers are preferred and provided. In such cases, there will often be a lower area of tiled floor, with a row of slippers just outside of it. Your outdoor shoes stay on the lower level, then you step up into the slippers.
For all buildings, you would normally remove your outer coat before entering. Leave business jackets on, but anything heavier should be removed and draped over your arm before entering, especially if wet. There will be an obvious place to hang them, or your host will take them from you.
Japanese dress is normally quite formal – not tuxedos – but regular business suits for all interaction not requiring a uniform. Golfing, hiking, and other similar activities will require a suitable set of clothing; they basically each have a uniform of their own.
Normally, there will be a doorbell or buzzer button on most doors. For interior doors, however, there is a simple custom that you should know. Knock three times for normal doors, two for bathroom stalls. Obviously, knocking three times on a stall door won’t offend anyone, but knocking twice on the door of a posh boardroom might introduce a very negative vibe into the room. Don’t knock the ‘shave and a haircut’ rhythm. Once you’ve knocked, be quite patient before you knock again; they will want to make sure everything is just right before opening to guests.
The senior person always enters an elevator first, followed by subordinates in descending order. The last one – the junior person – stands by the panel, presses the buttons, and holds the doors for everyone when it is time to exit.
Meeting and greeting
There is a reason so many movies have a little fun with the etiquette of bowing. It is a minefield of potential gaffs for those not used to the practice, and even for a few who are. Here are some basics.
Some Japanese business people will shake hands, often to show that they are aware of, and respect, Western traditions. Many will not though, and all will bow, whether they have shaken hands or not. Don’t offer your hand unless your host does first. That physical contact with a stranger can be very off-putting to some.
Always bow a bit deeper than anyone who is senior to you. Don’t be overly humble though: as a foreigner, your status may be a bit tricky to determine, so your counterpart may take a cue from your behaviour. A little humility is okay, but too much and you’ll give away respect that might otherwise be quite useful to you.
Bowing does not indicate submission to your counterpart’s demands, ideas, or prices; it does, however, show that you are aware of, and respectful of, that person’s rank and authority. This submission can actually work to get you a better deal in the end.
It’s a good idea to identify someone in your host’s entourage who is at your level. You can watch them and take cues from their bow depth and order of entering a room or elevator. In doing so, you are less likely to miss the mark by much.
Business cards are a big deal in Japan, and no less so in this digital age. When accepting or giving a card, always use two hands and bow a little when presenting or accepting it.
Take note of the card. Read it. Admire it. Put it away only after you have shown proper respect to the person’s identity and position – represented by the card itself, even if the person is standing there – but do put it away. Leaving it out more than a minute or two is disrespectful, as is folding it. Get a good holder and put cards in it for safekeeping. Never write on them.
Also make sure you have cards of your own on hand. Spend some money on a high quality card, something classic and dignified is always best, and make them double-sided (they will turn them over to look, and this can be embarrassing for them if there is nothing there). A Japanese translation on one side is always a good idea. Hand it over with that side up.
When in a restaurant, boardroom, or home, always wait until asked to sit before doing so. Likewise, don’t choose your own seat. In meetings, the rank of each person determines their place, and this is very specific. If you haven’t memorised the formal plans – even if you have, really – it is best to sit where you are placed.
Eating and drinking
Drink only after your host takes a drink, and then take some time with it. Even if you’re thirsty, sipping is the way to drink, not gulping. Tea will be very hot, and in colder months a glass of water placed in front of you may be hot as well, so a subtle touch against the glass is a good idea to know what you’re dealing with.
The Japanese do not eat in public. Don’t eat a snack on a bus, subway or train. If you buy street food, eat it there at the stand. Some Japanese will eat while on the move, but it is still considered quite rude and boorish. It is not an impression you want to make.
Always present slides in Japanese if you can. Hand out a printed copy of the presentation, in Japanese and English if possible, to all of those attending. They should be on the seats prior to the meeting, or handed out in descending order of rank.
Put everything important on the slides. If it isn’t there, they will probably not consider it important.
Practice your presentation and be sure to finish on time. Tight schedules and precision are important to the Japanese, and they will expect the same of those they work with.
The good news
Remember, they are aware that you are not a local, and won’t hold you to the same standards of Japanese business etiquette that they will with their colleagues. If you make a mistake, they may even make a show of doing the same thing. This is not to mock you, but to express that all is okay with the relationship.
The key is the right attitude. Try your best. Smile. Show respect.
Those are the keys to making your initial foray into Japanese business culture a success.
Heading out to Japan and need help organising your business travel? Get in touch with our travel experts