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Doing Business in Japan - Basic Etiquette

Is it your first time to meet Japanese business clients? How should you greet them or exchange business cards? Have you ever wondered how to conduct yourself in a Japanese business meeting?

Japan is a country rich in traditions and culture and manners are highly regarded in this land of the rising sun. To start off on the right foot, learn some basic etiquette about Japan. Stay on top of your game and impress your Japanese clients by showing you made the effort to learn the essentials of their culture.

1. Bow or Shake?

Should I bow or shake? Bowing is very important and you should learn how to bow sincerely in Japan. However, you will often find that Japanese businessmen (especially the younger ones) might also shake your hand if you are not Japanese. Please consider though that bowing for them is second-nature, so it might happen that they bow and shake your hand at the same time. Be flexible and look out for what your counterpart does and adjust accordingly.

Keep in mind that a deeper and longer bow indicates (more) respect whereas a short bow or a nod of the head is considered more casual. Do not forget, making a great first impression starts with how you greet someone.

2. Find a proper seat

You will notice that in Japanese business meetings (and dinners) that there is a proper seat for everyone and in most cases, you will be directed to that seat. The seating arrangement depends on seniority, the position within the company and whether you are the host or the guest. It will provide you with a lot of information about the people working in the company and their positions.

So pay attention to where you will be guided to. If you are not sure where to sit, wait to be seated or ask the assistant guiding you into the room.

3. Giving and Receiving Gifts

Japanese people love to present you with a little something and of course, would appreciate a little something in return. Any little gift is appreciated and it shows that you care for and understand Japanese customs.

When giving or receiving gifts, do it with both hands. A little hesitation and declining a gift several times is considered part of the ritual. Because gift giving is so common in Japan, it is never seen as bribery. However, you should avoid giving expensive gifts, otherwise you would be putting the strain on the other person to also reciprocate with an expensive gift.

Give gifts at the end of a meeting. It is recommended to not give a gift with your company logo on it as this is viewed as cheap. Good gifts could include bringing something from your own country. Be aware to avoid giving anything in amounts of 4 or 9 as these are considered unlucky numbers. If you are not sure about how to wrap your gift, it is best to let a local wrap your gift as colours, materials and design have their own etiquette and meaning.

4. Business Cards

Business Cards are extremely important in Japan and there is a certain etiquette on how to give and receive business cards. You should never just take them and put them away – no, you study them! Look at it, note the position and even make comments on it to start a conversation if you can.

The finer details of how to exchange business cards include holding the corner of the card and not the middle. This is to avoid covering up the information of your name, position or company as this is considered bad manners in Japan.

When you receive a business card in Japan, it is important to hold it with both hands and to hold it over your business card case (meishi case). When exchanging business cards, make sure your card is facing the receiver so he/she can read it. Never put away your business card quickly in your pockets.

This is a good opportunity to talk about or introduce your position within your company as Japanese people need to understand your position within a group or a company before they can proceed with the relationship.

5. Don’t assume ‘yes’ means ‘yes’

Western people will understand a person’s ‘yes’ as a ‘yes’. However, it is common, especially in Asian countries, that ‘yes’ is not exactly what is meant. This is the same in Japan; if someone says ‘yes’ it does not necessarily mean that, rather, 'I heard you', 'I understood what you said', but it does not mean 'I agree with what you said'.

This can become confusing for many Western people as they may feel that Japanese people are not keeping their promises even though they keep on nodding (in agreement) throughout a discussion and say ‘yes’. You need to understand though, that letting someone speak for a long time without responding is considered rude in Japan. So, do not expect that you have reached an agreement in a business meeting just because your Japanese counterpart is saying ‘yes’.

This list just scratches the surface of Japanese etiquette and as with any country, there is so much more to learn, but it should get you through the basics of a meeting with Japanese clients.

What are other basics you consider essential? Please add and share your experiences in the comment box below!

Do you want to learn more on Japanese (business) etiquette or do you need more training? Then check out my Cross-Cultural Lesson on Japanese Business Etiquette

Happy Training!

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