Business culture in Japan

Like many far eastern countries, Japan is a country that welcomes strangers as part of the nation’s psychology, but to the westerner it can be a minefield in terms of etiquette and business culture. There are so many seemingly innocuous things that grossly offend it is important to study or obtain coaching on what to do, and more importantly, what not to do.

For example, blowing your nose in front of a sales prospect might well lead to the loss of a potential contract, no matter how discreetly it was done. Attending a meeting with a cold could have the same effect. Holding eye contact for too long, taking the wrong seat in a meeting, crossing your arms or legs, putting hands in pockets, sitting on a desk, chewing gum, eating in the street, holding loud conversations (on a mobile telephone or otherwise) and openly laughing all cause offence to greater or lesser degrees of seriousness.

The basis of Japanese etiquette stems from the history of the samurai, in which individuals demonstrate respect towards other people and in turn receive it. Two of the most used expressions in Japan are gomen nasai (‘I’m sorry’) and sumimasen (‘excuse me’), both of which are often used even though no offence has taken place.

Business in Japan operates based on a hierarchy system, but rather than one which is dictated by those at the top there is a culture of consensus which incorporates all individuals. This is not to be confused with any kind of cooperative system, rather inclusivity from the top down. The result is that individuals consider themselves to be part of companies and committed to them.

The ritual of greeting people is important. The speed and style of a bow sends out a multitude of messages. For the uninitiated the best policy is not to try. The Japanese concerned nearly always understand. A handshake will suffice.

The giving and receiving of business cards is taken seriously. They should be given and received with two hands and examined closely. In a meeting environment they should be carefully arranged so that the cards of the most senior contacts are lined on the table from the top down.

Meetings in Japan start on time but have a tendency to overrun. They also begin with social preamble as a way of judging the characters of the individuals around the table. And agreement is reached through consensus, not through confrontation. It is important not to push too hard and too fast.

Negotiation must be based on gradually building agreement. And do not expect to hear the word ‘no’. It is not in Japanese culture to be so directly negative. If someone in Japan says that something would be very difficult they actually mean a definite ‘no’. And the bigger the party present for negotiation the important the subject matter is considered to be. Turning up single handed does present an image indicating great importance being put upon the subject matter.

Giving gifts permeates many occasions in Japan, including business. They should not be too expensive in order to avoid any assumption about a bribe, but they should be of good quality. Scottish whisky is a favourite, and if there are to be several recipients it is crucial to make sure the value of gift and the status of individuals concerned is matched. If senior colleagues discover juniors have received a gift of greater value they will be seriously insulted. Contracts have been lost as a result.

The key to doing business in Japan is showing respect and patience. Any perceived loss of ‘face’ can result in loss of business.