Doing Business in Japan

Category: Culture, International Business

About guest author Rochelle Kopp: Rochelle is managing principal of Japan Intercultural Consulting, an international training and consulting firm focused on Japanese business. She is also co-author of The Lowdown: Business Etiquette Japan.

Japanese have the reputation of being sensitive about etiquette matters.  Although your business deal won’t necessarily be rejected due to a wrongly offered business card, it does pay to be aware of what Japanese consider important in a business setting.

Knowing some of the key sensitivities that Japanese have about doing business with people from other countries, and adjusting your behavior accordingly, can significantly increase the success of your business dealings.  Here are some of the top things to keep in mind:

  • Listen more than you talk.  Westerners, particularly Americans, tend to be rather verbose.  This causes Japanese to become quiet, keeping you from finding out what is on their minds.  When you need to say something, reduce it down to its essentials, and don’t go on and on.  Spend more time listening to what they have to say.  And don’t feel compelled to fill all pauses in the conversation — if you let the moment of silence continue, it will encourage Japanese to open up.
  • Address the language issue.  Even Japanese who have good English skills can be thrown by rapid-file slang-filled native English.  Without sounding condescending, subtly adjust your spoken English to be slower, simpler, and free of jargon, acronyms, and idioms.  Be sure to add written supports such as an agenda, PowerPoint slides, and liberal use of the whiteboard, because most Japanese have stronger skills in reading English than they do speaking it.
  • Keep your cool.  No matter how stressful the situation, it’s important to stay calm, cool and collected.  Strong expressions of emotion will tend to make the reserved Japanese feel uncomfortable.
  • Business cards.  Most importantly, make sure that you have plenty of them with you, and that they are in a nice case rather than wedged into your wallet.  Offer your cards with both hands, and accept using both hands also.  Take a moment to study the card, then make eye contact with the person you just met.  Rather than shoving it into your pocket, put it on the table in front of you, or hold it on top of your card case.
  • Socializing.  The time spent socializing with Japanese can be just as valuable as the time spent in formal meetings, if not more so.  Be sure to include time in your schedule to have a meal together, preferably dinner.  This relaxed time isn’t necessarily for talking business, but rather for getting to know each other.  The bonding will carry over into smoother communication when you are back in meeting mode.
  • Gifts.  Gift-giving is an important part of Japanese business culture, so you should definitely reciprocate.  When traveling to Japan, be sure to bring a box of chocolates or other edible gift for each key group that you are meeting with.  People you have formed strong working relationships with could receive personal gifts, either when you visit or during the year-end holiday period.  Something geared to their interests but not overly personal is appropriate.  Gifts should always be from your local area, and should be nicely wrapped.
  • Don’t expect an immediate answer.  Japanese firms have lengthy decision-making processes that require a lot of consultation.  This means that the Japanese you meet with usually won’t be able to offer definitive feedback during their meetings with you.  They will need time to talk about ideas with colleagues and gather their reactions.  You’ll always need to plan a follow-up — preferably in person — to find out the result of their deliberations.

Keeping these tips in mind will help you be more confident and develop stronger working relationships with Japanese colleagues.