Japan is a highly structured and traditional society. Great importance is placed on loyalty, politeness, personal responsibility and on everyone working together for the good of the larger group. Education, ambition, hard work, patience and determination are held in the highest regard. The crime rate is one of the lowest in the world.
Meeting and Greeting
A handshake is appropriate upon meeting. The Japanese handshake is limp and with little or no eye contact. Some Japanese bow and shake hands. The bow is a highly regarded greeting to show respect and is appreciated by the Japanese. A slight bow to show courtesy is acceptable.
Nodding is very important. When listening to Japanese speak, especially in English, you should nod to show you are listening and understanding the speaker. Silence is a natural and expected form of non-verbal communication. Do not feel a need to chatter.
Do not stand close to a Japanese person. Avoid touching. Prolonged eye contact (staring) is considered rude. Don’t show affection, such as hugging or shoulder slapping, in public.
Never beckon with your forefinger. The Japanese extend their right arm out in front, bending the wrist down, waving fingers. Do not beckon older people. Waving a hand back and forth with palm forward in front of face means “no” or “I don’t know.” This is a polite response to a compliment. Never point at someone with four fingers spread out and thumb folded in.
Sit erect with both feet on the floor. Never sit with ankle over knee.
Punctuality is a must in all business and social meetings. Any degree of knowledge of Japanese culture is greatly appreciated.
Japanese may exchange business cards even before they shake hands or bow. Be certain your business card clearly states your rank. This will determine who your negotiating counterpart should be. Bear in mind that initial negotiations begin with middle managers. Do not attempt to go over their heads to senior management. It is acceptable to use a Japanese company interpreter in the first meeting. Once negotiations begin, hire your own interpreter.
Both business and personal relationships are hierarchical. Older people have higher status than younger, men higher than women and senior executives higher than junior executives.
It is very important to send a manager of the same rank to meet with a Japanese colleague. Title is very important. Proper introduction to business contacts is a must. The introducer becomes a guarantor for the person being introduced.
Work is always undertaken as a group. The workgroup is strongly united with no competition; all succeed or all fail. Decision-making is by consensus. Everyone on the work team must be consulted before making decisions. This is a very slow process. The first meeting may focus on establishing an atmosphere of friendliness, harmony and trust. Business meetings are conducted formally, so leave your humor behind. Always allow ten minutes of polite conversation before beginning business meetings. It takes several meetings to develop a contract. When the time comes, be content to close a deal with a handshake. Leave the signing of the written contract to later meetings. Do not bring a lawyer. It is important is to build business relationships based on trust. The Japanese do not like complicated legal documents. Write contracts that cover essential points.
Etiquette and harmony are very important. “Saving face” is a key concept. Japanese are anxious to avoid unpleasantness and confrontation. Try to avoid saying “no.” Instead, say, “This could be very difficult,” allowing colleagues to save face.
Dining and Entertainment
Restaurant entertaining is crucial to business. A person is judged by his/her behavior during and after business hours. Seldom is a business deal completed without dinner in a restaurant.
Drinking is a group activity. Do not say “no” when offered a drink. An empty glass is the equivalent of asking for another drink. Keep your glass at least half full if you do not want more. If a Japanese person attempts to pour more and you do not want it, put your hand over your glass, or fill it with water if necessary. When drinking with a Japanese person, fill his glass or cup after he has filled yours. While he is pouring, hold your cup or glass up so he can fill it easily. Never pour your own drink and always pour your companion’s. Toasting is very important in Japan and many toasts are offered during the course of an evening. At dinner, wait for the toast before you drink. Respond to each toast with a toast.
Food. An empty plate signals a desire for more food. Leave a little food on your plate when you are finished eating. Wait for the most important person (honored guest) to begin eating. If you are the honored guest, wait until all the food is on the table and everyone is ready before you eat. When offered food, it is polite to hesitate before accepting. You do not have to eat much, but it is rude not to sample each dish. It is acceptable to slurp noodles. Some Japanese believe that it makes them taste better. Do not finish your soup before eating other foods. It should accompany your meal. Replace the lid of the soup bowl when finished eating.
Dress is modern and conservative. The Japanese dress well at all times. Dress smartly for parties, even if an invitation says “Casual” or “Come as you are.” For business, men should wear dark suits and ties (subtle colors).
Women should wear dresses, suits and shoes with heels. Subtle colors and conservative styles are best for business.
The ritual of gift giving is more important than the value of the gift. Allow your Japanese counterpart to initiate the gift giving. Present a gift in a modest fashion, saying, “This is just a small token,” or “This is an insignificant gift.” Do not give anyone a gift unless you have one for everyone present. Correct wrapping is very important. Appearance counts for as much or more than the contents. Be prepared to give and receive a gift at a first business meeting. Gifts are frequently given at the end of a first meeting. Not giving a proper gift could ruin a business relationship.
It is very important to receive a gift properly. Give a gift and receive a gift with both hands and a slight bow. The Japanese may refuse a gift once or twice before accepting it.
Avoid using the number “four” if possible. It has connotations of death to the Japanese.
The Japanese may ask personal questions. This is not intended to be rude, but rather a polite way to show interest. You may give vague or general answers if you feel a question is too personal.
The Japanese do not express opinions and desires openly. What they say and what they mean may be very different. Do not expect a Japanese person to say “no.” “Maybe” generally means “no.”
Especially for Women
Non-Japanese women are treated very politely in business and it is understood that Western women hold high-level positions in business. Western women must establish credibility and a position of authority immediately. A non-Japanese woman is viewed first as a foreigner and then as a woman and is treated accordingly. Businesswomen can invite a Japanese businessman to lunch or dinner. Allow your Japanese colleague to pick the restaurant.