Cultural tips: Japan

Manners and Taboos when doing Business with Japanese

  • Be ultra-polite at all times. This involves often standing up when you would normally sit down, perhaps bowing when you would shake hands and apologising several times a day for rudenesses which you have not committed.
  • Never say “no” or “impossible” or “we can’t”. If you disagree, just be silent.
  • Never corner them or make them lose face. Flatter them a lot. They like it.
  • Give them your business card at the first meeting and show great respect for theirs. Put it in front of you and look at it regularly during conversation.
  • Show great respect for their company. Emphasize the size, age, wealth and reputation of your own company.
  • Don’t tell jokes during business meetings and avoid sarcasm or slang.
  • Remember that anything you say they take literally. Flippant remarks such as “This is killing me” or “you must be kidding” would be misconstrued.
  • Remember the Japanese do not admire bluntness and strive at meetings to achieve harmony upon which they can build future, long-term relations.
  • What you say matters less to them than how you say it.
  • Show great respect for their “leader” and/or anyone over 50 who is present.
  • Learn some Japanese and use it to show you have an interest in their culture.
  • When speaking English speak slowly and distinctly. Do not raise your voice. They smile and nod constantly but understand only part of the time. Nodding means they are listening to you.
  • They prefer oral agreements to written ones and will stick to them. They do not necessarily want to shake hands on it. A nod or slight bow is much better.
  • Try not to extract decisions from them at the first meeting. They generally have to check with Head Office. Often there will be a second meeting and things may be agreed between meetings, so be prepared to talk business during socializing.
  • The second meeting tends to go over the same ground as the first, but the questions will be more in-depth.
  • Japanese are willing to go over the same information many times to avoid later misunderstandings and achieve clarity, though the ambiguities of their own speech style often leave Westerners far from clear on their intentions.
  • Imitate or adapt to their pace, manners and demeanour as much as possible.
  • Find common ground when you can. They love sharing.
  • Seating arrangements in meetings reflect the organisation’s hierarchy, with the senior person sitting at the “top” of the room.
  • Japanese normally negotiate in teams, each member of which has a different speciality. Each member will ask questions within the field of his competence.
  • There will be a senior staff member present who will dictate tactics, but he is rarely the one who does the talking.
  • Their questions constitute an information-gathering process. They are not about to make a decision on hearing your answers.
  • Their decisions will eventually be made by consensus, therefore, no person will display any individuality, using the company name or “we” – never “I”. It is advisable to do the same in response. They are cautious, skilled in stalling tactics, won’t be rushed. They need time to reach their consensus.
  • Their decisions are long-term, eg. Do we want these people as partners in the future? Do we trust them? Is this the right direction for the company to be heading? Big decisions take time.
  • Japanese negotiators are invariably polite, understanding of others’ problems and good listeners. If great respect and very reasonable demands are shown, they are capable of modifying their own demands greatly.
  • They will show exaggerated respect to your senior negotiator and expect you to do the same to theirs.
  • Negotiating style will be non-individualistic, impersonal and unemotional, but with emotion under the surface. Logic and intellectual argument alone cannot sway Japanese. They must like you and trust you whole-heartedly.
  • The Japanese are the most courteous race on earth. Polite expression and gift-giving are very important both in social and business situations. Obligations towards others follow a strict code.
  • Confrontation is to be avoided, harmony takes priority over directness, sometimes even over truth. Boasting, open criticism and walking on tatami with shoes on are strictly taboo.
  • Be considerate and low-voiced at all times. When you make an offer which they politely refuse, offer it again until you are sure they really do not wish to accept.
  • Be thoughtful and modest. Remember form and correct behaviour are more important than content. Never be blunt or indelicate. Never insist on any procedure where the Japanese show reluctance.
  • Do not pressure them. Do not give deadlines. Be patient.
  • The Japanese like repetition, so don’t be afraid to give them the same message several times.

Source: CultureActive by Richard D. Lewis

A Communication and Cultural Training combination with focus Japan can be booked through Boa Lingua Business Class