Japanese business etiquette – break into Japan’s market

Japanese business etiquette and deep culture



Your products and services make your business a success in Japan – etiquette is a side show

Don’t make the mistake to think you are well prepared to do business in Japan after reading a book or website about Japanese business etiquette! Its your products and services which make you win.

Substance trumps etiquette

Vodafone, Cable & Wireless, Volkswagen with its relationship with Suzuki , The London Stock Exchange with its AIM-Market, Tesco, Carrefour, NASDAQ, UK Private Equity Fund 3i, Daimler with its Mitsubishi Motors investment, failed in Japan because of lack of preparation, too low investment and similar hard core mistakes – not because of etiquette slips.

Apple, IKEA, and Starbucks are a huge success in Japan because of the quality of their unique products and services, not because of mastering Japanese business etiquette.

Therefore: focus on your products and services, invest in your market research and strategy development, make a proper business plan and financial plan, and prepare the necessary investments. Etiquette is a side show.

Business cards, meishi, 名刺 (91mm x 55mm). Do’s and don’ts

  1. Take enough (500 or more) professionally prepared meishi (名刺=business card)
  2. Don’t run out of business cards on the first day of your trip to Japan
  3. Make them one side English, and the other side Japanese (not Chinese)
  4. Don’t convert your Western name into Chinese characters (especially not into Hong-Kong-Chinese characters)
  5. Convert your Western name, and other details, company name etc. into phonetic Katakana
  6. Make your meishi Japanese standard size (91mm x 55mm), so they fit into Japanese business cards holders
  7. Keep your business cards to a single side, not folded two-page monster cards with a long list of jobs and honors
  8. Exchanging business cards: bow, give and take cards with both hands, read the business cards you receive carefully, put them in front of your seat on the table in meetings or negotiations, so you can easily remember who you are sitting opposite of

For Japanese people (as else where in Asia-Pacific) exchanging meishi is like shaking hands. For Japanese people its awkward not to exchange meishi when you first meet – few Japanese people will think this is funny. When Japanese people run out of business cards, often they will mail one the next day.

Most Japanese students have business cards. Unemployed people looking for a job often don’t have a business card.

Employees of companies which are under a time limited business prohibition by one of the Ministries are prohibited from using business cards.

Handing over business cards and formal documents

When handing over your business cards or other documents politely, you better follow Japanese customs. Business cards and documents are handed over holding the item with both hands and simultaneously bowing your head and back.

There is a very precise protocol about how to bend your head and your back depending on the occasion: the deepest bows are reserved e.g. for the CEO of a major company handing over the investigation report and letter of apology for an accounting irregularity to the Chairman of the Stock Exchange or the Government Minister.

Japanese business etiquette: Documentation

Impress with facts and achievements, or the fame and power and size of your corporation. Bring documentation of your company in Japanese language.

Meetings: be prepared and be on time

Be on time and well prepared for meetings. Use Japan’s train systems and subways, and make sure you check out the time tables online. Traffic jams are no excuse to come late to meetings in Japan. Unless there are earthquakes, typhoons, or suicides on the track, Japan’s trains have typically much better time keeping performance than anywhere else in the world.

Plan your trip beforehand using apps and websites (e.g. Google maps or Navitime), and arrive about 15 minutes in advance of meetings.

Your company website

Your Japanese partner will normally have done thorough research about your company. I hope you have a great Japanese language website.

Do your homework

it is impolite not to do your homework (= market research) about the companies and people you are meeting. Your position will be weak if you have not done your preparations. There are many famous cases of foreign companies which lost billions of dollars and failed in Japan ultimately because they did not do sufficient market research and preparations. Read here about some examples.

Penny-pinching on market research and preparations will haunt you, if your company fails in Japan due to lack of preparations and market knowledge, this will cost your company and shareholders 100-1000s or millions times more than the cost of market research and strategy development.

Recent examples/case studies for excellent preparations leading to success in Japan:

Recent examples/case studies for failure due to insufficient preparations and other mistakes:

Seating protocol for Japanese business meetings, company cars, elevators…

There is a sophisticated protocol how seating is arranged at meetings, at dinners or in cars, how people stand in elevators in Japan etc.

The seating protocol depends on seniority, guest-host relationship, the position of the door, decorations in the room, etc. If you are arranging important meetings or dinners at high level, it will impress if you follow these seating customs. Most foreigners who have not worked a long time in Japan will need advice from Japanese professionals to select the correct seating order. At dinners there are also customs about filling glasses etc.

When you visit a company you will be guided into the honored guest position in a Board Room at the top floor of the building – or into a small vendors meeting room outside the security entrance of the building – depending on status and the purpose of your visit and your rank.

Its best you ask the assistant guiding you into the room where you should sit.

Detailed daily rules, better observe them to avoid causing offense

There are a number of unwritten rules in daily life in Japan, which everybody observes, but nobody talks about, and which don’t exist in Europe or USA. Japanese parents teach these to their children, and the train companies make “manner” posters.

For example: no eating and drinking and no baby’s perambulators (except folded up) on short-distance commuter trains. It’s your choice in a way, but you’ll make more friends if you observe these little rules. There are some things you should definitely not do:

  • Don’t blow you nose in front of other people!
  • Don’t kiss anybody as a greeting! (You’ll thoroughly embarrass your "victim"!)
  • Never throw objects at somebody asking them to catch! Books, papers, documents, meishi, presents, and other important objects are given with both hands and a bow of the head.
  • There are a couple of other "no-no’s" (gestures, comments etc) which will provoke embarrassment, or even hostility in Japanese people, and you might be unaware of them. You better ask for them and avoid them.

Rules for Japan’s commuter trains:

  • No eating, no drinking (eating and drinking is ok on long-distance trains)
  • No talking on mobile phones
  • Line up on both sides of the doors according to the marks on the platform, and let passengers alight first. On some stations, there are separate marks where you should line of for the express train, the slow train, etc
  • No baby perambulators, except folded

Be prepared for surprises! Everything is changing rapidly recently!

Relax! Don’t overestimate etiquette!

Although your Japanese business partners may look dead serious (and Japanese people usually take work dead-serious…), they also are human and know to laugh… Here is a famous story (not sure it’s a true story though…) demonstrating what can happen with exaggerated cultural adaptation:

… and a story:

An important US-Japan negotiation is scheduled in Hawaii – midway between the american continent and Japan. The Japanese party and the US negotiation party both have done their preparations well: they studied the material, the facts, prepared strategies, fall-back positions, read up on how to negotiate with the Japanese (or the Americans) and read about cultural differences, and learnt a few polite word’s in the other party’s language. The doors open and in come the Japanese and the US negotiators. The Japanese negotiators – all experienced senior managers – trying their best to adapt to American culture and to create a good atmosphere, enter the conference room dressed in Aloha shirts, sandals, shorts while on the other side of the room the American delegation enters: dressed in stiff white starched shirts, dark tie, dark blue business suits, polished black shoes…

Download Gerhard Fasol’s lecture slides at Stanford University: “New opportunities vs old mistakes – foreign companies in Japan’s high-tech markets”

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Japan business: how to succeed? Detailed answers:

  1. Why can business in Japan be difficult?
  2. Changes and new opportunities
  3. Avoid well known mistakes
  4. What can we do about the difficulties of Japan business?
  5. Relationships
  6. Japanese business etiquette
  7. Japanese business meetings

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