Japanese business etiquette – break into Japan’s market


Japanese business etiquette and culture

by Gerhard Fasol

Substance trumps etiquette

VodafoneCable & WirelessVolkswagen 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.

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

  • Starbucks
  • Google
  • Microsoft
  • Amazon.com
  • facebook
  • Twitter
  • Oracle
  • Salesforce.com
  • IKEA (on second approach in 2006 after a first failed market entry via a joint-venture in 1974, and withdrawal in 1986)
  • Apple
  • H&M
  • TowerJazz
  • Daimler with Mitsubishi Fuso Trucks and Bus Corporation investment
  • Nokia with network equipment
  • and many many more

And then there are a number of US companies, where the US company disappeared, went bankrupt, or had a reverse take-over by a Japanese buyer – examples are:

  • Seven-Eleven (originally a US company, now owned by the Japanese group 7 & I Holdings)
  • Tower Records (US Tower Records disappeared, Tower Records Japan is partly owned by NTT-DOCOMO and happily continuing business)
  • Lawson (one of Japan’s top convenience store chains)
  • and many more

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


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.