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A Beginner's Guide to Japanese Business Etiquette

Post: Monday August 1, 2016

Traditionally, Japanese culture has very strict rules of etiquette appropriate for every situation, from interactions between neighbors, customers and staff in a store, politicians, and every other social situation under the sun. Nowhere are these rules and customs more keenly felt by expatriates than in Japanese business. Japan is what is called a very formal, high “power-distance” culture where the distinctions between bosses and subordinates are very clearly delineated and everyone is expected to know their place and when and how to express themselves.

Below are some guidelines that should help smooth your way.

Greetings and Introductions

Bowing in Japan

Ojigi

When first meeting, Japanese bow to each other, rather than shake hands as in many Western cultures. The degree of the bow corresponds to the difference in social standing between the two individuals being introduced, with the longer and deeper the bow, the greater the amount of respect being shown by the one bowing. When meeting foreigners, some Japanese may offer to shake hands, as an effort to ease any discomfort or misunderstanding. Your best bet with regard to being introduced to a Japanese person is to do what they do. If they bow, return the bow, with your back straight and hands at your sides. 

Japanese Business Cards

Presenting of business cards (meishi in Japanese) is another critical element of business introductions. Business cards should be presented with both hands, face up and facing the person receiving the card. When receiving a business card, accept with both hands and review in detail. Be sure to treat all cards received with respect. Business cards should always be neat and crisp and stored in a sturdy container carried in a briefcase or shirt pocket and never placed into a wallet. Also, never write on a business card that you receive. The state of a person's business cards says a lot about the character of that person.

名刺交換 名刺

Japanese Business Attire

Despite the government policies of Warm Biz and Cool Biz, business attire is still very formal in Japan. For men, the rule is dark suits, white shirts, and muted ties. For women, the same color rules generally apply, with either pant suits or longer skirt suits being the generally accepted mode of dress.

business suit japan

When you enter a traditional Japanese home or other traditional venue such as some temples or restaurants, always remove your shoes. Typically, it will be quite apparent when this is required because there will be an obvious step up to the interior where shoes are disallowed, often accompanied by a cubby where shoes can be stored and indoor slippers acquired. When in doubt, just do what your hosts or other Japanese are doing in this regard. One note, it is generally not acceptable to walk around barefoot in these situations. If you are likely to be in a position where you might be wearing shoes that require no socks and have to remove them, it would be wise to pack a set of white socks to prevent your bare feet from touching the slippers.

White Slippers in Japan

Other tips

  • Do take lots of notes in meetings. This shows interest and also will keep you from being embarrassed down the road when your counterpart reminds you of something you said in a meeting based on notes they took.
  • Do wait to be seated in a meeting or at a restaurant until indicated to do so by your host.
  • Do learn some basic Japanese phrases of greeting and thanks, even if you don't speak Japanese otherwise. This demonstrates a willingness to learn and invest in the culture.
  • Don't put your hands in your pockets when speaking with someone. This shows boredom or disinterest in the onversation.
  • Don't point at people with a finger or chopsticks when making a point or indicating something as this is considered very rude.
  • Don't blow your nose during a meeting but excuse yourself to a restroom or outside as appropriate.
  • Don't be late to a meeting. Japanese are very punctual and meetings start and end on time.

There are far more intricate rules around Japanese business culture that extend beyond this cursory introduction. That said, the benefit of being a foreigner is that most Japanese will not expect you to know all the ins and outs of their rules of etiquette and are very accommodating and gracious to those of us who are not as familiar with how things should be. As such, your best rule is to be as polite as possible and follow the guide of your hosts and you will go far.

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