Secrets of Japanese business etiquette

Japanese business etiquette is another misunderstood aspect of doing business in Japan: as with the section on Japanese business culture, maybe it’s not surprising that hundreds of thousands of people have also browsed this Japanese business etiquette section since it first went online over a decade ago in 2004.

There has been much written about Japanese business etiquette, but sadly much of it seems written by people who have not been to Japan since the 1970s. Such authors often wrongly suggest that Japanese business etiquette is a mystical art endowing even the most trivial business meeting in Japan with the level of etiquette expected of a tea ceremony in Kyoto. Yet in practice, Japanese business etiquette is not so different from good business etiquette elsewhere: after all, politeness, sensitivity to others, and good manners are the pillars of good business etiquette everywhere. The main difference with Japanese business etiquette, as with Japanese society, is that it’s more formal and thus more obvious, especially at a first meeting when the hierarchical exchange of those Japanese business cards is almost ritualistic.

The most obvious facets of Japanese business etiquette, affect personal behavior during and around business meetings, but there are other less obvious things affecting how your company’s Japanese subsidiary must behave. Fortunately for foreign company executives doing business in Japan, Japanese businesspeople will not hold them to the same strict standards expected of their Japanese colleagues: within reason, they will tolerate quite severe transgressions, while minor transgressions, which would doom a Japanese salesperson, might even help to break the corporate ice.

The key personal aspects of Japanese business etiquette to consider, are mostly related to first meetings, especially first meetings with senior Japanese executives. As time passes, the relationship with a Japanese customer strengthens and the formalities will decrease, especially after one or two dinners, lunches, or even offsite meetings at Starbucks. Regardless, I recommend that a foreign executive never assumes he or she has reached the same level of business intimacy with a Japanese senior manager or executive, as he or she might have with executives in the US or elsewhere. A since retired President of a Toyota Motors subsidiary told me that Japanese usually do not begin to trust a person in business until having known them for at least 10 years. It happened that at that time I had known him for 10 years and met him many times, but even now, I have no idea about his family life, or even if he has sons and daughters: there are some things that many Japanese businesspeople just don’t talk about.

Let’s look at some of the key aspects of Japanese business etiquette that affect foreign company executives and subsidiaries in Japan.

Japanese business cards.

Japanese business cards are a must-have. Have double-sided business cards printed, with the Japanese face using the same design elements as the English face. If an executive’s original business cards are not English, such as for a German, French, or Italian company executive, I recommend using double-sided English and Japanese business cards for business in Japan.

Carry at least 100 Japanese business cards for a one-week business trip to Japan; expect to hand out 3 to 4 cards at a small meeting and as many as 10 to 12 at a larger meeting. If attending a trade-show, expect to hand out 100 or more Japanese business cards each day. If speaking at a conference, expect to hand out 50 or more cards.

Some very important points to remember:

  • Never flick, throw, slide, or push a business card across the table to a Japanese businessperson, because it implies you have no pride in the company you represent.
  • Always present a Japanese business card holding it with both hands, Japanese-language side facing forward (having your company’s logo at the top of the Japanese-language side will help align it correctly).
  • Accept a Japanese businessperson’s business card with respect, using both hands, saying ‘Thank you’. Unless a foreign executive speaks Japanese fluently or wants to take the risk of a verbal slip, I recommend not to try using a Japanese greeting at a first meeting. Sometimes it can help to break the ice, but sometimes it can confuse the Japanese side.
  • At most first meetings, the Japanese side will introduce their team in descending order of rank. I recommend waiting for the Japanese side to start the exchange as it avoids slighting the senior managers by first inadvertently exchanging cards with their juniors.
  • Never write notes on a Japanese business card. Enter any notes into a phone, tablet, or a small notepad.
  • Never fidget with, play with, bend, or fold a Japanese business card.
  • Keep Japanese business cards in a proper carrying case and treat them with respect.
  • Always carefully pick up all the Japanese business cards received at a meeting. Forgetting a Japanese businessperson’s card is a slap in his or her face because it implies he or she is unimportant. Consider that many of the junior employees at a Japanese company will be with it for life: one of the lower-ranked employees at a business meeting today might control a $50,000,000 budget in 10 – 15 years time. A young man who served me with green tea at Toyota in December 1991, now controls a $150,000,000 budget, but still remembers that I treated him politely at that first meeting.

Business attire.

For Men. Japanese business etiquette has become less formal, but business attire has not changed much since I first wrote this section back in 2004.

  • From October thru April, most Japanese businessmen, especially senior managers, executives, and salarymen, wear dark navy, charcoal gray, or black suits, with a white shirt and subdued tie.
  • Do not wear a black suit, white shirt, and black or near-black tie because that is funeral attire.
  • Japanese businesspeople tend to wear formal coats in the winter months of December thru February, and Burberry-style short raincoats in March and April.
  • From May thru September, Japanese businessmen swap their dark suits for light gray suits.
  • Japanese summers are hot and humid, so most Japanese men wear half-sleeve shirts during the summer months. Japan’s popular “salaryman Prime-Minister” Koizumi passed the ‘cool biz’ regulation in the early 2000s, which allowed government male employees to forgo ties and unbutton their collars. Private companies followed, thus few Japanese salarymen (except salespeople) wear ties in summer. Some companies might insist their male employees wear ties to summer meetings, so to avoid embarrassment I recommend wearing a tie to such meetings and then asking if it’s acceptable to remove it if the Japanese side are more casual.
  • Japanese businessmen generally have well-groomed short hairstyles.
  • Avoid wearing too much aftershave or cologne in a meeting.
  • Consider that most Japanese companies do not allow male employees to wear beards nor to shave their heads.

For Women. Sadly, little has changed for women in Japanese business since I first wrote this site over a decade ago: in fact, not much has changed since I started business in Japan in December 1991. Successive governments talk of encouraging women in the workforce, but industry’s interest often seems more focused on bringing mothers in their late 30s back to pressing photocopier buttons in humdrum office jobs, than in encouraging any real parity for women in the workplace. The idea of promoting women to senior management jobs, even in Japan’s internet companies where one might expect faster evolution, still has a long way to go. Many Japanese salarymen, senior managers and executives still don’t find it easy to relate to female executives, and it can present problems for such executives from the US and Europe.

Each of us, male or female, must make our own decisions about how and to what extent we adjust our image to suit our company’s business needs and goals. Based on having worked in Japan with (and for) foreign female executives, the following are my recommendations for any female executive who wants to avoid being treated below her corporate level:

  • Look strong but avoid looking too glamorous.
  • Wear shorter or tied back hair.
  • Wear trouser suits or longer skirt suits with seasonal colors as described in the section above for men. Venture Japan does not impose a dress-code on female employees but I notice they always wear trouser suits for external business meetings.
  • Avoid bright handbags in meetings; it’s better to use an executive briefcase or shoulder-bag.
  • Avoid wearing too much perfume.
  • Consider that most Japanese companies do not allow female employees to wear jewelry or above the knee skirts.
  • Despite Japanese companies often ‘requiring’ female employees to wear high-heeled shoes in the office, a foreign female executive should feel free to wear whatever business formal shoes she feels appropriate.

Business meetings.

In Japan, face to face business meetings are the life-blood of business relationships and the more successful meetings a foreign company executive attends, the more likely successful Japanese business will follow. In the previous section about Japanese business culture, we looked in detail at the Japanese business meeting, but here are some points related to Japanese business etiquette as it relates to meetings:

  • Plan an exact agenda for the meeting. Japanese businesspeople tend to have tight schedules, so if the Japanese side says the meeting must finish at 4 pm they probably mean it.
  • Never use an English-language presentation. Foreign company executives should always use presentations translated into Japanese.
  • Use detailed slides, because from the Japanese side’s perspective, if a point is on a slide it’s important, if it’s not on a slide it’s probably not important.
  • Take printed copies of presentations to the meeting to hand out to the Japanese side.
  • If a foreign company needs a non-disclosure agreement signed, send it to the Japanese side well before the meeting. Many Japanese companies do business without written contracts and are wary of foreign company contracts because of horror-stories they hear about litigation. If a foreign company executive suddenly produces a non-disclosure agreement at a first meeting, the Japanese side will probably refuse to sign it without a legal review and very likely avoid meeting again.
  • Always use a Japanese interpreter, not only for the reasons described in the section about Japanese business culture but because it shows consideration to the Japanese side and ensures they will understand the meeting.
  • Always telephone 1 – 2 hours before a meeting to confirm attendance.
  • Always call at least 45 minutes before a meeting if unavoidably late. Again, Japanese businesspeople tend to have tight schedules and might need to reschedule.
  • Always arrive 10 minutes early for a meeting; 20 minutes if senior executives will attend.
  • Don’t rush to the nearest available seat in the meeting room. There is a Japanese custom about which party sits on which physical side of the table (it depends where the door is and supposedly dates back to the samurai era).
  • Take lots of notes, because it shows interest in the Japanese side’s views and creates an audit trail. Japanese companies train employees during induction to note down everything at meetings; if a foreign company executive ‘forgets’ a discount he or she promised in an early meeting, the chances are that even a year later, the Japanese side will have the notes they made at the time to prove it.

Personal habits.

Japanese society is unusually formal, polite, and conformist; attributes which, especially formality, permeate the way Japanese businesspeople conduct themselves at business meetings and social gatherings. To avoid slip-ups, I recommend foreign business executives adopt the following simple precautions:

  • Japanese do not generally use handkerchiefs or tissues and do not blow their nose in public; neither should foreign company executives. In part this habit arises because Japanese companies do not generally give paid sick-leave other than paid annual vacation, thus Japanese businesspeople are very sensitive about coming into contact with anyone who might be ill.
  • Don’t try to grab a Japanese businessperson by his or her hand to give it a hearty shake at first meeting. Many Japanese seldom shake hands and might be so uncomfortable doing so that they might avoid meeting again. It’s best to bow as Japanese do.
  • If a Japanese businessman offers his hand then don’t use too much pressure during a handshake.
  • Don’t try to high-five a Japanese businessperson unless you know him very well, especially not in front of his colleagues because it might embarrass him.
  • Don’t pat a Japanese man on the back or shoulder; even his mother and father might never have done so.
  • Don’t make small-talk about politics, religion, your family, your cars, your children’s academic achievements, or sports, because the Japanese side probably won’t be comfortable responding and be very unlikely to want to talk about their personal opinions or life.
  • Japanese businesspeople have a very strong pride in their company and expect a foreign executive to similarly be proud of his or her employer, so never make derogatory remarks about co-workers.
  • Don’t badmouth anyone, including competitors because a competitor might be the Japanese side’s next meeting.
  • Always smile, act pleasantly, be willing to learn, ask a lot of questions about the Japanese side’s business vision and plans.
  • Don’t ask questions about the Japanese side’s private or family life.