Business Etiquette Around the World: Japan

With business travel expected to grow more than 3% in the next year, you may find yourself traveling more frequently. As the market continues to improve, don’t be surprised if your next trip is to Japan. The country is home to the third-largest economy and has seen steady growth since the end of the recession. Check out our tips below so that you can be prepared for your next trip to Japan.

Yokohama Japan

Japan is a fashion forward country, full of the latest brands and newest trends. However, when dressing for business, stick to neutral tones and avoid anything too flashy. Make sure you have plenty of clean socks with you as you will be required to remove your shoes anytime you enter a house or a sitting area.

Dress conservatively! In some parts of Japan it may be considered offensive to wear pants.  Avoid wearing shoes with a large heel. Pack a suit jacket and a long skirt in a dark color and a pair of flats. Avoid heavy makeup, revealing necklines and distracting accessories.

During the fall and winter months, wear dark suits and a matching tie. Short-sleeved shirts are usually acceptable in warmer weather. Make sure your hair, as well as any facial hair, is groomed – beards are typically not acceptable. Never wear a black suit, white shirt and black tie as that is considered funeral attire.

Arriving late is unacceptable, so plan to be ten to fifteen minutes early. Introductions are formal and should be taken seriously as they will set the tone of the meeting. While it is customary to bow, the Japanese will understand that this is unfamiliar territory for you. Bow to your colleagues, keeping your back straight and your hands by your sides. Your host may choose to then offer you a handshake. Don’t speak until you are introduced and wait for instructions on where to sit, which is based on ranking and titles. The exchanging of business cards is also extremely important in Japan—make sure that one side is in English and the other is in Japanese. Accept cards graciously from others with both hands and a slight bow. Do not write on the cards or mishandle them in any way, and keep them in front of you during the meeting. Once the meeting is finished, place the cards into a folder or a card case as putting them in a pocket is a sign of disrespect.

The Japanese do not expect you to speak the language, but learning a few key phrases is always appreciated. Refrain from pointing your finger or using hand gestures while talking as they might be interpreted differently (for example, the “ok” symbol actually means “money” in Japan). Refrain from asking anyone in the meeting personal details; keep the discussion related to business. Show interest in what everyone has to say, take plenty of notes and stay involved in the conversation.

The Japanese dislike confrontation and follow the rule of saving face. Always stay calm and keep your voice level, even if the meeting is not going as you planned. Never call someone out or tell them that they’re wrong. It’s also important to pay attention to non-verbal cues as the Japanese frequently communicate without words. They may remain quiet or close their eyes for extended periods of time while they are listening or contemplating. They prefer not to say no, so it’s best for you to phrase questions in a way that they can always answer ‘yes.’ If you are discussing numbers, make sure you’re a bit flexible on your final number so there’s a chance for a true negotiation.

Ditch the business talk at the dinner table. Time is taken to enjoy the food, so you may find that the conversation quiets down during meals. If you’re dining out, remember that tipping is not customary in Japan. Make an effort to pay for the bill, but if the other party insists, then let them. You should never waste food that is given to you; eating everything on your plate is considered polite. When it comes to drinking, guests should serve each other.  Don’t pour your own drink, but always fill the empty glass of the person sitting next to you. If your glass is empty, it’s typically a sign that you are ready for more, so if you are finished drinking, leave something in your glass. Learn how to use chopsticks prior to your visit as sometimes no other utensils will be offered. There are unique rules when it comes to chopsticks in Japan – make sure to review them prior to your visit.

A small gift can be given to the most senior level employee in the meeting. A gift is not required, but is always appreciated and is fairly common in a business setting. Gifts should always be presented with both hands and the recipient may refuse your gift up to three times before acceptance. It’s best that you speak with someone who is familiar with Japanese culture prior to purchasing a gift. Avoid flowers as most are associated with funerals. Gifts should be wrapped in a light colored paper, avoiding white or any bright colors. If you receive a gift that is wrapped, it should be opened in private.

Safe Travels!