Most countries follow certain business etiquette rules, but there are few countries in which etiquette is as important as Japan. The society as whole has an extremely complex social structure and this is mirrored in their business interactions. So if you want to have a successful business trip to Japan, or move there permanently, it is worth learning some of these rules.
Silence is a Virtue
Unlike the UK or much of Europe, where speaking your mind is encouraged, the Japanese encourage silence. Once you have made your point it is best to stay quiet, as the Japanese link silence to wisdom. Hence, you will improve your credibility if you remain silent.
Business Cards are Sacred
Japan places great emphasis on the giving and receiving of business cards, more so than most other countries around the globe! Writing on someone’s business card is viewed as the height of disrespect. Even when you are accepting the business card, you should take it with both hands. And don’t even think of putting the card in your wallet. You should put it in a special business card holder. Likewise, you should treat your own business cards with the same respect when giving them to other people.
In Japan, the main rule of thumb with the dress code is to be conservative and blend in. Men should wear dark suits and shoes etc. Women should likewise dress conservatively and not wear short skirts, too much jewelry or high heels.
Keep Your Private Life Private
Japanese people are notoriously private about their lives. Asking personal questions, which would be considered as just getting to know someone, is a bit of a faux pas, especially if it is the first meeting. It is important to meet the person a few times before asking too many personal questions. This is evident in the fact that despite Japan being an extremely technologically advanced country, they have very low social media usage.
Seniority is Extremely Important
A person’s position within a company is treated almost like a rank within the army in Japan. It is important when greeting people from a company, that you greet the most senior employee first. You should offer the most senior employee the seat at the head of the table and offer them your business card first.
You should always remain calm when talking to your Japanese business partners. Speaking loudly or using excessive hand gestures such as pointing can be considered rude or even threatening. The Japanese use different hand gestures than Europeans, so you may be saying something you don’t want to. Bowing is extremely important and considered a sign of respect when greeting someone, especially someone a senior executive. If they offer a handshake, then it is appropriate to follow suit.
By all means give Japanese people gifts, in fact it is encouraged, but it is extremely important that you give the right sort of gift. The reasons for the rules on what sort of gifts to give are rooted mainly in superstition and general social convention. For example, flowers such as lilies are a bad gift because they associated with funerals. The best type of gift is a group gift of food which people can share for the lower employees and a personalized gift for the senior employee. This might be something to do with a hobby or passion such as golf.
If you are giving praise for a job well done, it is best not to praise a single individual. This is likely to embarrass the individual as Japan has an extremely group orientated society. It is better to reward the entire group for their work. It may seem strange coming from a society where singular praise is highly valued, but for the Japanese there is no I in team.
Punctuality is extremely important and arriving late for meetings is considered rude. It is always best to arrive very early than fashionably late, or just on time.
Unlike many other countries, prolonged eye contact is frowned upon. While in the UK looking down or avoiding eye contact can be seen as a sign of rudeness; in Japan it is seen as a sign of respect.
While many of these tips may seem quite strange to Europeans, they are actually extremely important when conducting business in Japan. If you fail to conform to these rules, then it is doubtful that many companies would want to do business with you.