Confused looks. That’s the one one thing you want to avoid when you arrive for an important meeting in a foreign country. Japanese greeting etiquette is notoriously confusing for visitors. For tourists, small mistakes can result in funny stories to bring back home. But, if it’s your company that relies on your familiarity with the Japanese business meeting etiquette, you don’t want to take any risks.
You want to communicate your business proposition with clarity. When it comes to translation we can help, but the growth of your company depends on developing successful interpersonal relationships. And, that’s what you do best. Business-level connections will only be successful if you can quickly build rapport across cultural barriers. This article offers a targeted look on how to avoid common communication mistakes in the “Land of the Rising Sun”, Japan.
So, if you’re curious about how to bow in Japan, or worried about social taboos in Japan… read on for answers!
To go beyond the basics of the Japanese business card etiquette, and explore in-depth the rules of nonverbal communication in Japan, consult our cross-cultural experts for personalized advice.
Japanese greeting etiquette
When our coaches talk to business owners planning to work with Japanese clients, one of the most common questions they get is: How do people greet each other in Japan?
We know that making a stellar first impression can decide on the long-term future of your business relationship. Let’s make sure you start off with the right foot.
Forms of greeting in Japan
Greet with a bow. Japanese usually bow when they meet someone, thank someone, or say goodbye. That’s a lot of bowing! And, there are a lot of rules surrounding the practice. But, not to worry! The depth, duration, and number of bows are something non-Japanese people aren’t expected to understand. You are unlikely to offend your business partner, if you don’t do this perfectly.
So, how to bow in Japan? Your safest option is to mirror your counterpart.
Greet with a handshake. In modern Japan, greetings and gestures incorporate also the Western handshake. Usually, bows and handshakes are initiated by people of a superior position, and a handshake comes after the bow.
Greet with words. Greeting with basic Japanese words will surely leave a good impression on your business partners. It’s a sign of respect and good will to devote extra effort to learn a couple of basic phrases. We included simple key vocabulary below.
In Japanese business negotiations sensitivity is key. Consider hiring a Japanese interpreter when you reach crucial stages in your discussions.
Greet with pointing? No, this would not be good advice! Just like in China, it’s considered rude to point with your finger. Instead, point with an open hand. Or, to bring your Japanese nonverbal communication skills to the next level, use eye contact to direct your interlocutor’s attention without using your hands at all.
Japanese business card etiquette
Exchanging business cards in Japan has a much higher importance than in the Western business context. Presenting and receiving business cards in a correct way, while it might seem a simple procedure, can have a significant bearing on the future of your business partnership.
How to exchange business cards in Japan?
- Business cards are exchanged at the very beginning of a meeting, before taking a seat.
- Present and receive business cards with both hands, holding the sides of the card, with a slight bow.
- Opt for Japanese-English business cards. Ideally, your business cards should have one side printed in English and the other side in Japanese.
Don’t underestimate the importance of business cards in Japan! Following the simple rules above is an essential part of making a stellar first impression, and can give you an edge over your competitors.
In all forms of communication family name comes first, followed by the given name. In Japan business communication norms dictate to match the family name with appropriate honorific suffixes: さん (san) or, more formally, “様” (sama).
Most Japanese people are familiar with the Western custom of calling each other by the first name. To show their welcoming spirit, they might therefore refer to you with your first name followed by the word san. For example, if your name is John Smith, in Japan you might become: Smith-sama, Smith-san, or John-san.
To close off the first section on intercultural communication in Japan we wanted to share key vocabulary for meeting and greeting people.
Remember, using even simple words in Japanese will help create a relationship of mutual respect.
- Hello — こんにちは, pronounced: konnichiwa
- Thank you/thanks — ありがとうございます, pronounced: arigato gozaimasu
- Goodbye — さようなら pronounced: sayonara
- My name is… — 私は…です, pronounced: watashiha … desu
- For example, watashiha John Smith desu
- Nice to meet you —はじめまして, pronounced: hajimemashite
Japanese business communication style
After you have made a great first impression, it’s time to continue to your business discussion. Not so fast! Business negotiation style in Japan dictates to start with…
Smalltalk is an essential step before turning to serious, business topics. People may ask about your journey, or your impression of Japan so far. They might inquire how you like the food, or how the weather is compared to where you come from.
How to respond? The best way to reply is to comment on the hospitality of the local people, convenience of the transport system and, if you are in rural areas, the beauty of nature.
Japanese communication style: direct and indirect communication
Japanese people are more indirect than Westerners. Part of the reason might be that the language, just like Chinese, is highly reliant on context.
To say no or to express refusal in a polite way, the Japanese will often use high-context code words. For example, rather than communicating something directly, they will use phrases like It’s not convenient…, or Sorry, I don’t know.
Already in the midst of business negotiations in Japan, and struggling to make progress? Our cross-cultural coaches can help you decipher the indirect ways your Japanese partners use to communicate their messages.
Saving face: Japan’s key rules
Losing or gaining face is an important concept in Japan. When we talk about saving face, we refer not just to your image, but also that of your Japanese interlocutor.
To be on the safe side:
- Avoid self-deprecation or sarcasm
- Display your competence
- Keep your emotions under control
- Give your counterpart an opportunity to present themselves in a positive way
Business negotiations in Japan
Another most common question our cross-cultural coaches get is: How to negotiate with Japanese business partners?
The first rule to bear in mind is that Japanese business negotiation style calls for patience.
Most often not much will be decided on the spot, during the meeting. Your business partners will typically have to consult their bosses and higher-ups.
Be patient! Put as much effort into the meeting itself as into email correspondences and phone calls prior to it. Bear in mind that a face-to-face meeting can be more symbolic than substantive. A business relationship is built and maintained also outside of the conference room.
Intercultural communication. Japan’s basic rules
Cultural taboos in Japan
Japanese culture revolves around the concept of saving face, and shame is a crucial component of this idea. People maintain a clear separation between their public and private faces and, as a result, there are many social taboos in Japan. Any topic that forces people to confront anything shameful on a personal, professional or cultural level is considered taboo.
Subjects approximating the level of ultimate taboo:
- Japan’s involvement in war atrocities,
- nuclear policy after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Japanese sense of humor
Understanding Japanese humor is an intricate game. What to do? When your business partners make jokes, try to smile even if you don’t get it. Even Japanese people resort to this tactic when they don’t get a joke of a fellow Japanese!
Don’t expect your business counterparts to understand your sense of humor either. When joking be very careful not to cause anyone to lose face, or to touch on any taboo topic. Humor and cultural taboos in Japan are topics hard to navigate without familiarity with the local culture. To avoid making cultural blunders, feel free to run your case by our cross-cultural coaches.
Bonus tips to understand Japanese communication style
- Number 8 is thought to be lucky in Japan. Given the choice of 7th or 8th as a meeting date, you can be almost sure people will opt for the 8th.
- On the other hand, numbers 4 and 9 are thought to be unlucky, as their sounds are similar to words for death and pain.
Japan has numerous bank holidays. Companies usually shut down during:
- New Year— from around December 29 to January 3
- Golden week — from end of April to beginning of May, and
- Obon — lasting 3 to 5 days in mid-August
Collective holidays make sense in Japan—people would be reluctant to use their own paid leave from fear of bothering their teammates. If you operate according to a different holiday calendar, be aware of the above-mentioned long holiday periods. Plan your business activities well in advance as work could stop for nearly one week halting your business progress.
English as lingua franca
Many Japanese professionals struggle to communicate in English partly due to their strong fear of making mistakes. However, most companies dealing with overseas clients are equipped with English-speaking staff to assist you. When you enter high-level negotiations it can be a good idea to hire an interpreter to ensure you don’t miss any crucial nuances.
Be among the first to master them, and you’ll gain an edge over your competitors.
Our cross-cultural coaches will help you accelerate creating business opportunities in Japan. Book your session now to get started!