Omotenashi. Sounds like a spell, right? This term, roughly defined as rules of hospitality, can indeed function like a charm. Understanding omotenashi helps solve the mystery of proper business etiquette in Japan. And, that’s something you want to master.
We already covered the basics of business communication in Japan, including greetings and key Japanese words. After introductions and initial exchanges with your business partners are complete, it’s time to build up your partnership.
As we mentioned before, Japanese business etiquette goes beyond what happens at the conference table. The relationship is developed and maintained during dinners and other out-of-office meetings which, in spite of their more casual setting, also require following rules of Japanese culture and etiquette.
It takes a long time to master all the intricacies of Japanese business etiquette. Our mission at EHLION is to quickly align your business strategy with etiquette rules in Japan. We created this article to serve as a general introduction for busy people.
As an goal-driven business person, time is what you want to save. Consult our cultural coaches for advice tailored to the specific needs of your business.
What is omotenashi?
Omotenashi is typically translated as hospitality. It’s a term that describes all instances where service or help is provided by the Japanese people.
Whether it’s your business partner who greets you at the airport with your favorite strawberry mochi, or a server in a restaurant who brings you a fork seeing you struggle with chopsticks — that’s omotenashi. In other words, it’s a way to make the other person feel respected and valued, without any expectation of a reward.
Needless to add though, being treated with such respect will likely evoke a natural feeling of reciprocity in you.
You will notice a lot of displays of omotenashi in your business relationship. One of the occasions where it will be very pronounced is during business dinners.
The bulk of this article refers to the Japanese dining etiquette. However, when we talk about Japanese business dress code or punctuality in Japan’s business, remember that the same rules apply outside the restaurant meetings!
Japanese dining etiquette: Basics
Being punctual is very important when you do business with the Japanese people. To avoid any mishaps, always leave for the meeting with plenty of time to spare. Whether it means taking one train earlier, or calling the taxi earlier than you normally would, when it comes to punctuality in Japan, business deals almost depend on you not being late!
Tip: Even if you reach the meeting place too early, alert about your arrival only at the exact time of the appointment.
Gift giving in Japan
Japanese gift giving etiquette is a separate art. When people have been traveling, they are expected to bring back treats for their families, friends, and co-workers. But, what to bring and how to give a gift in Japan? Gifts of food are the most appropriate as they are easy to share. When you travel to Japan and want treat your business partners, the best choice will be to bring a local delicacy from your home area.
In Japan there are two gifting seasons, ochugen and oseibo. Ochugen gifts belong to the mid-year season, early to mid-July, while oseibo, year-end gifts, will be presented in December.
Ochugen and oseibo gifts are given as an expression of gratitude or to people who you feel indebted to. Both of these concepts can easily apply to business relationships.
Politicians, public servants, hospital staff can’t receive gifts.
Some companies also have policies restricting giving and receiving gifts.
If you intend to gift something to your business partner, first try check if they can accept gifts. Be sure to do it inconspicuously!
Japanese business dress code
How to dress in Japan? The answer is quite simple: Dress conservatively and smartly.
For men: Dark suits and ties are thought appropriate and even necessary all year around.
For women: Skirt suits with moderate-heeled shoes are the best option.
Japanese dining etiquette: At the restaurant
Japanese table seating etiquette
Japanese table seating etiquette is based on hierarchy.
Whether it’s in a restaurant or during an office meeting, always wait to be seated!
Generally, the seat at the middle of the table, facing the door, is reserved for the guest of honor or the senior member of the party.
The hosts will sit on the other side of the table with their back to the door.
At the table
Japan is one of the countries where the use of chopsticks is ubiquitous. Learn to use them! Showing how considerate you are of the Japanese culture will leave a good impression on your host.
To master the proper way to use chopsticks in Japan there are just several things to avoid:
pointing at anything with chopsticks
waving chopsticks around over food or table
lifting food by stabbing it with chopsticks
passing food from chopsticks to chopsticks
moving bowls and plates with your chopsticks
Unless it’s a formal restaurant serving course meals, or casual a noodle or rice bowl shop, it is common to share dishes with the whole table. Separate utensils will then be used for serving. If you have any dietary restrictions such as halal, kosher, and vegetarian, you might want to explain your needs in detail prior to the occasion. The level of awareness in these matters is still quite low in Japan.
Drinking alcohol and smoking in Japan
Banqueting and drinking alcohol are integral parts of the Japanese business culture as many deals are sealed at the dinner table. At the beginning of the dinner, there is usually a toast to wish everyone good business or to thank the guests for coming. Do not start eating or drinking before that!
When it comes to smoking in Japan, restaurants—especially the pub-style restaurants called izakaya and coffee shops—allow guests to smoke at the tables.
If you prefer not to drink alcohol, make sure you clearly let your host know. Similarly, it’s also OK to let them know if you are not comfortable eating in smoke. This will ensure they refrain from smoking during the meeting, or choose a dining place where other guests don’t smoke either.
Japanese cuisine has become popular also outside of Japan, but many popular dishes in Japan differ from how they would be served in the West. Whether or not you’re familiar with Japanese dishes, it’s good to be prepared for what the hosts might want to treat you with.
Sushi. Some would be tempted to say it’s Japan’s national food. A dish of raw fish served on rice seasoned lightly with vinegar. When the raw fish is served without the rice, it is called sashimi.
Tempura—seafood and vegetables, lightly battered and deep fried. It could be part of a course meal, or topped on a bowl of rice for a casual lunch.
Sukiyaki or shabu-shabu, a style of eating when a pot of water is brought to the table together with raw ingredients, such as pieces of meat and vegetables. Those are then cooked directly at the table.
Chicken yakitori—Japanese-style skewered chicken, using many different parts of chicken.
Soba—long, thin buckwheat noodles, served hot in soy sauce-flavored broth, or at room temperature with broth on the side for dipping.
Kaiseki—a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner.
Paying the check and tipping in Japan
How to pay the bills in Japan? Usually checks are not paid at the table, but at the till.
If you are the guest, your host will take care of the check. If you are hosting, our cultural coaches recommend to make the payment discreetly, before the end of the dinner. You can do it, for example, when coming back from the restroom.
Many of our clients also ask: Do you tip in Japan? The answer is simple, tipping in Japan is not common. If you want to demonstrate appreciation for the service, simply return to the place on another occasion.
Public restrooms in Japan
Compared to many European countries, public restrooms in Japan are easy to find, and their level of hygiene is very high. If you are out in town, just stop by a convenience store and ask the staff if you could use a restroom. As an expression of gratitude, you can make a small purchase.
Proper business etiquette in Japan is a complex affair. From communication and hospitality, to developing business relationships, we want to give you a solid cultural basis to make your business a success.
You can try to remember all the rules above. But, why not save time and get tailored Japanese business etiquette tips from our expert cultural coaches?
They will give you personalized advice on what matters for your specific business case.