The Japanese work week consists of 48 hours without overtime pay, completed in five and a half days. Some larger firms have now initiated a five-day week. Punctuality is necessary when doing business in Japan, because the Japanese believe it is rude to be late.
Business cards (“meishi”) are an important part of doing business in Japan and key for establishing credentials. One side of your card should be in English, and the reverse in Japanese. Present your card, with the Japanese side facing up, held between the thumb and the forefinger. Carefully examine the card you receive and make an interesting remark about it. Then place in your card case or on anearby table during a meeting. Stuffing it into your pocket is considered disrespectful. Writing on a business card is also inappropriate.
Maintaining “correct” relationships between people and maintaining harmony within groups is very important. You may be asked some personal questions regarding your salary, education, and family life. If you don’t want to answer, remain polite and gracefully side step the question
The bow is an important part of Japanese business protocol. Bows are used for expressing appreciation, making apologies and requests, as well as for greetings and farewells. Bows convey both respect and humility.
The Japanese will shake hands with Westerners as a way of making others feel comfortable. In turn, it’s an asset for Westerners to bow to demonstrate that they are taking the initiative to learn Japanese customs. This simple gesture can do a lot to help a businessperson in establishing rapport with a potential Japanese client.
The depth of the bow depends on the recipient’s rank and status. When bowing to an individual who is of higher status than you, bow a little lower than that person to display deference. Do the same if you are uncertain of the status of the person that you are facing. With a person of your equivalent status, bow at the same height.
Be careful when asking the Japanese certain questions. If the response is “maybe”, “possibly”, or “I’ll consider it”, the answer is very possibly “no”. The Japanese prefer to avoid saying “no” directly.
Be especially respectful to your older Japanese counterparts–age equals rank in Japanese business culture. When you start speaking, it is polite to direct your first remarks to the most senior member, and then to appropriate individuals.
Meanings will be read into even the slightest gestures. Consequently, avoid displaying unusual facial expressions and motioning in ways that are remotely dramatic or expansive.
The American “O.K.” sign (thumb and forefinger shaped into an “O”) actually means “money” in Japan. Instead of pointing, which is considered rude, use your whole open hand to point.
Blowing one’s nose in public is regarded as impolite. When necessary, use a disposable tissue and then throw it out immediately. The Japanese find the idea of actually keeping a used handkerchief or tissue disgusting.
Laughter may indicate embarrassment or distress, rather than amusement. Smiling can also be used for self-control, particularly in masking displeasure.
It is considered polite to frequently say “I’m sorry.” For example, the Japanese will apologize for not being punctual enough, having a cold, taking you to a disappointing restaurant etc. Visitors are encouraged to incorporate the same into their conversation.
“Saving face” is an important concept to understand. When a person loses his or her composure or otherwise causes embarrassment, even unintentionally (“losing face”), it can be disastrous for business negotiations.
Welcome Topics of Conversation
- Inquiring about a person’s family (a good conversation starter)
- Praising the hospitality you’re receiving
- Japanese history and artistic achievements
- Positive comments about the Japanese economy
- Sports, such as golf and ski jumping
Conversation to Avoid
- World War II
- Jokes (unless they are very easy to understand, self-deprecating, and made in a social rather than business setting)
- Criticizing in any form that could cause “loss of face”
- Ridicule of native social / business rituals and protocol
- Negative comments about the local sports teams
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