Living & Working effectively in Japan

Japan – Business Communication

The style of communication in Japan is very implicit. Value is placed on empathy and shared understanding that doesn’t have to be spoken. Maintenance of harmony is critical. A direct ‘No’ can be too blunt, so the Japanese might say ‘That will be difficult’ or ‘It’s complicated’ instead. A common phrase in Japan is ‘Hear one. Understand two’, meaning always look for the hidden meaning, what is not said as well as what is said. Words are untrustworthy. It is better to rely more on ‘feeling’ between people.

The Japanese are listeners rather than talkers. They will, however, ask questions to clarify intent and expectations. They may go over the same point many times to make sure there is no misunderstanding. A special word needs to be said about silence. Silence in Japan is active, not passive, and it can mean different things:

  • Hesitancy to speak first: Whoever speaks will be speaking for the whole group, which is a commitment.
  • Thinking and translating: The Japanese may sit in silence for some thinking about what has been said. They may not signal to you that they are doing this, eg, with a phrase like ‘Let me think about that for a moment’.
  • Feeling uncomfortable: The Japanese may not like to say, ‘We don’t like your new prices’. They would not want you to lose face. They may also be thinking about the correct words they want to use to avoid embarrassing you or themselves. They may also be putting their arguments into some kind of order. These types of pauses are called ma.

When interacting orally with the Japanese, there are certain limits and habits that influence the dialogue. Firstly, when discussing business for the first time, it is best not to discuss money or finances. Historically, Confucianism ranked merchants and those involved in commerce as the lowest in the social caste. This ideology has been reinterpreted to fit with modern society but certain vestiges remain. It is best for finances to be left for a later time or to be worked out by a go-between.

Verbs in Japanese are impersonal. Often, you don’t know who is being referred to; this demonstrates politeness and diffuses blame. There are many honorific statements in Japanese that add to the length of statements. Statements are also long because the Japanese will need to establish the context – the ‘why’ something needs to be done.

The Japanese will often and readily say ‘yes,’ however it is simply to indicate that they are listening and understanding, not agreeing.

Interrupting the Japanese will be seen as impolite, impatient or a hostile challenge. The Japanese wait until the other person has finished speaking before they speak themselves. The key point in a Japanese sentence comes at the end, not at the beginning.

Don’t hesitate to apologize or say thank you. An apology will be made for the smallest inconvenience. Demonstrate humility. Much of the communication between Japanese is unspoken. Value is placed on empathy, shared understanding.

Written word: in Japan, personal relationships can only be established through face-to-face contact. Letters, however, are very useful as they allow the Japanese a mode of communication which is both private and formal. It offers many an outlet for sentiment or expressions that would not be appropriate to communicate in person. The format of the Japanese business letter invariably begins with general, non-business small talk. It is a good idea to make a positive reference to some aspect of the relationship you share with your Japanese counterpart. The business section should begin with a cordial phrase such as “We are so happy your business is becoming even more prosperous.” The matter of business should then be raised in as gentle a manner possible. Do not be direct or overly assertive. The business letter should end with a general closing phrase, followed by the date – written in the order of year, month, and day. Thank you cards and holiday cards are a necessary courtesy in Japan. They should be sent even to those you do not know well, as it is an accepted way to establish ties for future business relations.


Presenting to a Japanese team is never easy because of the language barrier. Qualitative analysis, a clear, logical presentation of ideas, simple language and plenty of backup material will please your Japanese counterpart. Illustrate points with facts and examples; while you are expected to promote the benefits of your company, humility is essential. A hard sell does not work in Japan. Nor do passionate pleas, or distracting physical gestures. Present in a calm, well-prepared manner.

The Japanese place a lot of emphasis on qualitative analysis. They do rely on numbers and measures but are relatively more distrustful of projections. Great precision is used to describe what has happened and what is happening now. Be calm and confident throughout your presentation. It is expected that a speaker will mention his or her competitors, but not criticize them – simply make comparisons in terms of specifications and performance.

When discussing long-term goals and plans, keep in mind that Japanese firms and their workers have been used to having lifetime aspirations, not just fiscal-quarter profit goals . But this trend is changing now in modern Japan. Your presentation should reflect this deep-rooted Japanese thinking. The Japanese try to maintain their business relations indefinitely, and develop mutual, long-term benefits; thus, try to emphasize the benefits to all parties involved. Use specific examples to illustrate your company’s continued dedication to reliability, quality and performance. Sentences should be short and uncomplicated. Any portions of your speech which can be understood without the help of a translator will please the Japanese team. Prepare written versions of all slides, overheads, and visual materials. This will demonstrate a commitment to trust and openness. Use specific examples to illustrate your company’s continued dedication to reliability, quality and performance.

The Japanese are restrained in their gesturing and non-projecting in their speaking style. It is best to be calm and humble throughout your presentation. That does not mean the Japanese do not tolerate any attempts at persuasion. They will appreciate a speaker whose views are presented clearly, logically, and firmly.