Living & Working effectively in Japan

Japan – Business Meetings

Meetings are generally structured and the agenda pre-arranged. There are fixed beginning and ending times and the focus is on getting through the agenda in a timely fashion. Participants are expected to make their comments brief and to-the-point if they comment. There will be limited conversation aside from business issues.

The purpose of meetings is to communicate information and decisions, which are made at the top of the organization. Even though decisions are made in a hierarchical fashion, it is crucial to explain the decision to the group in a respectful manner.

Before the actual meeting, there is a lengthy process where employees are consulted for ideas and to address their concerns. There may even be pre-meetings where the person with the recommendation seeks agreement so that the ultimate meeting is successful. The important people in the decision-making process come to some agreement in a way that maintains face for everyone. The meeting is simply to explain the decision.

Hierarchy dictates showing proper respect to those senior in age or position. Japanese who achieve senior-level positions are accustomed to being treated as V.I.P.s by subordinates and anyone conducting business. Give Japanese executives the red carpet treatment. When speaking with someone at this level, avoid directly disagreeing with him since it could cause a loss of face.

Hierarchy is respected in many non-verbal ways. For example, the most senior person enters the room first, followed by team members in descending order of rank. The highest ranking person sits at the head of the table or in the middle of the table furthest from the door and hierarchy dictates where others sit. Therefore, wait until told where to sit. If you are hosting a meeting with Japanese, consult with someone to ensure that you organize the seating in an appropriate manner.

Group harmony is of paramount importance. You will not be contradicted when you speak since doing so would cause you to lose face. Since the Japanese are reluctant to state disagreement, it is important to realize that silence does not indicate agreement.

Most Japanese understand written English better than the spoken word. Therefore, it is often helpful to write a question so that participants understand what has been asked. The best way to conduct a meeting is in Japanese, even if this means using an interpreter. Although working through an interpreter increases the time involved, it also adds to the understanding.

Appointments are required and should be made several weeks in advance since the Japanese like to structure their time and may have other commitments. If you have not previously been introduced, it is better to telephone for an appointment rather than send a letter, fax or email. (Written communication from someone they do not know may not be answered.)

Do not try to schedule meetings during the 3 main holiday periods – the week surrounding New Year, Golden Week (end of April through early May), or the Obon Festival (mid August).

Punctuality is important. You can expect your Japanese colleagues to arrive five minutes early. It is important to consider the heavy traffic when planning your route, since the Japanese think it is rude to arrive late and doing so could harm your relationship.

The Japanese often grant a request for an appointment out of politeness, even if the company has no interest. In such cases, a junior staff member will meet with you and report back to his manager. Therefore, it is important to understand the level of the person with whom you are meeting. Often the age of the person is a better indication of their authority level than their job title.

Agenda for meeting

  • Since they do not like surprises, the Japanese are comfortable working from an agenda.
  • If you have items you want included, provide them at least two weeks before the meeting so they may be translated into Japanese and attendees have time to discuss among themselves.
  • Provide background material that supports your position in advance of the meeting so that the Japanese have time to scrutinize it carefully. This can speed up the decision making process.
  • You may want to provide a package of literature about your company including articles and client testimonials when sending items for the agenda. Since the Japanese need context, providing this information in advance allows them to place your organization in their own minds.
  • Agenda items are generally followed in strict order, since the items will already have been placed appropriately based upon their importance.

Hierarchy, formality and maintaining face play an important role in meetings. Rank is respected and is acknowledged by greeting the most senior person first, directing comments to them, and demonstrating respect and deference.

At the outset of the meeting, be prepared to discuss your personal background so that your Japanese associates get to know you and develop a relationship. Since decisions are often made on the basis of group sentiment, it is important not to rush through this getting-to-know-you conversation. Initial meetings with a Japanese company are generally used to get to know each other.

Since Japan is a group culture where you generally meet with a team, you might want to come with your team. This allows participants from both sides to be paired with someone at the same level. Since you must use the same team for future meetings, think long-term and strategically when selecting members.

When entering the meeting room, the most senior member leads the group with other members following in descending order of rank. The team should not be seated until told where to do so. Quite often, one side of the table is for the Japanese and the other for the visiting team.

It is imperative to understand Japanese communication for a successful meeting. This means that non-verbal communication may be more important than verbal communication. It is difficult for the Japanese to say no, so you must understand their clues. Sucking air through the teeth is an unequivocal no. Saying “perhaps” or “we shall see” generally means no as well.

Silence is a common form of communication and can mean many things. In general, the Japanese are comfortable with silence, since it demonstrates reflection. Do not jump into a conversation to fill the silence, since like interrupting a speaker, it demonstrates poor manners.

If the meeting is being conducted in a language other than Japanese, the Japanese are translating what you say into their language, framing an appropriate reply, and then translating that response into the language of the discussion. This takes time. If the person has closed their eyes, it is probably an indication that they are reflecting on what has been said and it is polite to wait patiently for their response.

The Japanese to avoid sustained eye contact, although this is slowly changing as companies work more closely in the international arena. More junior staff may keep their eyes lowered and their head bowed to demonstrate respect towards the speaker.

When the meeting ends, shake hands with the most senior Japanese first. You may shake hands with the others on the Japanese team, or you may simply nod and smile.

Your company may be awarded a small amount of business as a trial to see if you meet your commitments. If you respond quickly and with excellent service, you prove your ability and trustworthiness. It’s best not to refuse a request, no matter how difficult or unprofitable it may appear. The Japanese are looking for a long-term relationship.

The Japanese tend to take copious notes at meetings. You might want to do the same, since it is viewed as interest in what is being discussed.

Here are some hints on communicating effectively with the Japanese:

  • Ask a question several ways to be certain it was understood. Most Japanese believe they lose face if they ask for clarification, so they will answer, even if they are not certain what the question was.
  • Do not stare while speaking.
  • Allow the speaker to finish their ideas. Do not interrupt.
  • Do not use the word “I”; Japan is a collective culture where “we” is a better word since it demonstrates group allegiance.
  • Avoid appearing harsh, since the Japanese do not respond favorably to aggressive behavior.