Living & Working effectively in Japan

Japan – Business Protocol

Business Etiquette

This is one area in which you must do your homework, as all business transactions are governed by strict protocol. You must avoid embarrassing your hosts or yourself (except in the bar, where more relaxed behaviour is acceptable). Business cards, meeting arrangements, presentations, gift-giving and the process of negotiating are all governed by strict rules, and foreign visitors will get on far better if they make an effort to understand this.

Business Cards

The most important formality, beyond common etiquette, involves the business card. The business card, or meishi, culture is full of ritual and procedures, as is most every aspect of Japanese life. It is important to include on your business card your corporate title or rank. It may seem irrelevant to you, but it plays a significant role in determining how you should be addressed and treated throughout your visit. It is also important to dedicate one side of the business card to a complete Japanese translation. Be sure to determine the proper Japanese word for your title. Many simply place a phonetic equivalent, which does little for the Japanese trying to decipher your rank. Offer and receive business cards with both hands and a bow. When receiving your Japanese counterpart’s card, be sure to look it over and make some verbal reference to it. Be sure not to write on it in their presence or place it in your wallet or back pocket. This is considered insulting and dismissive. Most Japanese carry a hard case specifically for meishi, and keep it in the jacket’s breast pocket. Display your Japanese counterparts’ cards on the table in front of you during a meeting. Go to Japan well-armed with plenty of cards; you will need them.

Forms of Address

Internationally experienced Japanese will expect and give a light handshake. If you’re unsure, wait until you see what the Japanese do. Address people by their title and family name. The suffix ‘san’ has the English meaning of ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’. Mr. Kawase would become Kawase-san (not Mr. Kawase san). People with titles are referred to by the title, not san. President Kawase would be addressed as Kawase shacho. It is the Japanese custom to bow. The bow’s angle is determined by the status of the party being bowed to – the one bowing lower indicates his/her inferiority. Most Japanese are used to dealing with foreigners and are willing to settle with a handshake. If bowed to, simply match the angle at which your Japanese counterpart bows. If a hand is offered, shake slowly with a gentle grip.

Eye contact is avoided for both the bow and the handshake. It is polite to look down while nodding your head slowly. If you know the hierarchical rank of the person you are greeting, adjust your bow accordingly. If you know the person to be lower on the corporate hierarchy than you, bow slightly shallower than he/she does. If the person is your superior, or more aged, it is proper to bow more deeply. When addressing your Japanese colleague, be sure to say their last name first, followed by san or their corporate title. It is also recommended that you do not suggest your Japanese counterpart call you by your first name. Of great importance is the exchange of business cards. A person without a card is a person without identity. Cards establish status quickly and help with the pronunciation of names. The business card should be treated with great respect. Carry a special holder for business cards. Put the holder containing the cards into an inside pocket of your jacket, not a hip pocket. Do not write on them, chew them or play with them during the meeting. You can spread them out in front of you on the table. This makes referencing names easier. Don’t forget to pick them up when you leave. Before leaving for Japan, use the blank side of your card for a Japanese translation. Present your card with both hands (left hand supporting the right hand) and a bow (avoiding eye contact). The receiver should be able to read the card, so the writing needs to be upside down to you. Receive cards in your right hand (supported by the left) and bow.

Dress Code

The dress code in Japanese offices tends to be conservative and homogeneous. Firms often subsidise the purchase of suits for its staff to ensure conservatism and appropriateness. Conservative dress is worn throughout the hottest summer months. In the heavier industries, it is hard to tell the difference between blue and white-collar workers. In the motor industry for example, engineers, managers, and assembly workers all wear the same uniform to stress their mutual obligation and commitment to the firm. If you are given a kimono to wear, it is wrapped left over right. Only the kimonos of corpses are wrapped right over left. Otherwise, wear a dark suit and understated accessories. Women should dress conservatively and smartly.

Business Terms

JAPANESE                         ENGLISH

  • Keiretsu  – Industrial grouping of companies with cross-ownership
  • Sogo shosha – General trading company
  • Kaisha – Company
  • Bu – Division of a company
  • Shacho – President of a company
  • Bucho – Head of a division
  • Shitencho – Branch manager
  • Senpai – Senior person of a group who mentors a junior
  • Kohai – Junior person who is mentored
  • Sensei – Teacher/master
  • Nemawashi – Informal consultation before consensual decision making
  • Kairan – Document circulated for informational purposes
  • Ringi-sho  –  Formal policy document that must receive the seal of those impacted by a decision
  • Isshokenmei – Giving your best effort
  • Omote – Surface appearance
  • Shinrai – Being reliable, predictable