When doing business in Japan it’s important to take into account that it is a different culture with different etiquette. What may be common sense to you is not necessarily going to be common sense to a Japanese client, business partner, or coworker. General business practices may be very similar to European or American ones but there are some details which one should properly understand in order to conduct business in Japan.
A common known bit of Japanese culture is the bow. When you meet someone in a business situation make sure to put your hands at your sides and bow at an angle between 1 and 2 o’clock. Don’t overdo it or it will come off as awkward. Handshakes are not a part of Japanese culture and many people feel uncomfortable with them. However, some Japanese people who are interested in western culture or who are used to working with foreigners enjoy shaking hands and will insist on doing it. Although you may be met with many people like this, don’t assume they are from the start and wait until they extend their hand.
One of the obvious differences between Japan and Western business practices is the importance of the business card (or meishi). Meishi are cards that contain a persons name, company, position and contact information. When meeting a new person, be it a potential business partner, or a stranger at the bar, it is common practice to pass your business card when introducing yourself. Though your common sense may dictate that the rest should be self-explanatory, there are many do’s and don’ts surrounding business cards in Japan. When giving and receiving meishi in business situations, it is important to hold the card with both hands. You can’t just throw someone’s meishi into your pocket either. There are special cases meant for holding meishi and in case you don’t have one, it may be a good idea to use your wallet. Before you put the meishi away, you should spend a few seconds to look at it. Show that you acknowledge the person you are talking to as a sign of respect. Meishi are considered so important that some people will never throw them out. When their case becomes too full, meishi are often transferred to binders that resemble a photo album. You never know when you may run into the same person again or when you might have a reason to contact someone. Meishi are also helpful in case you are bad at remembering names.
Joushi and Buka: Social Standing
It is important to remember that there is a social heirachy in Japanese business that remains an important part of the way people work in Japan. The Joushi (or person in charge) is always placed higher than buka (his subordinates) and this will effect the way people act, the language that they use and the position they sit at a table. A general rule of thumb and an obvious one is that people must show respect to their seniors. Although it depends on the relationship one has with their boss, a certain amount of keigo is usually used when talking to your boss. Keigo, or polite language, can be spoken in many different ways and when compared to polite English is very complex. There are verbs that you can only use on yourself to sound humble (kenjogo), verbs that you can only use with other people to show them respect (sonkeigo), and the most common form (teineigo), in which you use masu and desu. One must be careful to at least use teineigo when speaking in business situations but as far as sonkeigo and kenjogo go, it is important to feel out the situation and the person who you are talking to. If you are drinking with your Joushi and he is trying to be buddies with you, it won’t be necessary to whip out all the keigo you know as it will sound rigid and distant. On the other hand, you may need to use keigo with the same joushi when he is giving you an assignment or working orders or in a more formal situation. As a foreign speaker of Japanese, the best thing you can do is listen to how your Japanese peers speak try to talk and try to follow suit.
Senpai and Kouhai
Senpai is a concept which is much stronger in Japan than in the west. If someone has been working longer than you or has more experience than you (or in some cases, is merely older than you), you are expected to treat him/her with respect. This person is considered your senpai and you, a kouhai. This concept starts in school where senpai (people in the grade above you) are seen as mentors to follow and learn from. Senpai and kouhai in business is very similar. It is a good idea to respect this custom as senpai often know their way around a company better than you will and it won’t be unlikely to see them get a promotion before you have a chance at one. A good way to judge how to treat your Senpai is placing them between people at the same level as you and your boss. It is not usually necessary to use much keigo with them but be polite.
Work and Alcohol
Some fundamental differences between Japanese and western business etiquette is felt at the nomi-kai, or drinking party; something that many westerners never experience. There are many common times of the year or reasons for nomikai including Bounenkai (End of the year or literally “forget the year” party), Shinnenkai (New Year Party), Kangeikai (Welcoming Party) and Soubetsukai (Parting Party for leaving employees). Nomi-kai’s often start with a speech by the highest ranking person in attendance. Once the drinking starts, many people will start pouring for each other, even if the other persons drink is nearly full. It is then common manners to take at least a sip of the drink the was poured for you. Many young, new employees will become involved in what seems like a pouring contest, as this is the perfect chance for them to schmooze with their seniors and get on their good sides. When the nomi-kai is nearing its close, there will be another speech or series of speeches by the either the man of the hour (in the case of a kangeikai or a soubetsukai) or by another senior. The party is then closed with one synchronized clap.
Working in Japan may seem difficult but with some effort one can develop a firm grasp on both the language, culture, and etiquette involved in Japanese business.