Doing business in Japan is a matter of getting a formal introduction. If this is impossible call rather than write to introduce yourself and ask for an appointment. Be on time for any appointment – a must in this culture. Normal business hours are from 9 to 5 but many workers stay much later. Most stores stay open during holidays with the exception of banks and offices. Certain days of the year are bad days to try for appointments. These consist of the New Year from December 28th to January 3rd, April 29th to May 5th, and mid-August.
Dress conservatively in dark suits but restrictions have loosened somewhat to allow pastel colors shirts rather than strictly white ones. Choose loafer-type shoes that can easily be slipped on and off since you will be required to remove shoes upon entering homes and some restaurants. Business women should wear skirt or pant suits that aren’t too revealing or tight, along with minimal pieces of jewelry. Make up and perfume should be worn very lightly.
Upon visiting some places you’ll be asked to wear a yukta, better known as a kimono. The establishment where you are visiting will provide the garment. Wrap it from left to right only. The right to left wrap is done only for the dead.
One of the most important things to understand about Japanese culture is the issue of one “losing face”, or being embarrassed. Causing embarrassment for anyone, or bringing embarrassment upon yourself will spell the end of the business dealings, more than likely. Losing face can happen in any number of ways. If you point out to a Japanese counterpart that he misunderstood you, imply that he is less than efficient or gracious, or even telling him he has sauce on his chin can spell business ruin. It’s very important in this culture to behave in a manner that will never cause yourself to lose face and in a way that will prevent anyone else from losing face.
The Japanese worry that they will disappoint in some minor way. Because of this they often apologize for any number of things which simply aren’t true. For example, they may apologize to you for not showing you an entertaining time the previous night, even if they did. They will apologize for many things and you should follow suit. Apologizing is also a way of finding out if you have offended someone so except apologies by explaining that everything was perfect.
Answers of “no” or “probably not” should be more discreet than that. Remain indirect with phrases like “maybe” or “possibly”. When addressing a group of people face and speak to the most senior member first. Later in the conversation or presentation you can direct comments to others.
Great topics of conversation are praise for the hospitality or food, Japanese history and art, or sports. Avoid topics of WWII and omit jokes of any sort from business routines. Jokes are usually reserved for casual visits and even then, they must not be vulgar.
Address everyone by title and surname. First names are not used until friendships develop. Even then it’s inappropriate to use first names in a business setting, usually. If you’re unsure of the proper name and title you should use it’s okay to use general terms such as “Mr.” or “Ms.”. When introducing yourself never use “Mr.” or “Mrs.” in the introduction. Instead use your first and last name. Adding titles to others’ names is fine but to your own is taboo.
In some countries gift-giving is seen in a suspicious light but in Japan it is a normal part of the culture, whether on a business or personal level. It’s almost expected that colleagues will exchange gifts on July 15th and January 1st. Exchanging mid-year and end-of-year gifts is commonplace in businesses.
Always travel with a few gifts since it’s polite to give a gift to someone who offers one to you. Don’t be surprised if you receive an extremely inexpensive gift or a lavish one. Either is acceptable since it is the offering of a gift, rather than the gift itself, which means the most in this culture. In many regions giving lavish gifts is seen as bribery but not in Japan, however, gift-giving should be a private moment.
Present gifts with both hands, no matter how small the package. Even if you are giving an extravagant gift it’s good manners to pretend it’s really not much. If the person has become a friend it’s customary to say “tsumaranai mon” which means “our friendship is much more valuable than this gift”.
Never gift identical gifts since giving the same thing to an older person as you gave to a young person will cause the elder to lose face. Before accepting a gift it’s common in this culture to refuse the gift several times before actually accepting it. If you are giving a gift, insist several times that they accept it. Do the same if you are offered a gift. Choose pastel colors since bright paper and bows will not be seen favorably. When giving flowers, give uneven numbers, when giving gifts, pairs are considered lucky.
Avoid giving gifts like potted plants which are thought to encourage illness. Lilies, lotus blossoms and camellias are strictly for funerals. And never, ever, give any type of white flower. The numbers four and nine are considered unlucky so never offer someone a gift in sets of four or nine. Avoid the color red on Christmas cards or wrapping paper since the color is closely associated with death and funerals.
Have business cards and other materials printed in English on one side, Japanese on the other. Never take the card and shove it in your pocket or briefcase. Instead make a display of reading the card and making inquiries at that time. Do not use someone’s business card to take notes. This is extremely disrespectful, even if the notes are concerning that person.
How you act, dress, speak and gesture are very important. Speak in low tones and never let anyone see you get upset. Do not yell, correct others, lose patience or get irritated. These are seen as the actions of someone who is not in control. Refrain from bursting out laughing since laughter means something totally different, in many cases, than it does in America. Laughter can mean embarrassment, shock or even disapproval.
Show respect to anyone older than you even if you don’t agree with them. Never single out any one person whether for praise or criticism. If counterparts close their eyes while you’re talking they are listening intently, not being rude.
Your table manners are extremely important here. Even if you have excellent table manners in America things are different in Japan. Taste everything offered to you but claim health reasons if you simply can’t stand the thought of eating a particular dish. Never use chopsticks to point at someone while eating. Do not stand chopsticks straight up and down in a bowl of rice. Slurping is fine at the dinner table, when having tea or noodles. Turn your tea cup upside down if you do not want a refill otherwise it will continually be replenished.
Bowing is a tradition in the Japanese culture. It is used as a greeting or farewell, expressing thanks, or apologizing. Never point at anyone or anything with one finger. Use the entire hand, waving it with palm facing left. Do not spit, sniff, or blow your nose in public.
The Japanese are a very enjoyable bunch and you’ll truly enjoy your stay in this marvelous country. Remember to be conservative in dress, expression and gesturing. Take extra steps to make friendships rather than concentrating strictly on business and you’ll succeed in all your goals.