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Japanese Business Etiquette Guide

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Japanese Buildings at NightJapanese Business Etiquette Guide
When you are visiting Japan on business, it’s important to follow certain general rules for a successful meeting. The guide here will support you in knowing the Do’s and Don’ts for conducting business in Japan.

Dress Code
We have a complete guide area here with Business Dress Code Guidelines, but in summary it’s best to dress conservatively during business meetings in Japan. This includes wearing traditionally dark colors such as navy blue or black for business suits, with quality materials. This applies to both men and women, and each should have business fashion tailored appropriately to avoid a sloppy appearance. For women in particular, dressing conservatively, in non-revealing attire is best. One should strive to achieve a professional look at all times. Lastly, keep in mind that shoes should not only display a professional style, but they also need to be easily removed. In Japan, you are likely to confront numerous instances where your shoes may need to be removed when entering a room and so on. Be prepared with new socks and shoes that are clean, comfortable and easily removable.

Japanese Business Cards
This tip takes the most preparation, as you will likely want to have completed before venturing into Japan. We have also created a detailed checklist on our site covering this topic. For comprehensive information on this subject, please review our Japanese Business Cards - Translation & Exchange Guide. This guide focuses on the importance of Japanese Business Cards. One should always use a professional translation agency when translating or printing Japanese business cards. This is important because any errors in the translation, or more importantly, in the Japanese typesetting, can be disastrous before your meeting even begins. It’s best to create two-sided bilingual Japanese business cards, and to present them with the Japanese language side up. One should take great care in presenting clean, crisp Japanese business cards, which are free from any handwriting, folds, or worn corners. Care should be taken upon receiving Japanese business cards from your clients, and they should never be quickly discarded. Once again, for a detailed look into the complex exchange of Japanese business cards, please see our guide.

Seating in a Japanese Meeting
In the West, we typically place an importance on the person sitting at the head of a table. Other seats are less important with little or no ranking established for most business meetings. However, in Japan, they go a step further. Seating is based on the rank of each participant. You do not want to simply take any random seat during a meeting in Japan. As an outsider in Japan, it best to politely wait and ask where the best seat location is for your meeting. If you are put in a situation where you need to decide, in general, the highest-ranking person who is hosting the meeting in Japan will sit at the head of the table, just like in the West. Others will then take their seats, in order of rank, with the highest-ranking members being close to him/her, and so on. Thus, it’s best to stand and politely wait for this to unfold if you are unclear where your seat is. Taking a seat randomly next to the highest-ranking member would be seen as incredibly rude in Japan. This often means that most guests will sit far away from the highest-ranking member, and typically this is near the exit. Before sitting, it’s best to stand at your seat until you are instructed to actually sit down, again, usually by the highest-ranking member. Lastly, when the meeting has concluded, it’s important to stay focused. One should wait until this highest-ranking member has stood up before rising as well. In Japan, the highest-ranking member of the meeting is seen as the most honorable, so one must try to follow his/her lead and show them the ultimate respect.

It is very common to receive tea or other refreshments before a meeting begins in Japan. In the winter this may be hot tea, and in the summer it may be cold green tea. Much like in the seating guidelines, the Japanese usually serve the highest-ranking member first, and then in order of ranking. You may be presented with a drink or refreshments before others as a sign of respect to all guests. However, it’s best to follow the lead of the highest-ranking member and wait until he/she drinks before taking a sip.

Gifts from Home
The Japanese place an emphasis on gift-giving. These gifts are called omiyage in Japanese, or souvenir in English. Gift-giving is seen as showing deep respect to your Japanese hosts, and helps to bridge the gap when language and communication may not be second nature. Thus, it’s best to consider bringing some small gifts from your country to Japan. The more local the gifts the better, as it will allow you to explain certain specialties of your hometown, state, etc. Some typical gifts might be small wrapped candies, coffee, tea, or anything you may find ideally suited to discuss your particular business or industry. In Japan, the number four is read shi, or the same pronunciation as the character for “death.” Thus, it’s bad luck to present gifts in sets of four. You’ll notice that in Japan, usually gifts come in sets of three or five for this exact reason. Also, do not be surprised if your Japanese hosts also present you with some gifts in return before your Japanese business meeting. If your gift is wrapped like a Christmas present, it’s best to open your gift after the meeting when you are at home or in your hotel. If the gift is not wrapped, one should express gratitude for the gift and comment on it, with questions to show interest, etc. Once again, in Japan gifts are seen as an ice breaker to form business connections and bonds between international parties where often times language may be difficult.

Business Notes
It’s usually a smart move to take notes during any meeting. However, in Japan, it’s even more important. This obviously shows that you are taking the meeting seriously. However, due to the conservative nature of the Japanese, it’s best to stick with conservative inks when using pens. You’ll be fine using blue or black inks. However, one should avoid using a red pen whenever possible, and never use a red pen to write down the name of someone. This is a superstition and seen as incredibly bad. It’s a sign of death in Japan and dates back to the age of the samurai when in Japanese Samurai would post death markers painted in red ink.

Social Interaction
In Japan, casual meetings which take place socially outside of the office are often just as important as those that take place inside the office. The Japanese are a reserved society, and often use social settings (and alcohol) to break down conservative barriers to get to know the real you. We have setup and complete Japanese Social Interaction Guide which contains even greater detail on the complexities of doing business in a Japanese social environment. In general, you may be asked out to dinner, karaoke, or drinking with your Japanese clients. Look at this as an opportunity to get to know them better. However, be on your toes. Don’t overlook the fact that this is still business related, and still can reflect on your business relationship. Alcohol will largely play a key factor in any social setting in Japan. Again, since the Japanese often play by so many rigid rules of business, outside the office, drinking allows the Japanese to let their hair down and be more natural in each exchange. If the Japanese cross the line, they can then usually blame the alcohol in a social setting. So you may be presented with uncomfortable situations, but stay focused. Please see the Social Interaction guide for more information.

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