Japanese Business Etiquette: Dos and Don'ts

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Conforming to Japanese business etiquette during a working lunch or formal meeting can make even the most confident Western executive shake in their loafers. Although your hosts will probably forgive all but the worst faux pas anyway, there is some basic business etiquette that could increase your chances of success.

Demonstrating a working knowledge of Japanese culture and traditions shows you did some research and have a genuine interest in the success of the meeting. If nothing else, you'll enjoy greater confidence if not always worried about accidentally causing offense!

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Japanese Greetings and Introductions

The easiest part of the interaction to mess up comes at the very beginning of the meeting: How to greet each other? Yes, you may have to bow. Bowing is extremely important in Japan, however, your hosts realize that Westerners are unaccustomed to bowing and may offer you a polite handshake instead.

With both parties wanting to demonstrate cross-cultural courtesy, a combination of bowing and hand shaking often occurs. Be ready! Don't bow while someone is offering their hand to shake. Sometimes you'll wind up shaking hands and bowing simultaneously. If so, turn your body slightly to the left so no one bumps heads.

If you wish to return a bow, and you should, do so with your back straight. Posture is important, but even more importantly, don't maintain eye contact—doing so is aggressive! Men keep hands to the sides; women often hold their hands clasped in the front. The longer and deeper the bow, the more respect that is shown. Bows are often repeated over and over, getting slightly less formal with each iteration.

Age and seniority are the most important elements in Japanese business etiquette. You should be keeping both in mind throughout the interaction. Greet the senior people first, and direct your attention to them.

The few minutes immediately following formal introductions can be a time for nerves to set in. Avoid putting your hands into your pockets. Doing so could portray boredom or lack of interest rather than comfort and confidence.

Although at least some of the party will surely speak English, knowing a few simple greetings and expressions in Japanese will get smiles and help break the ice. Again, demonstrating knowledge of Japanese customs can go a long way toward a better interaction.

Japanese businessmen exchanging business cards
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Japanese Etiquette for Receiving Business Cards

Business cards are taken seriously in Japan, and exchanging them follows a protocol. Japanese business cards (known as meishi) are treated with utmost respect. If conducting business, carry your cards in a nice case so that you don't hand your counterpart a frayed, butt-warmed card out of your wallet. The quality and condition of your business card speaks much about how you intend to conduct yourself and business. If there was ever a time to splurge on a nice carrying case for cards, it's before doing business in Japan.

Give your card to the senior person first. Hold it out with both hands; have the writing facing the recipient so they can read without flipping it. If already seated, walk your card to the other person instead of sliding it across the table.

When receiving a business card, thank the other person and bow slightly as you take it. Take the card with both hands and hold it by the top two corners as to not block important information such as the person's name. Examine the card for a moment with respect, and read it. This is a good opportunity, if needed, to ask about name pronunciations. Asking now is better than messing them up later!

Keep the cards on the table within view; don't put them away just yet. Put the highest-ranking person's card on the table so that it is higher.

One of the worst Japanese business etiquette mistakes you can make is to cram someone's business card into a back pocket or wallet in front of them! Keep all cards out on the table (tidy and face up) until after the meeting.

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Removing Your Shoes

If business will be conducted outside of the office, there are a few basics of etiquette to know. The number one rule to remember when entering a home or sitting area is to always remove your shoes. Let your hosts lead the way so you know what to do. A wooden threshold or change in the flooring (along with a pile of provided slippers) is indicative of where you should remove your outside shoes. Place your shoes on the provided rack or off to the side so they don't block the entrance.

Unlike in Southeast Asia, going in bare feet is not the default. If you wear sandals, bring a small pair of white socks with you so your bare feet do not touch the provided indoor-use slippers. Make sure your socks aren't threadbare or have visible holes!

Do not wear your hosts' slippers into the toilet; a different set of toilet-use-only slippers should be waiting by the entrance. Even the indoor slippers are removed when walking or sitting on the tatami mats.

In unfamiliar settings, your best bet is to be observant and simply follow your host's lead—do as they do and you can't fail.

Businessman at a table having a meeting
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Dos and Don'ts in Japanese Business Etiquette

  • Keep your hands out of your pockets while speaking to someone. The same applies for checking your phone; keep it silenced and off of the table. Nothing should come across as more important than the meeting at hand.
  • Avoid asking personal questions at first. Although your intentions may be good, you should wait to ask about someone's family or interests outside of work.
  • Blowing your nose in public is generally frowned upon in Japanese etiquette. Excuse yourself to the toilet or go outside to clear your nose. Sniffling to avoid blowing the nose is acceptable.
  • Avoid pointing at people with a finger when gesturing. Pointing, whether with fingers, feet, or chopsticks, is considered especially rude in Japan.
  • The numbers four and nine are considered unlucky in Japanese culture. The word for four ( shi ) is the same as the word for death, while the word for nine ( ku ) can mean suffering. Avoid giving gifts or anything else in sets of four or nine.
  • Many rules of Japanese business etiquette follow the concept of saving face. Avoid causing someone to "lose face" by correcting them publicly. If you must correct a fact, take them aside and clear things up in private.
  • Tipping is not customary in Japan and can sometimes considered rude.
  • If you receive a gift, simply thank your hosts and put it to the side. Unlike in the West, gifts are opened in private later to avoid any potential embarrassment for either party. You may open the gift if your host urges you to do so.
  • Being invited to someone's home is a great honor. If one of your hosts extends an invitation, accept wholeheartedly. Rearrange your schedule if you must.

The Team Mindset

One important element to keep in mind when doing business in Japan is the concept of team. You can demonstrate humility, a valued personal attribute, by deferring compliments to your team. Don't accept credit all for yourself.

When giving compliments for a job well done, compliment the team as a whole rather than only one or two individuals.

Male coworkers eating food and discussing
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Japanese Table Manners

After all introductions are completed and cards have been exchanged, it's time for the fun part: the food! Survive your business lunch or casual dinner with Japanese colleagues in style with this guide to Japanese dining etiquette.

Business is often conducted over drinks in Japan. Sessions can get rather rowdy but still follow some etiquette. If you're invited out for drinks, accept the invitation. Not only will you experience an interesting bit of the culture, knowing how to conduct yourself could lead to a successful deal.

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