Conforming to Japanese business etiquette during a working lunch or formal meeting can make even the most confident executive shake in their loafers. Although there are many rules, customs, and traditions, your hosts will probably forgive all but the worst faux pas anyway.
Demonstrating a small knowledge of Japanese culture and traditions shows that you have a genuine interest in the success of the meeting. If nothing else, your friends and colleagues will be impressed!
Here are a few tips for proper Japanese business etiquette to help you survive a meal or interaction from start to finish.
Japanese Greetings and Introductions
The toughest and most complicated challenge comes at the very beginning of the meeting: greeting each other. Bowing is extremely important in Japan, however, your hosts realize that Westerners are unaccustomed to bowing and may offer you a handshake instead.
If you wish to return a bow, and you should, do so with your back straight and your hands at the sides. Don't maintain eye contact. 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. Sometimes a bow and a handshake are combined; if this happens, turn slightly to the left to avoid bumping heads.
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 shows boredom or lack of interest.
Although at least some of the party will surely speak English, knowing a few simple expressions in Japanese will get smiles and help break the ice. Again, demonstrating knowledge of Japanese customs can go a long way toward a successful interaction.
Japanese Etiquette for Receiving Business Cards
Even the exchanging of business cards follows a protocol in Japan. 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 and 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 the meeting.
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. Examine the card closely with respect. Avoid covering the person's name on the card with your fingers.
If cards are exchanged while already seated, place the card atop your case until you leave the table. Attention is even given to the order that cards are placed on the table. Put the highest ranking person's card on your case so that it is higher, with the subordinates' cards beside it on the table.
The worst thing that you can possibly do in Japanese business etiquette is to cram someone's business card into a back pocket or wallet in front of them! Keep all cards out on the table, face up, until after the meeting.
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 and follow their lead. A wooden threshold or change in the flooring—along with a pile of provided slippers—will indicate where you should remove your outside shoes. Place your shoes on the provided rack or off to the side.
Going in only socks is acceptable in informal situations, however, bare feet are rarely acceptable. If you wear sandals, bring a small pair of white socks with you for wearing so that your bare feet do not touch the provided slippers. Make sure that you don't have any visible holes in your socks!
Do not wear your hosts's slippers into the toilet—which may be a squat toilet; a different set of "toilet" slippers should be waiting by the entrance. Even the slippers are removed when walking or sitting on the tatami mats.
The best policy is to be observant and simply follow your host's lead—do as they do!
Things to Avoid in Japanese Business Etiquette
- Keep your hands out of your pockets while speaking to someone. The same applies for checking your phone. Nothing should be more important than the meeting at hand.
- 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.
- Unlike in China where people openly clear their noses onto the street, 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 "4" and "9" 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 rules of saving face. Avoid causing someone to "lose face" by pointing out their mistakes or shortcomings in front of others. Now is not the time to point out something stuck in someone's teeth.
- Tipping is not customary in Japan and is 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.
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. Learn how to say cheers in Japanese and know how to survive a drinking session.