Cultural Tips for Business Travel to Japan

Cultural tips for Japan

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••• Naoaki Hashimoto

While many business trips take place within a business person's own country, business travelers also frequently travel internationally. And as you might expect, Japan is a big destination for international business travelers. But when traveling anywhere for business, including Japan, it’s important for business travelers to understand potential cultural differences.

To help business travelers understand some of the cultural differences they might expect when visiting Japan, I recently interviewed TripleLights’ founder and CEO, Naoaki Hashimoto.

Traveling was Hashimoto’s passion in life before it became his business. While still a student, he went on the first of what became a long series of backpacking adventures around the world. After graduating from college, Hashimoto worked at Accenture, a leading business and technology services consulting firm. Later he worked in sales for a travel portal site run by Recruit Holdings.  In 2012, Hashimoto spent nine months on a voyage of discovery traveling to 33 countries, during which time he was inspired to create his own travel business. After a poor experience in Tibet with two volunteer guides who were neither knowledgeable nor professional, he realized there was a need to connect travelers with professionally certified tour guides.  He wanted to ensure that business travelers and tourists could buy the most engaging, fun and educational tour experiences.  So in 2013, he founded TripleLights.com, an easy way for tourists to find the best, professional tour guides anywhere in Japan.

 

In 2015, TripleLights launched an online travel guidebook, written by Japanese writers, to help business travelers plan their trips using the most accurate and extensive information available today about things to do and see anywhere in Japan. It’s an excellent resource for any business traveler to Japan to consider if they want to get a deeper or broader understanding the country or Japanese culture.

What tips do you have for business travelers heading to Japan?

  • Keep in mind Japanese prefer to do business with people they know. Cultivating personal relationships with others will be crucial to your success. Strive to establish contacts as high up in the organization as possible. If possible, use a local, well-connected person to make the necessary introductions for you.
  • Japanese business people usually do not talk in great detail about family or their personal life, especially how much money they make. But over time by discussing other topics (examples below), you can naturally learn more about their personalities.
  • Punctuality is a priority in Japanese business culture. Visitors should arrive on time, or even 10 min. earlier than an appointment to help make a favorable first impression.
  • The pace of business is precise and on time. Most Japanese arrive at least 5 min. before a scheduled meeting. Business social events also begin exactly on time, and most Japanese arrive at least 15 min. beforehand. So being late is looked down upon. 
  • Men will usually bow and exchange their business cards at the beginning of the meeting. (See below for tips on bowing).
  • The appearance and presentation of promotional materials are considered very important and will be subject to scrutiny. Carefully place documents on a table. Never casually toss or throw business documents onto a table.
  • Japanese businesspeople can be quite status-conscious, so it helps to have at least one member of your team from upper-level management. It may also be an asset to mention any university degrees you hold during introductions.
  • After work, many Japanese businessmen go to bars to converse, drink and have an appetizer or meal together. So as an American, you’ll want to join them if you’re invited.  Drinks usually come with some food. It’s polite business etiquette to eat something, even if you’re not terribly hungry.

What is important to know about the decision making process?

  • Japanese often avoid saying "no” directly out of respect.  A "no" may be disguised instead by saying "maybe" or "we'll see."
  • Usually, the highest person in authority makes the final decision.
  • Final decisions are always followed by a written agreement.

    Any tips for women?

    Many Japanese men are not used to the concept of  “ladies first.” So men do not tend to open doors for women or allow a woman to order first at a restaurant. However, they do not mean to be rude or chauvinistic. Demonstrating verbal or visual offense by this cultural norm won’t help you conduct successful business with the Japanese.

    Any tips on gestures?

    • Physical contact like shaking hands is not common with Japanese business people. Instead, it is more common for Japanese business colleagues to briefly bow when greeting or passing each other. Bowing is a sign of respect and politeness. When bowing, men should keep hands along the side of their bodies, and women should keep hands clasped with arms down straight in the front of their bodies. Unless you want to apologize, do not raise hands to chest-level in a classic prayer position.
    • Eye contact is less direct and minimal, so avoid staring.  
    • Pouring your own drink, especially beer, is considered bad. So wait and allow others to pour your drink for you.
    • One Japanese meal style is Nabe, which is sharing a large pot of food from which several people eat. Sharing from the same dish is often considered a sign of closeness or comfort among people. So this is a positive sign among business colleagues.

    What are some good suggestions for topics of conversation?

    • Japanese scenery and landmarks
    • Japanese art, culture, history, and animation
    • Your family or job
    • Local Japanese cuisine and drink
    • Sports, especially baseball and Japanese players in Major League Baseball in the U.S., or soccer and Japanese international players

    What are some topics of conversation to avoid?

    • Religion and politics
    • Avoid being too direct or you could be perceived as aggressive or pushy
    • Japan’s relations with China and Korea