Cultural Tips for Business Travel to Japan

Cultural tips for Japan

Japanese businessmen and foreign visitors greet each other by bowing respectfully
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While many business trips take place within a business person's own country, some business travelers frequently travel internationally. As you might expect, Japan  is a big destination for international business travelers, but cultural differences can create roadblocks to successful international business ventures. When traveling anywhere for business—including Japan—it’s important for travelers to research the cultural norms and practices around business meetings.

In 2015, TripleLights launched an online travel guidebook, written by Japanese writers, to help business travelers plan their trips. It’s an excellent resource for any business traveler to Japan to consider if they want to get a deeper or broader understanding of Japanese culture and the history and geography of the country. The founder of TripleLights, Naoaki Hashimoto, offers his advice for business visitors to Japan.

Develop Personal Relationships

Cultivating personal relationships with others will be crucial to your success, as Japanese culture makes the personal touch important to developing a business relationship. Strive to establish contacts as high up in the organization as possible. Enlist the help of local, well-connected people to make the necessary introductions for you. 

After work, many Japanese businesspeople go to bars to converse, drink, and have an appetizer or meal together. This is part of the process of developing personal relationships with your business associates. As a visitor, it will be important to join if you're invited and partake, even if you’re not terribly hungry. 

While personal connections are important, Japanese businesspeople usually do not talk in great detail about family or their personal life. In particular, avoid bringing up money or your salary. Instead, cultivate these relationships by discussing other topics and, over time, you can naturally learn more about your counterparts' personality.

Punctuality and Formality

The pace of business is precise and on time, with an expectation of punctuality permeating the business culture in Japan. Most meeting attendees arrive at least 10 minutes before a scheduled meeting in order to make a favorable impression. Business social events also begin exactly on time, so being late is looked down upon. 

Physical contact like shaking hands is not common with Japanese businesspeople. Instead, it is more common for 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.

Status is important in Japanese business culture, so it helps to have at least one member of your team from upper-level management. At the beginning of meetings, it is helpful to exchange business cards to clarify the hierarchy. Additionally, it may also be an asset to mention university degrees you hold these during introductions.

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.

Show of Respect

In Japan, people commonly avoid saying "no” directly, instead a "no" may be disguised by saying "maybe" or "we'll see." It is important to understand that such directness would be seen as disrespectful—even direct eye contact can be taken as a sign of disrespect.

Handshake deals are uncommon in Japan. Usually, the highest person in authority makes the final decision and final decisions are always followed by a written agreement.

Advice for Business Meals

When dining out with business associates in Japan, pouring your own drink, especially beer, is considered rude. It is better to wait and allow others to pour your drink for you.

One Japanese meal style is Nabe, which involves 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.

Acceptable Topics for Conversation

​As is always the case when you are the visitor in a foreign country, it is a sign of respect and good manners to direct topics of conversations towards topics that show your interest in learning more about the country and its culture. When meeting your Japanese counterparts in a business environment, ask about local scenery and landmarks or what features or cuisine the local area is known for within Japan. Inquire about Japanese art and history and ask about local attractions where you can learn more.

Another comfortable topic of conversation that is always acceptable is food and drink. This is a good opportunity to learn about local cuisine and drinking customs. Sports is another universally-understood topic and, for an American traveler, Baseball is a great topic because it is a sport that Japan shares an interest in.

On the other hand, some topics that you may want to avoid include religion and politics, anything involving money, and foreign relations—particularly Japan's relations with China and Korea.