Japanese Business Culture 101
“Go-ni ireba, go-ni shitagae” is a Japanese proverb that essentially means “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” I have lived by this phrase throughout my journey from Japan to the United States, and it has helped out a lot when it comes to learning and adapting to the differences in business culture from one country to another.
In today’s global economy, it’s almost inevitable that either your company itself has an international presence, or that you work with clients, customers or partners in foreign markets. In the fields of manufacturing and technology, specifically, Japan is often on that list. According to the Ministry of Economy, Japanese manufacturing companies scored 22.9 percent on the oversea production ratio scale in 2013, and it is anticipated that manufacturing companies in Japan will continue to expand their overseas business. The Japanese business culture and environment may seem intimidating and strange to those unfamiliar with it. But fear not! Here are five tips to keep in mind if you are working with a Japanese company or Japanese contact.
Planning is Everything
Japanese people plan EVERYTHING. Planning is the most important aspect of Japanese business culture and schedules are followed to a T. Even the trains and buses in Japan are always on time. In fact, Japanese culture scores 92 points in “Uncertainty Avoidance” according to a Geert Hofstede study. Basically, they avoid the unexpected like a plague. Don’t be late, and don’t make sudden changes to times of meetings unless there is absolutely no choice. Be prepared for meetings and be prepared with answers to any questions you think will be asked.
Suit Yourself Up
In Japan, wearing a suit to work and looking professional is essential. There are no “casual Fridays” in Tokyo. First impressions can make or break business situations, since it is normal to be judged on whether or not your appearance is professional. You should wear a suit or other professional attire. Dress modestly in clean, ironed clothes. Avoid strong cologne or perfumes, which are often considered “smell harassment” in Japan.
The Japanese are known for their many rules of etiquette. Bowing at a 45-degree angle (yes, it gets this specific) is still the norm when greeting in business situations, but the western-style handshake is becoming more common these days. No one will expect you to bow if you aren’t Japanese, but greeting with the utmost respect will win you points. Exchange business cards with everyone you meet. Offer your business card right-side-up with both hands, and accept the other person’s with both hands too. And whatever you do, don’t just stuff it in your pocket. Place it in a case or lay in on the desk in front of you.
When “Yes” means “No”
Japanese is an ambiguous language, considered the highest context language in the world, and this often gets carried over into English conversations. Saying “No” directly is considered impolite and pretty much evil. Instead, Japanese will give vague replies to gently reject or decline a proposal. Hesitation, trailing off sentences and phrases like “We’ll think about it,” or “Give us time to look it over,” might be code for “No.” Be aware that saying “Yes” and nodding the head are gestures used by Japanese to show they are listening to what you are saying. It doesn’t always mean, “I agree.” Expect Japanese clients to follow the “Don’t call us, we’ll call you” method.
Rules are Rules
In the United States, almost all restaurants offer some options to modify orders or make substitutions. A Japanese McDonald’s won’t even give you a packet of BBQ sauce unless you specifically order chicken nuggets. That is the rule! What you see is what you get. There is no culture for making customized orders or exceptions, even for customers. Your Japanese partner or client will hold you to high standards when it comes to following their rules and guidelines, but they will also respect and adhere to your rules as well. It is very important to always follow through and deliver what you have promised.
Hope my tips helped. Remember—be prepared and don’t be late!