ESSENTIAL BUSINESS CUSTOMS IN JAPAN
Building business relations is one of the foundations of Japanese business ethics. To win the trust of Japanese entrepreneurs, try to develop strong personal relations with a potential customer and learn the basic business customs you may encounter in the Country of Cherry Blossoms.
Work for life
The professional work attitude of the Japanese arises from the Japanese business culture that involves efforts to attach the employee to the company. This encourages full commitment to one’s job duties and acting in the best interest of the company. As a result employees are by default employed at a particular company for good – they usually start and end their professional careers in one and the same office.
Bow is a basic gesture in Japanese culture. It expresses gratitude, respect and is a greeting and goodbye gesture. Even though the Japanese attach great importance to the depth of the bow, sequence and hierarchy, they are more tolerant towards Western businessmen, expecting them only to slightly lean forward or nod their head. You must always arrive punctually for meetings – tardiness is in very bad taste. The colours of your clothes should be subdued and any jewellery should be modest. A Japanese businessman usually wears a navy blue suit. You are expected to take off your coat and hat while entering the company.
Giving business cards is a kind of ritual. They must be kept in special holders, always given with the inscription facing up, and accepted with respect. The customer should be the second to give their business card. Business cards will help us avoid the uncomfortable questions about a name we have forgotten – this should be kept in mind because the Japanese consider it rude to ask someone to repeat their name.
The Japanese value direct contact much more than e-mails or phone calls. They invest a lot of their time in building lasting relations with their business partners. Make sure to be thoroughly prepared for every business meeting. Since the Japanese are very cautious when it comes to their business moves, you may wait a long time for the answer as to the prospective deal – this will be a lesson of patience for a European customer.
The ringi system
The decision-making process in Japanese business is so long also because companies make decisions collectively. Arrangements must be made at every level of the internal hierarchy. Such decision-making facilitates execution of projects as they are developed through cooperation rather than based on top-down orders given by the company management.
The word nemawashi, literally meaning “going around the roots,” is a well-known phrase illustrating the Japanese approach to doing business. The term comes from gardening and it means preparing the roots of plants for replanting to protect them against damage as much as possible. In the business context, this may translate as “laying the groundwork,” “building the foundations.”
It assumes detailed talks with the parties involved in new projects, or project modifications, to gather opinions and as much information as possible and to ultimately arrive at a decision together. This informal process is an important element of every new project and it precedes any subsequent official steps. However, please note that in Japan nemawashi often has negative connotations, being associated with fraud, lobbying and deception.
Language in business relations
The majority of Japanese businessmen speak fluent English. However, sometimes negotiations may be suspended if it turns out that your Japanese counterpart does not understand everything sufficiently well. It is customary that the party initiating the meeting should take actions to eliminate the language barrier, for example by coming to the meeting with an interpreter.
To sum up, the Japanese treat negotiations and business decision-making very seriously and they approach prospective business partners with tremendous respect, even if no deal is ultimately reached. Being unaware of Japanese business etiquette may deprive you of a business opportunity so it is a good idea to learn the traditional management methods applied in Japanese business, which combine respect for coworkers and prospective partners and encourage self-development.