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Thinking of doing business with a Japanese company? Quick guide to Japanese business etiquette

Japanese business etiquette

The news that the UK and Japan signed a trade agreement last month is something we should celebrate more, and we should look out to see how we could benefit from it from 2021.

Having been born, raised and worked in Japan up until my late twenties, and working in England for some twenty-odd years dealing with various Japanese people, I often notice some gaps between Japanese business ethic and how we do things here.

So if you’re looking to work with a Japanese company let me share my dos and don’ts in working with Japanese businesses.

  1. BE ON TIME – NOT LATE OR TOO EARLY!

Japanese businesspeople regard punctuality extremely important.  When doing something together with them, you should keep time on the dot.  In attending a meeting, do not be late (even by a few minutes).  Many say that it is advisable to arrive meetings about 10 minutes early, but no earlier than that.

  1. DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THEIR ENGLISH ABILITIES

English is not a national language in Japan, but the majority of Japanese people go through at least 10 years of school education to improve their English, and by the time they choose to work with UK businesses, they usually have sufficient ability to command English.  Their spoken English might not be very good (mainly due to the late start in their English training – some say we should start learning to speak languages before our facial muscles fully develop), but their comprehensive skills can be far better than they sound.  Do not be fooled by their innocently sounding accents.  But, be conscious that they might not catch 100% of what you say.

  1. BE POLITE and NOT TO RAISE YOUR VOICE

Not every Japanese is very polite, I must admit, but many Japanese are encouraged to be polite and calm in dealing with others.  You might find them a little slow at times  – due, perhaps, to their organisational decision-making procedure, which is often based on their corporate vertical hierarchy.  Due to their Confucianism-led education, you might also find their seniority-led attitude somewhat antiquated.  There is a different value system there.  Some Japanese people find the ordinary human voice in this country much louder than theirs, and at times they might find it rather intimidating. So, stay patient, and calmly facilitate whatever you find unresolved, to seek progress with them.

  1. FOLLOW THEIR “MEISHI” BUSINESS CARD RITUAL AND CONSTANT BOWING

Yes, the famous “Meishi” business card ritual is something I should mention here. It is too intricate to explain its procedures in this blog.  But you should be able to follow what others are doing when you find yourself in the Meishi-handing greetings at any Japanese corporate meeting.  You might find it a little peculiar, but do not laugh or show mockery, as some Japanese people might get offended.

  1. DON’T BE SHOCKED BY THE UNEXPECTED

The Japanese people can be very inventive, and many of them might also be highly visually (e.g. Manga cartoon?) and/or numerically and/or technology oriented. Their logics can be very different from those educated in English language. Be brave to face some exciting or odd ideas in dealing with them. You might like to re-construct them in your head quietly first, so that you might fully appreciate what they are aiming to achieve with you.

Good luck with your meeting with your potential Japanese business partner!

If you need any assistance in dealing with Japanese business, please contact me on mayumi.hawkes@cognitivelaw.co.uk.

Mayumi Hawkes