The Ultimate Guide to Japanese Business Etiquette

Published September 3rd, 2020

If you think the business world is a whole other language, the world of Japanese business is a completely different universe. There’s this big jump from casual, everyday Japan to the formal work culture here; it’s a complete 180º. If you’re planning to work in Japan, it’s not going to be anything like your holiday trip to The Land of the Rising Sun. In fact, it’s not even going to be like the business culture back in your home country. There is a strict Japanese business etiquette that is mutually understood by everyone in the industry, but no one is ever taught them — they just know. By this point, you must be reconsidering entering the business world of Japan because you think it’s impossible to get the ropes of it all. Fear not, we have everything you need to know laid out right in front of you! Here’s your ultimate guide to Japanese business etiquette — the only one you’ll ever need to get your foot through the door of Japanese business.

The Japanese Business Etiquette: How It is A “Make It Or Break It”

As a newcomer to any business industry in the rest of the world, you might be given a free pass for a while as you get the hang of how everything runs. Although you still get that in Japan, there are just some things that strictly cannot be overlooked — newcomer or not. Because of that approach, the Japanese business etiquette is the basis of any business activities. It’s a “make it or break it”. You can have top grades on your certificates with a shining resume, but if you break one of the business etiquette rules in Japan, you remain stagnant at your current career point. If you don’t abide by certain customs in the Japanese business world, no matter how impressive your work is, there’s no moving forward. It can sound scary but that’s basically how the Japanese do business. They are extremely strict and professional — an ideal balance of good and bad.

The Unspoken Essential Rules of Japanese Business Etiquette

As mentioned before, the ins and outs of Japanese business etiquette aren’t taught in class. They’re something you should already know or pick up. If no one talks about these unspoken essential rules, one should be on the ball with observation and be on high alert at all times. I’m here to lift that world of burden off your shoulders. From personal experience and extensive research, I’ve accumulated a list of these unspoken essential rules of the Japanese business etiquette for anyone and everyone who needs it. Let’s take a look at what they are.

It’s all about first impressions (and every other impression)

Just like anything else, the first impression matters. In fact, in Japanese business etiquette, it’s not only the first impression — it’s also every other impression. Your introduction is as strong as what you’re offering in the business exchange, so always come off perfect during your greetings. The question is: handshake or bow? The answer is, either way is okay but just not at the same time. Traditionally, the Japanese would bow at a 45º angle as a common courtesy and respect for the other party, but in recent years, they have gotten accustomed to the Western ways of greeting, which is the handshake. A swift and simple handshake with only one hand is sufficient — avoid long ones and those using two hands that cups the other person’s hand. Be aware of the hierarchy and seniority of the business partners you are meeting as it’s one of the most important elements in Japanese business etiquette. Greet the seniors and higher-ups first and direct your attention to them, all the while keeping in mind to interact with the others too.

The unofficial official dress code

I say “unofficial” because it’s not really a given — it’s what became the norm and now everyone just follows it. Of course, to any business meeting or event, there has to be formal attire as the official dress code; you don’t show up ina t-shirt and jeans. But the Japanese take a step up — the keyword here is “conservative”. It’s pretty standard for the men — it’s usually business suits regardless of the season. The women, however, have a stricter dress code. Jewelry is kept at a minimum, including footwear — high heels aren’t recommended so as to not tower over their Japanese male counterparts. Women are encouraged to wear a suit as well, but both trousers and skirts are allowed. If you’re wearing a skirt, make sure it’s below knee level. Remember: conservative! For both men and women, briefcases are the way to go. It adds the extra touch of professionalism and makes you look put-together and serious. Hair must be properly groomed or styled — long hairstyles for men can be perceived as untidy and messy; the women have it less strict, but many keep their hair pulled back in a ponytail for tidiness.

Business cards are talismans

Your business card is an extension of yourself, therefore it’s treated with the highest respect. Always have a business card — double-sided ones are the best. Business cards are taken extremely seriously in Japan, and exchanging them when meeting a new industry partner is essential and protocol. Expect to hand out quite a few cards during a business meeting. One thing to remember is to give a business card to the senior person first and go down the hierarchy line. It’s normal for us to hand our business cards with one hand, but in Japan, remember to hand it with both hands with the writing facing the person receiving it. Taking a business card from another is the same — receive it with both hands. It’s important to give it a proper read as soon as you receive it out of respect. It’s also a great opportunity to ask about name pronunciations and any other clarification you may need. Keep the business card out in front of you throughout the meeting; it’s considered rude to jam someone else’s business card into a back pocket or wallet in front of them. After all, it is an extension of them.

Prepare anything and everything in advance

If you have a meeting or presentation, take a chunk of time to prepare basically everything under the sun. Even if you’re presenting on a screen for everyone to see, have physical copies printed out for every person in the meeting — Japan is a paper-based culture and they appreciate having any document in its physical form. Sending the document in advance via e-mail is also recommended so they are able to review it in advance — especially if there’s anything to sign. Don’t miss out on any detail during your presentation. Even if you don’t mention it, make sure it’s in the documents. The Japanese want every information, even if it seems unimportant to you. To bring their attention to certain things, highlight it or make it bigger in the documents to grab their attention. If you’re presenting in English, it would be best to have a translated version in Japanese. Even if the people in the meeting can understand English well, it shows your efforts to accommodate them.

Be early to be on time

This is one essential rule to never break. Be on time — but in the Japanese business culture, to be on time is to be early. Being on time is being late. Always be at least fifteen minutes early to any meeting. Make sure you plan your route and transportation well in advance. Japan trains and crowds can get quite bad in the morning.

Formality in speech

In English, levels of speech is a clear cut between casual and formal. In Japanese, there are quite a few levels of formality to comprehend. However, the Japanese will understand if a foreigner is not so accustomed to them. But it will impress them if you learn a few formal suffixes and use them during your meeting. The easiest is the -san (ーさん) suffix. This is the safest one to use. Attach it to the end of someone’s name — for example, if the person you’re meeting is called Yamamoto, refer to him as Yamamoto-san. , remember to call a Japanese by their last name instead of their first unless they have explicitly asked you otherwise. It’s a straight-up no-no to refer to them by their first name.

Teamwork makes the dream work

The Japanese are strong on group-oriented culture. They value group solidarity over individualism and it’s best to take note of that when going into any business activities. There’s even a Japanese saying that goes, “a single arrow is easily broken but not ten in a bundle.” Demonstrate humility and give compliments to your team as a whole. Even though recognising individual contributions is important in other parts of the world, in Japan, it’s the opposite. Don’t single out any teammate as it would bring more embarrassment to the individual than any good.

The after-work is the actual work

The last but definitely not the least unspoken essential rule is definitely the after-work. Your work doesn’t end when the clock strikes 5 pm. In fact, it’s when it actually starts. A meeting can go from the tense and formal setting of a meeting room to the relaxed and casual atmosphere with the company of food and alcohol. Accept any invitation for a drink — it’s usually used as a way to connect to the person as a person rather than a business partner. It sets a lighter mood, but don’t forget to follow some business etiquette and respect. If you’re a light drinker, moderate your intake. You definitely do not want your potential business partner to see you passed out!

The Wrap-Up

Phew! That is a lot to digest, but every single one of them is definitely worth remembering. After all, these are just the essential rules — there are tons more in the book of Japanese business etiquette. They’re less common and more flexible, so as long as you abide by the ones mentioned above, you’re good to go!