Despite some recent economic and environmental challenges, Japan remains one of the world's key economies and an important business destination for expats.
The most significant drawbacks to doing business in Japan are the cumbersome and expensive tax regimens and the complexity involved in starting a business. In addition, Japanese culture and business practices contain many pitfalls for the uninformed businessperson. Understanding these will be key to success.
Although the usual workweek is from 8am to 5pm, Japan is known for some of the longest working hours in the world. By law, employees aren't supposed to work more than 40 hours a week, but most work significantly longer hours as it's seen as a sign of dedication to the workplace.
Japanese is the official language of business in Japan. English is not widely spoken, and a translator will be required for most business meetings.
Formal business attire is expected. Dark suits are commonly worn.
Greetings are formal and usually involve a bow of the head and then a handshake. The most senior member of a delegation should be greeted first.
Gifts are not always expected, unless they're small items branded by or representing one's company. The presentation of the gift is also important. Receiving a gift should be done using both hands.
Equality of men and women in the workplace is improving, but Japan is still well behind much of Europe and the US.
Business culture in Japan
To be successful in business in Japan, expats need to invest time in getting to grips with the local business culture. Many aspects of Japanese business etiquette may seem odd to American and European businesspeople. However, it's crucial to embrace these nuances and engage appropriately with Japanese business associates if one wishes to be taken seriously within Japanese business circles.
Underlying Japanese business culture is the notion of 'kaizen' – the drive for constant improvement. This is reflected in the hard work ethic, excellent customer service and never-ending quest to innovate and improve business practices.
Formality and respect
When dealing with Japanese clients, it's a good idea to be excessively formal in everything from conduct to dress code. There are specific unspoken rules of business etiquette governing most situations. When meeting hosts or business associates for the first time upon exchanging business cards, theirs should be received with both hands and an attitude of respect, as the card is taken to represent the individual. The delegation should be greeted in order of seniority, first bowing and then offering handshakes.
Reflection and silence
Silence during meetings is not uncommon, even accompanied by closed eyes. In American or European workplaces, this might signify the meeting is going rather badly, while it signals a period of reflection in Japan. Don't interrupt or feel the need to speak and fill the silence.
Expats doing business in Japan should note that it's important to be sincere and honest without being confrontational or too direct. Vague forms of expression are best used – there's an art to deflecting a difficult question to avoid anyone's embarrassment or disappointment.
Meetings often begin with excessive small talk as rapport is built and relationships are established. This phase mustn't be rushed. Note that decisions are seldom made in the actual meeting, where it's more usual to exchange information or confirm previously made decisions.
Socialising with colleagues
The Japanese will likely respect a calm, humble, introverted personality style, while the brash extrovert may be considered untrustworthy and offensive. There's an exception to this, though, and it starts once the meetings are over for the day and the evening's social activities commence. This is where the sombre, sober rules of engagement that govern the office culture can be suspended in favour of relaxed socialising. In fact, going drinking with a client and getting tipsy – or at least as tipsy as they are – may be considered a key part of solidifying the relationship and progressing the deal. Rest assured that nobody will speak of the evening's more salacious events after business etiquette is restored in the morning.
Dos and don'ts of business in Japan
Do get bilingual business cards printed with Japanese on one side
Don't write on a Japanese business card, wave it around or flick it
Do accept a business card with two hands and a slight bow, and treat it with respect
Do use titles when greeting people
Do be on time, or if being late is unavoidable, apologise profusely and repeatedly
Don't take just any seat at a meeting; wait to be placed
Do make notes during meetings, but avoid using red ink