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Business Culture

Japan - Business Culture

Personal connections are very important in Japanese business culture, so it is best to arrange initial introductions through personal contacts or a business or trade association. Be patient, as it may take a long time and many visits to Japan to truly establish business relationships there.

Appointments should be arranged in advance in writing, and you should send as much information as possible about your company and your business proposals, translated into Japanese. Unless you speak fluent Japanese, you should arrange for an interpreter to be present at your meetings there.

Above all, the Japanese place utmost importance on good manners and respect for others. The society is heavily influenced by Confucianism and is very hierarchical. You should always show great respect for anyone older or in a more senior business position than yourself. A person's place in the Japanese business hierarchy determines how they should speak and act in business interactions.

Try to arrive early for meetings, as a lack of punctuality will be considered disrespectful. Business attire should be formal, with dark-coloured suits and ties for men, and conservative suits or dresses for women.

The Japanese bow to one another on meeting, but if greeting foreigners they will usually shake and bow their head slightly. First names are not used in Japanese business and people should be addressed by their last name, followed by "-san", (Mr or Mrs/Ms), or by their professional title.

The "meishi" ritual of exchanging business cards is very important in Japanese business. You should always receive cards with two hands, and read them respectfully before placing them on the table in front of you. Never write on anyone else's card, and put it carefully away in a card holder at the end of the meeting.

The Japanese will usually participate in the meeting as a team, often with a senior person present, but with negotiations led by lower ranking people. The group is very important in Japanese society, and decision-making is carried out on a consensual basis.

Within the meeting room, people are seated according to rank, and a visitor is usually expected to sit opposite the exit. It is expected that people will sit upright with their backs straight, men with feet slightly apart and women with feet together. Do not cross your legs in a meeting, as this is considered rude.

Since the Japanese judge people largely on their personal qualities such as sincerity of character, they will often ask personal questions, concerning family and educational background, for example. However, you can politely sidestep such questions if you wish.

Business decisions are not usually made in meetings in Japan - meetings are primarily to build familiarity, exchange information, or discuss existing business arrangements. Japanese communication styles tend to be formal and indirect, with care being taken to avoid causing offence or disappointment. Outright refusal or criticism is rarely used, so it is important to read between the lines of what the Japanese are saying.

Your business presentation should be modest, but well structured and thorough, since the Japanese pay great attention to detail, and may ask lots of questions. Lengthy silences for reflection are common, and are sometimes used as a negotiation tactic, but silence can also indicate disapproval or embarrassment.

Gift-giving is very important in Japanese business, and should always be reciprocated, but preferably to a different value, since the inequality signifies an ongoing relationship. Gifts should be of good quality, and nicely wrapped, although not necessarily expensive. It is normal procedure to politely refuse a gift twice before accepting, to take the gift with both hands, and open it later in private. Although gifts can be given at any time, there are two special "gift giving" seasons, in mid-summer and at the end of the year. Suitable business gifts include quality souvenirs from your home country; liquor or chocolates. It is considered lucky to receive something in a pair, but unlucky to receive 4 or 9 of anything, or to receive anything red. Other inappropriate gifts include books, and sharp items such as scissors or knives.

You will often be expected to join your Japanese hosts for dinner or a lengthy drinking session in a bar or karaoke venue following the business meeting.

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