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Saving Face – Doing Business in Japan

Japan is one of the most sophisticated and technologically advanced nations in the world, yet at the same time, there exists another world of customs and rituals which date back many centuries. Doing business in the country can often be bewildering and frustrating, although it is possible to make a success of any business transaction and not “lose face” — an expression in the Japanese business world that broadly means to lose one’s composure.

If you are doing business in Japan, it helps to understand something about the Japanese work ethic. Generally, the Japanese are reliable and hard-working, and many employees give a lifetime of service to the same company and think nothing of working extra hours, sometimes without pay. Flexitime is encouraged and widely practiced, especially in the larger cities, partly as a way to help alleviate congestion on the busy public transport system. Networking is important in the Japanese business world; it is mainly a closed system and contacts are maintained formally. If you represent your company, be sure to emphasize the size and importance of your company, as well as its history and traditions — something the Japanese admire. Age is treated with respect in Japan.

While planning for your business meeting, there are some things to keep in mind. Your business meeting will always start on time as the Japanese are punctual and will expect the same of you. Despite the sometimes horrendous overcrowding, public transport runs on time as well. As far as dressing for a business meeting, there are no surprises there — a suit and tie for men, or a conservative business suit for women is usual attire.

One of the most important aspects of Japanese business etiquette is the giving and receiving of business cards. It is considered essential to have a business card in Japan. Without one, you are considered to be insignificant. As in the US, the more elaborate the card, the more important and responsible your position is. The almost ritual exchanging of business cards is called meishi-kokan and the custom dates back to feudal Japan, and the traditionally arranged social structure that existed then. The giving and receiving of a card with your name and position on it meant you could instantly identify the social position held by the other person and determine if they were a threat to you.

When you offer your business card, always hold it face up, and with both hands. If conducting business at a restaurant, never just place your card on the table, or slide it across the table. When you receive someone else’s card, always make sure you look at the card, acknowledge it and put it carefully in a pocket or your wallet. Business cards should never be collected or passed around like baseball cards.

Another important aspect of any business meeting is the initial introduction. The Japanese assume that Westerners are not accustomed to their culture, so they will understand if you do not bow, but it is appreciated. As with many other Japanese customs, the practice of bowing dates back to feudal times, when failure to bow before a lord or samurai could mean instant death. It is acceptable to shake hands as well, either before or after bowing. If you make notes at a meeting, use a black or blue ink pen, never a red one.

In many ways, the Japanese business world is still largely male-dominated. A man invited to a business dinner or function in Japan will not usually receive an invitation for his wife as well. The custom of giving gifts is important in Japan, although it is not necessary to take a gift for your host if you are conducting business in a restaurant or boardroom, only if it’s in someone’s house. If you are given a gift that is wrapped, open it in private rather than on the spot. You can make attempts to refuse the gift once or twice, but always accept it in the end. If you are invited to someone’s house or to a restaurant, be sure to remove your shoes upon entering, and you should be prepared to sit on the floor in your host’s home.

If your business meeting takes place in a restaurant, there are some things to remember. If you are comfortable using chopsticks, it is considered bad manners to play with your chopsticks, point them at people or leave them sticking up in food, something associated with funerals. In many restaurants, English is not spoken, nor is the menu written in English, and it is acceptable to ask your host for recommendations. And remember that tipping is not expected in Japan. Seating will generally be assigned at the table, according to status within the company.

It has been said that it can take a lifetime to fully understand the Japanese. With some of the above tips, you may be a little bit closer to that goal, and just as importantly, you will earn the respect of your Japanese counterpart.