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Business and Cultural Etiquette in Japan

Whether you’re starting a business venture in Japan or simply communicating with partners via Skype, it’s important to maintain a basic understanding of Japanese culture.

Learning a little bit about Japanese social customs can help your interactions go more smoothly, and increase the strength of your business relationships. Here are a few notable Japanese business norms:

Business Cards

If you’re planning on doing business in Japan, invest in nice business cards and take good care of them. They are a staple of business interactions in Japan, and are exchanged quite often.

If you’re going to spend any time working in Japan, print your cards with a Japanese translation on the back. Hand these cards to people with the Japanese side up.

In most cases, business cards are offered with two hands and a slight bow. When you receive a business card, don’t stuff it in your pocket; examine it carefully, and place it in a business card case.

Maintaining Personal Relationships

Japanese prefer to build relationships with their partners before doing business. When possible, try to make the acquaintance of a businessperson through a shared connection.

Staying in touch is important for the Japanese. Maintain a friendly relationship with partners through small tokens such as gifts and seasonal greeting cards.


The Japanese are well-known for being punctual, and you must take care to follow this tradition. Make appointments several weeks in advance, and set it up via telephone rather than email. Respond to all requests promptly.

Meeting Traditions

Japan is a group-oriented society, so even when you believe you’ve made plans to meet an individual, many of your meetings will be with multiple people. The most senior businessperson will most likely be seated furthest from the door.

Dress conservatively, and wear darker-colored suits. When dining with partners, be very mindful of your manners. Wait to be told where to sit, and don’t point or cross your chopsticks.

Keep in mind that when Japanese people close their eyes, it means that they are thinking.


You will notice quickly that Japanese are non-confrontational, and have a hard time saying “no” outright. When possible, phrase questions so that they can answer in the positive. Never raise your voice or lose your temper.

The Japanese prefer harmonious outcomes, and will lean towards more broad agreements with a lot of flexibility. Contracts in Japan are often re-negotiated, so no need to worry that your agreement is set in stone.

A Final Note

The Japanese are aware of the challenges faced by foreign businesspeople, and will not be offended by your initial mistakes. You won’t be expected to speak Japanese, and you may find your Japanese counterparts to be embarrassed about their own lack of English language skills.

As long as you show a genuine interest in being respectful and learning their customs, you will garner their respect and trust.

Photo courtesy of allensima via Flickr

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