The Persian poet, Saadi, once said, “A traveler without observation is a bird without wings.”

The same goes for a business traveler who is doing business in a foreign land. For a businessman who does not know how to observe – most especially, other country’s culture and etiquette as it could open pathways to even more successful negotiations – will most possibly go home empty-handed. This is particularly true when doing business in Japan where cultural factors have profound impacts on decision making, and ultimately, on the success of a business relationship.

However, the Japanese etiquette is another aspect of the Japanese culture that is quite misunderstood. That is why it is not surprising that it has been the subject of many books and studies (which often wrongly suggest that Japanese business etiquette has a level of etiquette expected of a tea ceremony in Kyoto) and the very reason why you are browsing this article. Yet after all, the Japanese business etiquette is not so different from else where’s – just that it is more formal and of most value.

“Japan is an example of a country in which the code of social conduct became so formal and important that proper behavior became the paramount law of the land.”, as Boye Lafayette De Mente noted in Etiquette Guide to Japan: Know the Rules that Make the Difference.

You see, there is no need to shake in your loafers. But, of course, (before packing your briefcase) it would be best to spend more time to acquaint yourself with the following Japanese business etiquette as it could help create a favorable impression of you and by extension, your business. (Trust me, you’ll survive a meal and interactions from start to finish.)

Handshake or bow?

In Japan, the life-blood of business relationships are face-to-face meetings – the more successful the meetings are, the more successful the business will follow. But before the beginning of every meeting are, of course, the greetings and introduction.

The ojigi or bow, while commonly used as a way of casually greeting someone, saying sorry, or asking a favor; is also an extremely important gesture especially when meeting for the first time. Do return the bow with your back straight, hands at the sides, and not maintaining eye contact. For women, the hands are often held clasped in front.

Sometimes, a bow is combined with a handshake. If this happens, slightly turn to the left to avoid bumping heads. However, often times, because your host understands that Westerners are unaccustomed to bowing; a handshake is usually offered.

But regardless of what you are accustomed to or not, honor the tradition – bow, and if the host initiates a handshake, extend your hand politely.

Business cards are talismans.

Along with the greetings, first meetings also involve exchanging of business cards (which eventually follows protocol, as well).

The business card or meishi (pronounced as may-shee) in Japan, is considered as an extension of one’s identity. Therefore, the engrained rules of etiquette that signal respect for the person should be strictly observed.

When conducting a business, do not put the business cards in your wallet but place them in a nice case instead. Keep in mind that the “quality and condition of your business card speaks much about how you intend to conduct yourself and business.”

When presenting business cards, make sure to print double-sided cards (with the Japanese side having the same design as the English side). Always offer a card with both hands and with the Japanese side facing the person being given to. And no matter how far you are seated, never ever flick, throw, slide, or push a card across the table; get up and walk over to the person you wish to give it to.

When receiving business cards, take the cards with both hands (but be careful not to block important information), say “Thank you”, examine it briefly, and remember to not put it in your back pocket or wallet (especially, not in front of the person) – failing to do so is a big faux pas as it shows great disrespect. And unless the meeting is over, keep the card/s at sight.

Hierarchy is paramount.

The Japanese put great importance, as well, on the way the older executives are treated. In Japan, age equals seniority – which means that age can be synonymous with rank in a business setting. So, to help you establish rapport with a potential Japanese client, be sure to treat the most senior individual with more marked deference than you do with the younger ones.

Most especially during greetings and introductions – when bowing, do it a little lower than the older executive’s to show respect. Likewise, offer a business card first to the most senior person in the group. When receiving business cards, on the other hand, place the senior person’s card higher than those of the subordinates’.

The Japanese business etiquette might have been often quite misunderstood owing to the fact that Japan is conditioned by exceptional historical and cultural factors; but as more and more companies continue to expand and picture growth in the Japanese market over its many competitors like the U.S. and China (which is Japan’s ultimate rival over economically-related issues like territorial disputes and the Nanjing massacre), the need to understand the Japanese business etiquette is rapidly becoming a requirement.

About The Author

Rick Staab