Relationships drive business in Japan. Without the right depth of relationships with the right people, it can be very difficult to achieve anything.
It is important to show respect appropriately. Age brings dignity and should be respected. It is probable, therefore, that more will be achieved with a delegation that contains some older members.
Try to be polite and diplomatic at all times. Avoid showing irritation, annoyance or impatience. These negative emotions could put a strain on the development of the relationship.
Avoid putting the Japanese in situations where they might be forced to lose face. Do not try to push for decisions or deadlines.
Decisions are arrived at through a lengthy consensus-building process. As it is almost impossible to speed up this process, patience is needed.
Perform as many favours for people as possible. Favours must always be repaid.
Be humble and apologetic rather than arrogant and brash. Modesty is a characteristic much admired whereas forwardness and being overly self-confident can be seen as childish behaviour.
As the Japanese are loath to say no or disagree, it can be very difficult to be completely confident that a decision or agreement has been reached.
Do not overestimate the levels of comprehension when speaking English in Japan. There are many fluent speakers of English but many people do not understand even when they indicate that they have.
Go over the same point several times from different angles to check the situation. Ask lots of open questions to test for understanding.
Oral agreements carry as much weight as written contracts. In a relationship-driven society, it is the quality of relationships which will determine events rather than legal niceties.
Do not speak well of yourself but be very positive about your organisation and the department or team to which you belong. Never make disparaging comments about your own company – even in jest.
Humour should be avoided during serious business meetings where it will be viewed as out of place. Humour will, in any case, probably not be comprehensible.
Avoid strong eye contact which can be seen as threatening or hostile behaviour.
Body language is minimal and it can be very difficult to gauge progress made or the general sentiment of a meeting.
Show an interest in your contact as a person. An interest in family, hobbies, health etc. can help to cement a relationship.
Always take gifts to give to key contacts. Gifts need not be too expensive but should always be wrapped.
Dress well, but conservatively. Appearance is very important and you are likely to be judged on how you look.
If entertaining, entertain as well as possible. Remember that a good deal of the relationship-building process takes place over meals.
If confused or in doubt when working in Japan, try not to react immediately. Try to buy some time and reflect on the situation overnight or seek advice from colleagues or other Japanese contacts.
Written and Produced by Keith Warburton
This country profile has been produced to give a short overview of some of the key concepts to bear in mind when doing business with contacts in Japan. It is intended to be an aid to business people who have commercial dealings with counterparties in the country but should not be seen as an exhaustive guide to this topic or as a substitute for more substantial research should there be a need.
With this in mind, we have covered the areas which are key to a better understanding of the cultural mindset underpinning business dealings in Japan and which are, quite often, extremely different from the approach and thought processes associated with business in other parts of the world.
Therefore this briefing note is broken into short, bite-sized sections on the following topics: