Essential Etiquette for Doing Business in Japan

7 tips for wowing clients on your next trip.

Our expert

Japan is like a second home to Professor Marie Söderberg, who is the director of the European Institute of Japanese Studies at the Stockholm School of Economics. Dividing her time between Europe and Asia, she travels three to four times a year in the Land of the Rising Sun. She’s currently a guest research professor at Osaka University.

1) Find out who’s the real decision maker

Hierarchy is important in Japan, and it may be difficult to determine who the true decision makers are from titles. Handle this gracefully during your meeting, but consider deferring conversations on key action items until after the initial session.

2) Set the table

If you’re hosting, ensure the most senior person sits at the centre of the table. If you’re a guest, take note of where people are seated to help you read the situation better.

3) Play yourself up

Don’t be shy about building up your official title. If you’re a senior executive or an important advisor, write it on your business card and make this clear when meeting someone.

4) Hold your cards

Business cards are essential, and handing them out should be a meaningful gesture: Offer a card only when someone hands you one of theirs, and keep in mind that the most senior person in the room should be the first to get one. Be very gentle with cards, and make sure to read them carefully while the other person is watching. If you must write on them, only do so when the individual has left the room.

5) Go big on small talk

Socializing is much more important in Japanese business than it is in the Western world, and people will want to know who you are before they make a deal with you. Instead of jumping right into your presentation, engage in a bit of small talk. Listen carefully and write down a few notes – but only after your meeting is over – so you can remember to discuss things on a personal level the next time you see your partners or write to them. It will help you form a better connection.

6) Slow down

Be well prepared for your pitch and be patient: You might not get a straight answer right away. For example, when Japanese speakers say, “It’s difficult,” this may often mean “no.” If they use the word “hai” – which means “yes” in Japanese – do not take it to necessarily mean that they agree with you; they may simply be acknowledging what you’re saying, the way some people would nod along.

And remember that silence is an integral part of the Japanese communication process. Avoid steering the conversation in order to keep it moving – you might seem pushy.

7) Leave it at the office

If you are invited to go out after work, and it seems like business has been wrapped up for the day, feel free to have a few drinks. This is acceptable in Japan, especially if you’ve signed a deal or if you’ve seen each other a few times.