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  • Writer's pictureSally Herships

Etiquette and rituals rule in Japan's business culture

At a dinner meeting in Tokyo recently, where a lot of business happens over meals, two Japanese professors, Ryo Sahashi, an associate professor of international politics at Kanagawa University, and Satoru Mori, from the department of global politics, faculty of law at Hosei University, arrived and sat down at their booth. Even though it meant one of them would shortly have to get up to make room for one of their colleagues, who had yet to arrive, they left the middle seat between them empty.

It might have seemed like a random decision; it was anything but. The explanation, says Toshihiro Nakayama, a professor of policy management at Keio University and the third and last to be seated, is simple. In Japan, the center seat is reserved for the most senior person, in this case, him.

“I kind of hesitate to say that I'm the most important person — I'm just the oldest guy," he says. "But in the Japanese culture, an oldest guy is supposed to be someone very important.”

Unlike in America, in Japan when you go to a meeting, you don’t just grab an empty chair and sit anywhere. Often, there’s a formal seating arrangement. And, often, if you’re Japanese you'll be expected to know where to sit.

If you're a guest, that could mean kamiza, or upper seat — the side farthest from the entrance, notes Mori.

"In a way, this makes it easier for us to determine where we sit," he says. "So it's not like we have this very feudalistic or hierarchical relationship or anything. It just makes things smoother for us."

Take the humble business card. In Japan, distribution of name cards has been elevated to a ritual. Getting it wrong is to risk looking foolish, or even worse, offending a prospective business partner.

“The Americans will just give you a card like this in a single handed way, and that's very rude," says Nakayama as he demonstrated his take on an American style business card exchange — flinging a card in front of him like a horseshoe.

But before you even think about pulling out your card holder, first you have to master the art of the bow.

“Because if you bow too deeply at the wrong occasion, it's sort of like, it's odd. You have to have the right bow at the right occasion,” said Nakayama.

Right bow — right occasion. All simple enough, as long as you're Japanese. But for foreigners, navigating a complex set of business norms can feel intimidating, even if you've traveled a lot for work and done your cultural research, like Donna Childs, founder of Prisere, a business that advises on climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction strategies.

"In Japan," says Childs, "it's perfectly acceptable to talk about anything related to business, and it's encouraged. You should show a lot of interest in their company, because it shows you're sincere and you're interested." So at a dinner meeting with another company, Childs says she tried to show a lot of interest in her host's culture.

“So I was saying about how I'm really excited about coming to Japan, I'm planning my weekend, I'm going to probably take the bullet train and then I'm probably going to go shopping. I’m interested in these Japanese dolls.”

The next morning Childs, still jet-lagged, and in her bathrobe, was contacted by the concierge at her hotel.

"The car and driver are here. Ww're ready to go."

Car? Driver?

The company representatives Childs had met with the evening before had taken it as a matter a fact that the least any gracious host could do would be to meet their guest's wishes. In this case, providing a complete day tour, with a guide, at a cost of thousands.

"That was when I realized be very careful what you wish for," she says. "Maybe I should have expressed a more modest desire, like I would like a piece of sushi." While Childs notes that she was embarrassed, she still considers the experience one to learn from.

Doing business in Japan goes way beyond bowing and business cards.

"It’s not only about the etiquette," says Yuko Morimoto, a consultant with Japan Intercultural Consulting, a Japan-focused firm that helps foreign companies work effectively with each other. What’s really important is understanding the different styles of communication that different cultures have. Like American's reputation for being direct. And the Japanese' predilection for what Morimoto says is just the opposite. The Japanese, say Morimoto, often say no to saying no.

"They feel hesitant to say I don't like your product," Morimoto says. "So they say something like, 'Oh that's a good idea. Let us think about it.'"

"Yes" in Japan doesn't mean the same thing as "yes" in English. Instead, notes Morimoto, it could mean, "We just met, and I don’t think it’s polite for me to say no right away."

“Or they say, 'Yes, yes.' But yes means, 'Yes, I'm hearing you.' It doesn't necessarily mean, 'Yes, I like it,'” she says. "It can be yes-yes, or it can an iffy-yes, or it can be a no-yes."

To decipher what's really being said, you need more information, Morimoto says. Was another meeting scheduled? Was a price agreed on? Was a contract signed? The Japanese, she notes, are more risk-averse than Americans. They want consensus. So you can expect that a Japanese company will take its time making decisions and making sure everyone is on board with them. But across the conference room table, a virtual ocean of cultural differences away, Americans are in a rush.

The biggest mistake for an American company trying to get work done in Japan, Morimoto says, is to try to move at American speed.

“Extend your stay," she says. "Don't try to rush and make things happen in two days or three days.”

And the Japanese can be just as puzzled by our behavior as we are by theirs.

"Probably the most difficult thing was how to make the staff in [New York] understand working without tips," says Ryutaro Ikeda, manager of two branches of the international ramen noodle chain Ippudo. In Japan, workers in the hospitality industry don't receive tips. Instead, they're focused on the concept of omotenashi. There is no direct translation, and, says Ikeda, and the idea is difficult to explain in just one word.

"There is a Japanese saying, meaning you kind of jump into the other person's mind or heart. Meaning really, really empathizing, trying to understand where the other person is at. Or, there's another Japanese saying, that you can reach where you are itchy, meaning you really try to take care of person," he says.

In America though, it's more likely that wait staff will be focused on up-selling the lobster dinner special. Of the staff hired by Ippudo in New York, "they were quite straight forward with the fact that when they work it's for the money or the salaries," Ikeda says. Teaching gum-snapping Americans the concept of Japanese hospitality culture was where Ippudo New York struggled the most when it first opened.

"It was extremely difficult," he says.

To succeed, Ippudo let its New York wait staff work for tips. The restaurant has slightly tweaked each of its international locations to fit in more smoothly with the local culture.

To work together more effectively, says Morimoto, cultures need to meet in the middle."Americans have to slow down, and the Japanese have to be quicker and more direct about where they are coming from," she says. But, at the same time, notes Morimoto, American companies shouldn’t try to be Japanese and, vice versa.

"We don't advise Americans to become Japanese," she says. "Because the reason Japanese are doing business with them is because they are looking for something they don't have."

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