japanese woman offering card

Mastering Japanese business culture: The art of punctuality and precision

A photo of Ayako, one of our Japanese LIMEs

Imagine a Westerner venturing into the realm of Japanese business culture. Among their initial impressions, they would probably be struck by the devotion to punctuality and precision. While these qualities are appreciated in many cultures, Japan takes both to the next level. We spoke to Ayako, a Local In-Market Expert in Tokyo, to find out more about Japanese business culture.


The value of every minute

In Japanese business, meetings commence punctually. Tardiness, even by a mere minute, is deemed disrespectful. To ensure they start promptly, participants often make it a habit to arrive several minutes early.


Silence is golden

Unlike Western cultures where chatter often fills the void, in Japan, silence is valued since it signals wisdom and emotional restraint. This tendency can sometimes unsettle Westerners, who often perceive outgoing personalities as the driving force behind communication. Japanese business culture, particularly at the start of a professional relationship, embodies a more introverted and formal approach. Japanese business people may be reticent to describe their business problem to you in its entirety – so you’ll probably get further by asking a series of smaller, broken down questions to build up the whole picture.


Exchanging business cards (meishi) is a ritual

Business cards are treated with utmost respect in Japan. When given a business card, one should accept it with both hands, briefly read it, and then place it in your business card holder or wallet if standing. If seated, the card should be placed on the table for the duration of the meeting before being stowed away. When presenting your business card, offer it with both hands, ensuring that the Japanese-printed side faces the recipient. Avoid tossing or pushing the card across the table; Japanese etiquette mandates rising and walking over to present it.


The soft sell prevails

In Japanese business, leave hard-sell approaches at the door. Instead, adopt a gentle, persuasive tone that highlights the merits of your proposal. Seek common ground and build from there. Once your case is made, avoid exerting excessive pressure on decisions and deadlines. In Japanese businesses, decision-making usually relies on consensus and can take longer than Westerners might expect. Attempting to expedite the process may be perceived as disrespectful. Japanese business etiquette prizes patience, viewing time and careful consideration as essential for building trust and relationships.


Rank and order matter

Rank and hierarchy matter, even down to seating arrangements in meetings. Typically, the most senior people sit at the centre of a meeting table, with the more junior people towards the outer edges. The person sitting at the centre of a meeting table is expected to lead the discussion. Opinions tend to be expressed in order of seniority, with more junior people speaking last.


Last names over first names

Family names in Japan, as in many other Asian countries, come before an individual’s given name. Whereas the English titles of Mr, Mrs, and Ms are gendered, in Japan the honorific san can be used for either gender and can be used as a suffix for either a last name or first name. In Japan, it is typical to use a family name in a business context unless given permission to use a first name.


Gift giving is an art form

Traditionally, the presentation and wrapping of a gift can often hold as much significance as the gift itself. However, gift selection must be undertaken with care. White flowers such as lilies, lotus blossoms, and camellias are reserved for funeral services and should be avoided. Potted plants carry negative superstitions, while sets of four and the number nine are both considered inauspicious. Today, gifts to business partners are increasingly perceived as bribes. In some cases, particularly with larger companies, gift giving has become strictly regulated and may not be accepted.


Dinner manners speak volumes

Business dinners traditionally played an integral role in Japanese business culture, although these days – as with gift giving – they can be viewed as a form of bribe, so check with your client before arranging one. If dinners are permissible, knowledge of Japanese etiquette at the dining table is crucial. Tips include:

  • At the start of the meal, use the damp towel (oshibori) provided to wipe your hands, but avoid using it on your face.
  • Avoid using chopsticks to pierce food, even if it’s slippery.
  • After finishing your meal, ensure that your place setting remains as you found it; this includes placing your used chopsticks in their paper envelopes or holder and replacing lids on small dishes.
  • For certain dinners – e.g. tatami occasions – it’s customary to remove your shoes. Make sure you’re wearing appropriate socks, as they will be on display.
  • When toasting drinks, ensure that your clients’ glasses are higher than yours. It’s considered a failure of hospitality for a client to fill their own glass, so make sure their glasses are not empty.


Honour the unofficial dress code

Another pivotal aspect of Japanese business etiquette revolves around attire. As a collectivist culture, there is more emphasis on conformity at work than in expressing individuality through clothing. Both men and women tend to wear conservative business suits to blend with the group. Women usually keep jewellery to a minimum, and men avoid wearing ostentatious watches, to avoid perceptions of showing off. For both sexes, wearing strong perfumes or colognes at work is frowned upon.


Bowing remains a form of respect in some contexts

Traditionally, bowing was a prevalent form of greeting in Japanese business settings. The depth and length of the bow conveys varying levels of respect and formality – for example, when breaking up in front of a lift, the bow should continue until the elevator doors have closed and the person is out of sight. Today, bowing as a greeting tends to be limited to hospitality settings or old-fashioned companies, and has become less commonplace.


Use Local In-Market Expertise to guide you

The key to international marketing is understanding your target markets the way a local would. Oban’s unique network of Local In-Market Experts – who we call LIMEs – provide the digital, cultural, and linguistic nuances that underpin successful marketing campaigns.

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To find out how Oban can help your business achieve international growth, please get in touch.

Oban International is the digital marketing agency specialising in international expansion.
Our LIME (Local In-Market Expert) Network provides up to date cultural input and insights from over 80 markets around the world, helping clients realise the best marketing opportunities and avoid the costliest mistakes.

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