The Japanese economy is as saturated as it could get, you may think, but in some areas it still has a long way to go, namely software development, and many business opportunities are left untapped.

What’s making entry of foreign capital and businesses difficult is in the language barrier, as the last time a 1200-person survey checked in 2013, 72% of the Japanese respondents answered they could barely put together a sentence in English. And although modesty is a cultural norm in Japan, the survey results are definitely not a result of that. 

But as the younger population, which tend to have more exposure to English in life,  gradually start to prevail in the business scene, conversing with Japanese businesspeople without having an interpreter in-between will only become more common. 

The next gap after language is the unique business etiquettes. There are countless do’s and don’ts in every business routine that even Japanese people themselves go through few-month long business mannerism training courses to learn the basics, and then practice to ace them through the first few years of their careers. 

Then how is a non-Japanese national supposed to learn to observe any Japanese business etiquette at all? No worries, because us Japanese are aware how unreasonable it would be to expect foreign nationals to learn our business culture. Therefore to our eyes, it is incredibly impressive (even cute) for a non-Japanese to observe even a small portion of the zillion Japanese business guidelines. You win instant respect. But you’ve got to do it right. 

1. Sync your bows with your feelings

If you observe carefully, Japanese people don’t bow that often. You may see quick mini-bows here and there, but it’s really only people working at upscale hotels, ryokans and boutiques dishing out full-fledged deep bows. If you don’t work in service, bowing too often and deeply will be analogous to not knowing just how much whipped cream is enough. Some people may find cake with excessive creaming distasteful. 

So an easy way to ensure that your bows come in the right dosages, sync them with your feelings. 

Whenever you feel a light sense of gratitude mini-bow. Like when you receive your counterpart’s business card. Like when someone presses the elevator button to keep the door open to let you out first. 

If you feel a light sense of apology, mini-bow. Like when you accidentally but gently bump into someone. Like when you were a minute late to your meeting because your last one ran overtime. 

Simply saying “thank you” or “sorry” and tilting your head and shoulders forward a tiny bit will do the job elegantly. 

Slightly longer and lower bows are done at the end of meetings with external parties, for the sake of showing gratitude for giving you their precious time. Your counterpart will most likely bow to you themselves similarly, too. 

Really long and low bows are only seen when someone messed up big time. Like when you accidentally leaked client e-mail addresses to another company. Like when you left your laptop with important data on the train. Hopefully you’ll never end up in such a pickle.

So let your feelings guide you, and it’s likely that you’re doing it just right. 

2. Communicate how un-great you are to be seen as a great person 

In Japan, in China or probably in any Asian country with Confucianist values, humility is considered a giant virtue. The older you are and the higher your social rank is, the more modest you are expected to be. And experienced professionals manage to pull off utmost modesty through their words and actions. 

For instance, these kind of individuals would not stroll; rather, they would try not to take up space. They are not interested in making themselves look bigger or more important, because they are too intelligent to consider themselves of any importance in the context of our vast universe. They rarely boast about their accomplishments because they know they didn’t achieve them single-handedly. 

When they’re dying to talk about themselves, they would show embarrassment in feeling that way, and then tell their stories in very reserved ways. 

So they come across as simple, harmless peaceful-minded men and women who listen to you, but as you spend more time talking with them, you would gradually notice subtle hints of their social and intellectual ranks. 

When a person shows a high degree of self-discipline despite his or her high social status really humbles you as a human being, and therefore you’ll find yourself feeling respect towards that person. If you listen to how Prime Minister Abe or Toyota Chairman Soichiro Toyoda speaks, those people are good examples of ideal Japanese professionals. It’s hard to imagine them being arrogant in any way. And that’s the kind of character that gets instant respect from Japanese people.

3. Treat the counterpart’s business card like a gift from royalty

So as we age, we gradually learn to be like Abe-san and Toyoda-san, but that’s of course a long-term goal. For starters, a basic way to show that you understand the Japanese virtue of humility is by doing business card exchanges right. 

Business cards are exchanged standing up at the very beginning of meetings (and oftentimes a little small talk is exchanged as we make our way back to our chairs).

If Queen Elizabeth were to hand you a sword (or a puppy or anything) as a gift, would you receive it with a single hand? No, you would receive it with both hands. And if you were to give a gift to the Queen, you would probably present it in both hands too. 

You won’t offend any Japanese person while exchanging business cards if you do just that. Kneeling down in front of them would be way too much, but as a rule of thumb, use both hands. 

And make sure you place the counterpart’s business card above yours, or any other object. Don’t, for example, place a cup of tea on top of the card, because it would look like you value the beverage over your counterpart, or you wouldn’t mind if you spilt some tea on it. 

4. Don’t trust your ability to remember names

In Japan and in most other Asian cultures, keeping face is culturally very important, and so doing anything to lose face of your counterpart is best avoided. A representative day-to-day risk in this area is forgetting the counterpart’s name. 

Asking “What was your name again?” and therefore admitting that you don’t remember his/her name instantly resets any level of trust you have built up until then back to zero. We just never, ever see anyone ask for the counterpart’s name after exchanging business cards. 

But of course this doesn’t mean that Japanese people are super-powered humans with the ability to remember everyone’s name. We know it’s hard, but the consequences of forgetting names is just too big. So we fail-proof ourselves by placing the business cards we received in front of us on the meeting room desk. 

Let’s say you sit back down after exchanging cards, and Tanaka-san and Suzuki-san sits across from you respectively from left to right. Then you place Tanaka-san’s card and Suzuki-san’s card respectively from left to right in front of you, so that you can use them as cheat-sheets in case you cannot recall their names or forget which one was which during the meeting. 

5. Let the host take the lead

In Japanese culture, there is always, always a hierarchy that needs to be observed, at least as a formality. In any given meeting room, restaurant table or cab, each seat has a rank. As a rule of thumb:

  • the most important goest or the individual with the highest social status is supposed to sit furthest from the entrance of the room or car
  • the individual with the lowest social status is supposed to sit closest from the entrance

So if you join an internal meeting as a first year employee, you are expected to sit in the seat closest from the entrance, and the decision maker (manager or director – whoever has the highest position among the participants) will sit in the seat closest to the opposite corner of the meeting room. The higher your rank is, the closer your seat is to the most important person there.

But nowadays less people care about seating orders, particularly at newer companies – organizations tend to be flatter than in traditional Japanese companies. Seating order may almost never come up as an issue. It really depends on the company.

So how do you know where you should sit when you are shown to a meeting room at an external organization? Well, it’s hard to tell sometimes, especially if you find yourself in a room with two doors or unconventionally-shaped tables. The fail-proof solution is to let the host take the lead.

Let the host specify where you should sit, when you should sip on your tea, and when the meeting is over. Be reactive (but responsive) and you’ll give the impression that you are the kind of person who can flexibly work together as a partner.

If you’re interested to know: Said seating order practice is suspected to have been in place by the 15th or 16th century; commander samurais and royalty needed to be seated farthest from the door because otherwise they would be the first to be stabbed in case enemy samurais or assassins came in to get them. Their subordinates or bodyguards were seated closest to the door to handle any problems that came into the room.

You don’t see many swordsmen storming into meeting rooms nowadays, but the system still has a place in modern-day business.

The person who has the least to do with the objective of the meeting (who is usually the most junior employee) would be the one to respond to any knocks on the door, so that the effect of the interruption is kept minimal. At restaurants, the youngest person in the group or the organizer of the dining event would typically sit near the door so that he/she could order drinks while the guests can continue talking without being interrupted.

6. Learn 3 basic conventional Japanese business phrases

“こんにちは Konnichiwa” and “ありがとうございます Arigato gozaimasu” may be the first Japanese phrases you would learn, but the most important ones that will help you in business are:

  • よろしくおねがいします Yoroshiku onegai shimasu
  • しつれいします Shitsurei shimasu
  • おせわになっております Osewani natte orimasu

It is impossible to translate them into any words in other languages, as they don’t carry a specific meaning and are rather used as business conventions. These are extremely important as they are language that represent a core, almost-universal Japanese business value: sustainable relationships.

Yoroshiku onegai shimasu

よろしくおねがいします is used at the end of almost every meeting and e-mail. After you and your counterpart decide to collaborate or assist one another, you say it before you end the topic or the meeting all together. This one phrase is almost the Japanese version of sealing a deal between individuals or organizations.

Depending on the situation, it can mean:

We agreed on the fee, the schedule and the methodology in this meeting, and I trust that you will do your best to adhere to our agreement. Not doing so will result in a loss of trust towards you and/or your organization. or

I plead for your help in resolving this matter as I/our organization cannot do it solely by myself/ourselves. My/Our well-being relies on you.

So say it at the end of a meeting, or type it out at the end of an e-mail.

Shitsurei shimasu

失礼します translates to “My apologies in advance for being rude” and it’s typically used before you enter a meeting room or someone’s office, or as the final word before you leave the counterpart’s office.

You may wonder what’s so rude about entering or leaving someone’s office. Think about it this way:

I’m sorry for having a humble person like myself take up your time.

I’m sorry for having to leave such a wonderful time we were having.

It’s uncommon for Japanese people to say “Good bye” in business settings because relationships are ideally supposed to last forever. So say it instead of “Sayonara”, and you’ll give the impression that you understand Japanese business rituals.

Osewani natte orimasu

おせわになっております is said whenever you resume communication with your counterpart, like as an alternative to “Hello” and as an opening sentence in an e-mail.

You are expressing the idea that your business or well-being is founded, at least partly, by your relationship with the counterpart. Therefore this is a statement of appreciation not just for sparing time for you, but rather for their letting you be a part of their business activities.

Listen carefully to business conversations among Japanese people and I guarantee you will hear these phrases being used consistently.

7. If you want to learn a bit more…

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Zipan is an online business Japanese language/culture school where you can learn and practice workplace Japanese with real Japanese businesspeople. I put together almost half the curriculum in collaboration with fellow Japanese language and business experts. As far as I know, it is the quickest way to becoming competent in Japanese business, because it doesn’t teach you Japanese. It teaches you how to do business using Japanese.

If you consider learning the Japanese language and culture as not just a hobby but a means to earn a more successful life in Japan, Zipan is, again, the quickest, because you get feedback on refining your Japanese in more business-appropriate ways from trainers who are either actually working or have worked in Japanese companies. You can also ask them questions about anything you may wonder about working or doing business in Japan.

Zipan performs the best for intermediate Japanese learners, but the curriculum accommodates beginners too. The only prerequisite Japanese skill is the ability to read Hiragana and Katakana, which can be learnt through using free Japanese language apps you’ll find in abundance in App stores.

They let you have a free trial lesson and a peak at their material, so check it out if you’re interested.