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Business Culture in Japan

Est Deus in nobis
Of all the business cultures of the world, Japan is one of those most strongly rooted in the concept that relationships should come before business, rather than business being more important than personal considerations.

This means that in order to achieve success in Japan, it is important to put the maximum amount of time and resource into the early stages of relationship-building — even when eventual results may seem a long way off.

The higher a Japanese manager rises within an organisation, the more important it is that he appears unassuming and unambitious. Individual personality and forcefulness are not seen as the prerequisites for effective leadership.

The key task for a Japanese manager is to provide the environment in which the group can flourish. In order to achieve this he must be accessible at all times and willing to share knowledge within the group. In return for this open approach, he expects team members to keep him fully informed of developments. This reciprocity of relationship forms the basis of good management and teamwork.

Instructions from managers can seem extremely vague to western ears and this often causes confusion and frustration. This difficulty is caused, in no short measure, by problems around styles of communication. As users of coded-speech (where what one says does not necessarily correspond to what one actually means), direct, clear instructions are not needed.

Punctuality is important — it shows respect for the attendees. However, due to the consensus nature of decision making in Japan, it can very often be difficult to determine a finish time. Always allow slightly more time than you think might be necessary to achieve your goals.

Meetings are often preceded by long, non-business polite conversation which could cover such topics as mutual contacts, the merits of your company, Japanese food etc. Do not become exasperated by this use of your time, as it is an essential element of the relationship-building process. Show your impatience at your peril.

The concept of Wa, which is probably best described by the English word harmony, lies at the heart of the Japanese approach to meetings. Although it is important to search for a solution, this must not be achieved at the expense of disturbing the peace. No individual will wish to proffer a strong opinion, which might cause some form of confrontation and therefore affect Wa.

Japanese decisions are reached through a process of consensus-building meetings, each of which is concerned with the preservation of Wa. This means that the decision-making process can seem very long and drawn out. Patience is essential in these situations, as to show impatience could have an adverse effect on the all-important Wa.

Business Cards
It is important, when doing business in Japan, that you have a plentiful supply of business cards — with information printed on the back in Japanese.

Cards are presented at an early stage in a formal manner. Present and receive the card with two hands. (Present your card Japanese side up.)

Treat your Japanese contacts card with respect — the card is the man. Dont write on it or leave it behind, as this would show disrespect. During the meeting, place the cards carefully on the table in front of you with the senior persons card on the top.

Gift Giving
Gift giving is an endemic part of Japanese business life and should not be confused with notions of bribery and corruption. Gifts should not be too lavish but should always be of good quality. It is important to take a number of small gifts to Japan to distribute to new and existing contacts.

Gifts should always be wrapped. Avoid giving gifts in quantities of four or nine as these are unlucky numbers. Anything sharp could signify the desire to end a relationship.
Alcohol, especially good single malt whiskey, is always an appreciated gift.

Eating
When using chop-sticks, never point them at anybody and do not leave them sticking into your rice. When not in use, rest your chop-sticks on the holder which will be provided on the table.
It is considered polite to leave some food on your plate (or in the bowl) at the end of the meal to show that you have eaten a sufficiency.
Tipping is not customary in Japan, as this cost is usually included in the bill.

It is important that group members maintain 'face' in front of other group members
In addition, Japanese body language is very minimal, making it difficult for the untrained observer to read. The Japanese seem to be very still in meetings, sitting in a formal upright posture. It is rare for any reaction or emotion to be visible.

Top Tips on Japanese Business Culture
Tip 1
Relationships drive business in Japan. Without the right depth of relationships with the right people, it can be very difficult to achieve anything.

Tip 2
It is important to show respect appropriately. Age brings its own dignity and should be respected. It is probable, therefore, that more will be achieved with a delegation that contains some older members.

Tip 3
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.

Tip 4
Avoid putting the Japanese in situations where they might be forced to lose 'face'. Do not try to push for decisions or deadlines.

Tip 5
Decisions are arrived at through a lengthy consensus-building process. As it is almost impossible to speed up this process, patience is needed.

Tip 6
Perform as many favours for people as possible. Favours must always be repaid.

Tip 7
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.

Tip 8
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.

Tip 9
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.

Tip 10
Go over the same point several times from different angles to check the situation. Ask lots of open questions to test for understanding.

Tip 11
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.

Tip 12
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.

Tip 13
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.

Tip 14
Avoid strong eye contact which can be seen as threatening or hostile behaviour.

Tip 15
Body language is minimal and it can be very difficult to gauge progress made or the general sentiment of a meeting.

Tip 16
Show an interest in your contact as a person. An interest in family, hobbies, health etc. can help to cement a relationship.

Tip 17
Always take gifts to give to key contacts. Gifts need not be too expensive but should always be wrapped.

Tip 18
Dress well, but conservatively. Appearance is very important and you are likely to be judged on how you look.

Tip 19
If entertaining, entertain as well as possible. Remember that a good deal of the relationship-building process takes place over meals.

Tip 20
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.

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