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Doing business in Japan


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A golf ball manufacturing company packaged golf balls in packs of four for convenient purchase in Japan. Unfortunately, this was a fatal mistake, as the word "four" in Japanese sounds like the word "death" and is, therefore, considered unlucky. As you can imagine, the product was not successful.

Be careful of all symbols of death when doing business in Japan. If you fancy wearing a kimono, make sure you wrap the left side over the right one. Otherwise, you will hint that you want to be buried.

* The official name of Japan is Nihon or Nippon, which means the State of Japan.
* Japan does not have an official language, but the national language is Japanese.
* The capital and largest city is Tokyo.
* The population is estimated at 126 million.

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Business Mentality

– Connections are very helpful in Japan but choose your contacts carefully. Pick someone of the same rank as the person with whom he or she will have dealings.

– Japanese business people will want to learn as much as possible about your professional background and qualifications.

– Negotiations generally have an atmosphere of deep seriousness.

– In order to succeed, you must describe how your product can enhance the prosperity and reputation of your Japanese counterparts.

– Japanese prefer verbal agreements to written ones, and shouldn’t be pressured into signing documents. Remaining co-operative is essential.

– Decisions are made only within the group. Foreigners must gain acceptance from the group before they can have influence in the decision-making process.

– Due to the strong contemporary business competition in Asia, the old concept of the ‘unhurried’ Japanese negotiation process is no longer applicable. Decisions are made swiftly and efficiently.


– A bow (‘ojigi’) can be a way of greeting someone, saying ‘I’m sorry’ or even asking for a favour. This simple gesture can do a lot to help a Western entrepreneur in establishing rapport with a potential Japanese client. The depth of the bow depends on your counterpart status. When bowing to an individual who is of higher status than you do it a little lower than that person to display respect.

– DON’T address your Japanese counterpart by their first name unless invited to do so. Use the titles ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’ or add ‘san’ to their family name; for example, Mr Hiroshima will be "Hiroshima san".

The Art of Conversation

– Inquiring about a person’s family, praising the hospitality you’re receiving and Japanese history are good conversation topics.

Expect to be asked extremely personal questions regarding your salary, education, and family life.

Use apologies where the intention is serious and express gratitude frequently as it is considered polite in Japan.

– Avoid accusations or direct refusals. World War II and making jokes should be avoided.

– Anything you say will be taken LITERALLY. Remarks such as "This is killing me!" or "You are joking!" are to be avoided for obvious reasons.

If the response to your questions is "maybe", "probably", or "I’m thinking about it", that will probably mean "yes." "I’ll consider it", however, is likely to be a "no".

Body Language

– Do not grab your host’s hand when first meeting and give it a hearty shake – many Japanese seldom shake hands and can be so uncomfortable doing so as to avoid meeting again!

– Do not use large hand gestures, unusual facial expressions or dramatic movements. The Japanese do not talk with their hands. Never pat a Japanese man on the back or shoulder.

– The American ‘OK’ sign (thumb and forefinger shaped like an ‘O’) means ‘money’ in Japan.

Laughter will normally indicate embarrassment or distress, rather than amusement.

– Never make derogatory remarks about anyone, including your competitors and own employees.

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Business meetings and meals

– Regarding dress code for men: in the period October-April, wear dark suits (navy or black) with white shirt and subdued tie; from May to September wear a grey suit.

Do not wear black suit, white shirt and black tie because that is funeral attire.

– For women: wear shorter (or tied back) hair, trouser suits or longer skirt suits with seasonal colours as for men.

– Punctuality is essential. Japanese believe it is rude to be late.

– Business in Japan cannot begin until the exchange of business cards or ‘meishi’ has been completed.

Use both hands to present your card, which should be printed in both languages.

Present the card with the Japanese side facing up.

– On receiving your counterpart’s business card, make a show of examining it carefully before placing it on the table.

– It is a distinctive asset to include information such as membership in professional associations.

– If your company is an older, venerable institution, this fact should be frequently mentioned.

– Offering gifts is a very important part of Japanese business protocol. The emphasis is on the ritual itself rather than on the content of the gift.

– Before accepting a present, it is polite to modestly refuse it twice before finally accepting.

Gifts are opened in private to avoid the ‘loss of face’ of a poor choice.

– If you receive a present, be sure to reciprocate. Presents in pairs are considered lucky.

– It is a serious mistake to offer the same gift to two or more Japanese of unequal rank.

– In the presence of a group of people, offering a gift to one person and failing to do so to the others is also an offence.

– Foreign, prestigious branded items, frozen steaks, pen and pencil sets or a simple commemorative photograph are good choices.

White flowers of any kind should be avoided. Giving four or nine of anything is considered unlucky.

– Red Christmas cards should also be avoided, since funeral notices are usually printed in this colour.

If you are invited to a karaoke bar, you will be expected to sing. It doesn’t matter if you are out of tune.

– When finishing a meal, leave a small portion of food on your plate to indicate that you enjoyed it. Slurping your noodles and tea is encouraged in Japan.

Other fun facts

– More than 70% of Japan consists of mountains, including more than 200 volcanoes.
– There are four different writing systems in Japan: Romaji, Katakana, Hiragana, and Kanji.
– The Japanese language has a word for "death from overwork". It is "Karoshi".

Did you find this article useful? If so, you might also enjoy our guide to business etiquette in Russia.

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