Japan is a highly innovative country, whose business practices differ greatly from those of Western countries
Despite being a relatively small country, Japan is one of the world’s largest economic powers. It is also considered one of the most technically innovative countries around the globe, being particularly strong in scientific research areas such as machinery and biomedicine. Although the nation’s economy has largely been built around private entrepreneurship, the Government has helped to initiate new industries, improve living standards and create economic infrastructure. As such, Government policies have a strong effect on many businesses in Japan. There are also several other major differences between Japanese and Western ways of doing business.
Ethnic groups: 98.5 percent Japanese, 0.5 percent Korean, 0.4 percent Chinese, 0.6 percent other
Language: Japanese – dialects vary around the country
National holidays: New Year (Jan 1), Coming of Age (second Monday in January), National Foundation Day (Feb 11), Spring Equinox Day (Apr 29), Constitution Day (May 3), Greenery Day (May 4), Children’s Day (May 5), Ocean Day (third Monday of July), Respect for the Aged Day (third Monday of September), Autumn Equinox Day (Sep 23), Health and Sports Day (second Monday of October), Culture Day (Nov 3), Labour Thanksgiving Day (Nov 15), Emperor’s Birthday (Dec 23)
Business hours: Monday to Friday, 9am – 5pm. Some businesses open Saturdays, 9am – 12.30pm.
Japanese is the primary language in the country, although there are some regional dialects. English is fairly commonly spoken but the level at which it is spoken varies greatly throughout Japan. Due to the way Japanese businesses operate, there is a need for clear, precise language and anything else can make operating become very difficult. Another issue is that the Japanese tend to use extremely minimal body language and do not visibly express emotions – something that people from the West find hard to interpret.
Japanese people tend to prefer to appear as very modest and humble – as such, self-promotion is not appreciated. Communication is usually much more subtle than in the UK and people may say the opposite of what they actually think so as to avoid offending the person they are speaking to. This can be difficult for non-Japanese people as you may be expected to interpret what has been said – always clarify conversations before taking action.
While Japan is an increasingly Westernised society, some business concepts are very different from what you would expect in the UK. Personal relationships play a much larger role and are of enormous importance – they come first, even above business. Companies are very hierarchical and staff members are expected to know their position within a business.
Managers in Japan do not usually take a hands-on role – instead, they tend to be supervisory. As such company policies tend to originate at mid- rather than senior-level. Managers and senior staff may seem somewhat ambiguous as the Japanese do not view forcefulness as a good managerial trait. The most important role for managers is to provide a good working environment, and in return subordinates are expected to keep managers fully informed of any and all developments.
Although women in Japan have largely the same legal rights as men, their salaries tend to be around 50 percent lower, indicating that there is still strong gender bias in Japan. Female managers from other countries may encounter difficulties if trying to manage male staff, although this may not always happen.
Punctuality is very important in Japan as it is seen as a mark of respect. Polite conversation often takes place before meetings and is important for relationship building.”Wa” (harmony) is essential in meetings – the Japanese do not normally offer strong opinions and you should do the same. Decision making can be a very long process so patience is essential.
Business cards are very important. You should ensure that you have your information printed on the back in Japanese. Present and receive cards with both hands at the start of a meeting with the Japanese-language side facing upwards. When you receive counterparts’ business cards, do not write on them or leave them behind after the meeting. During a meeting, keep any cards you have been given in a pile on the table with the most senior figure’s card at top of pile.
Gift giving is standard practice in Japan. You should not offer anything too extravagant but gifts should be of good quality. You should never present anything with a sharp edge as a gift as this may be taken to mean that you wish to end your business relationship, and gifts in quantities of four or nine should be avoided as the numbers signify bad luck in Japan.
Gifts should always be presented at the end of a visit and should be both offered and accepted with both hands. Usually, gifts are not unwrapped in front of a host but if your host insists then take care unwrapping. Japanese people take pride in wrapping gifts so you should show appreciation of this fact.
Team work is a way of life in Japan and gaining consensus is very important in decision-making. Hierarchies in Japan are generally not a top-down decision making process, but based on cooperation and a bottom-up approach. Team members will appreciate feeling more involved.
Clothing worn to meetings in Japan should be formal, preferably dark suits for men and skirts and flat shoes for women. Shoes should be easy to remove as some venues may request that you take your shoes off before entering.