Off to Japan for business or working with Japanese colleagues? Then put your best foot forward and make a great impression by understanding Japanese business culture.
In this blog we'll be taking a glimpse into the unique Japanese business environment and explore some tips for foreigners doing business with the Japanese.
Did you know that Japan is ranked 24th in The Business Culture Complexity Index™?
This means out of the top 50 economies in the world, its business culture is potentially one of the more tricky ones to navigate for foreigners.
This blog will reveal some of the reasons why.
So, Japanese Business Culture. How do we describe it?
If we were to describe Japanese business culture using just a handful of words, we would opt for ‘formal, hierarchical , harmonious and loyal’.
Using these descriptors, let’s now condense Japanese business culture into nutshell points.
Japanese business culture is strong on formality. This means that there’s a certain way to do, (and not do), things in the workplace.
Take for example, how people greet one another. In the Japanese culture, people greet each other in a particular order based on their position in the hierarchy. The most senior person is greeted first and the most junior person is greeted last. As a foreigner, if you greet the least important person first and leave the most senior person until last, you may well cause offence and cast yourself in a poor light.
The bow is all about showing respect, preserving hierarchies and maintaing social harmony - all fundamental values in Japanese culture.
One of the most iconic expressions of Japanese formality is the bow which is strongly linked to hierarchy. Essentially, if someone’s more senior than you, then your bow should be lower than theirs and held for longer. If they’re less senior than you, then your bow should be higher than theirs, and held for a shorter period of time. And if the other person is of an equal status? You’ve got it, the bow should be of an equitable angle and held for the same length of time.
Try and get this right without confusing the natural order. If for example, you go into a restaurant and return a bow lower and longer to the waiting staff, they will be obliged to repeat their bow to make it lower than yours and to hold it for longer than you did.....
You’ll also see formality play out in the clothes Japanese businesspeople wear. There is a way to dress, and most people stick to this by wearing simple black, grey or navy suits and avoiding colours which might otherwise make them stand out from the crowd. Japan places a great deal of value on the ‘group’, meaning that individualistic behaviours are not encouraged. If you walk through Tokyo during commuter rush hour therefore, it’s unlikely you’ll see people wearing bright socks, coats or elaborate hats!
As we’ve mentioned, Japanese business culture is very hierarchical. Everyone has their place and knows their role. Deference and authority are shown, and expected, where due. When you’re in Japan therefore, you need to respect the order of things. As a crude example, if there’s a secretary in place with responsibility for printing documents then don’t go and starting printing yourself as this may undermine the secretary and people may well question why you would do a job beneath your status.
We mentioned ‘harmony’ as a quality of Japanese business culture. This feature is a product of the importance placed on ‘face’ in Japan. You’ll probably find it’s one of the most challenging cultural values that you come across when you’re in Japan. Why? Because Japanese people won’t always tell you what they think They may lead you to believe one thing, but actually mean something a little different.
Have you heard of nominication?
It's a uniquely Japanese means of using aiding communication between colleagues through the use of plenty of alcohol!
Face, or Mentsu in Japanese, is very important to understand. Face is connected to dignity, honour and public standing. One can lose face, for example, by being blamed for something in front of others, and one can also gain face, for example, by being praised in front of others. Protecting your face and others’ face is crucial in Japanese culture as it helps maintain group harmony.
You’ll find therefore, that people rarely show public displays of anger as this would cause both themselves and the recipient of their anger to lose face. It’s not to say it’s not expressed in a different way, but on the whole, people speak to each other calmly and respectfully to protect harmony within the workplace.
When you’re in Japan, therefore, don’t always take what you’re told at face value. You may be told ‘yes’ to something when, in fact, the speaker means ‘no’. This isn’t intended to deceive you as the speaker will expect you to also consider some of their contextual and upspoken cues. Take the time therefore to look at the broader context, take note of body language and, if you’re really confused, then tell someone and ask them to be more direct with you.
When it comes to loyalty, the business culture in Japan is incredibly loyal. This also transfers to suppliers and business relationships, so if you’ve managed to invest sufficient time in building trusting relationships with your counterparts, then you’re likely to be rewarded by their loyalty. It’s unlikely that they will want to change suppliers as easily as they might in the west.
You may also be aware of the ‘salary men’ in Japan. This concept is a clear expression of the value placed on loyalty in Japanese business culture. Salary men are essentially white-collar workers, recruited into their role upon graduation. They then typically remain with their employer for life until they are of pensionable age.
So, the business culture in Japan can be summarised as formal, harmonious, hierarchical and loyal. To make the best impression and to win the trust of your Japanese counterparts, then it’s essential that you really take the time to understand the culture. This will help you to avoid cultural faux pas which might otherwise have been easily avoided.
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