The biggest difference in Japanese business etiquette is that it’s a lot more formal than Western cultures. Unless you are working with the imperial family, most Japanese business persons understand the cultural difference and won’t judge you too harshly. That being said, here are a few things you may want to avoid:
1. Disrespecting business cards
Exchanging business cards is an extremely important part of Japanese business etiquette. It’s a way to show individual identity in a society where the group is usually more important than the individual. Always have plenty with you and when you accept someone else’s, take it with both hands, bow slightly from the hips, and offer thanks. Gently place the card in your wallet as-is because writing on them, bending them, or altering them in any way is as offensive as a slap in the face. It’s considered courteous to have your business card in your native language on one side and in Japanese on the other. You can include up to four languages on your business cards before they become too cluttered. When exchanging business cards, always present yours to the most senior person first, and then go on down the hierarchy. While you’re at it, you should probably avoid…
2. Ignoring the hierarchy
In Japan, status is kind of a big thing. When it comes to meetings, there is usually an exact order of how and where everyone is sitting, with the senior executive or manager at the head of the table. Make sure to ask someone ahead of time in order to avoid the awkward embarrassment of sitting in the Vice President’s chair. If you are exchanging gifts, always present the most senior person with their gift first, and make sure that person has the most expensive gift. And since we’re on that topic…
3. Forgetting to bring a gift
As a show of respect and friendship towards your new or potential business partners (or co-workers) you should always bring a small gift to the first meeting. Gift-giving in Japan is more about the ceremony than the gift, and the wrapping almost counts for as much as the contents. While the most important gift-giving ceremony is at the beginning of the first meeting, it’s common and a good idea to always stock up on items from your home country to bring as gifts for every large meeting. Have them wrapped at a local store so you can be sure they are wrapped properly. Also send a thank-you gift as well, something for the entire group or department like a fruit basket or collection of sweets. If you want to send gifts to Japan after you’ve returned to your home country it’s a good idea to consider using a gifting service that has locations in-country so you can send things like fresh flowers and fruit, and be assured it arrives on time and in perfect condition.
Following these few tips should help you to avoid any irreversible faux-pas. Japan is a beautiful country rich with culture and tradition, and once you get used to the nuances you will soon find yourself enjoying them.