Before jumping into your very first business meeting in Japan, there are some essential etiquette rules that you need to know. Getting acquainted with some basic etiquette is the difference between coming across as professional, and trustworthy - in Japan, an essential business partner, or just plain rude.
This article will uncover 5 basic rules that you must know when meeting a partner or a client in Japan - you can consider it a cheat sheet! Following these rules will help you make a winning first impression, paving the way toward a future contract signature. So don’t waste any more time stressing about “honest mistakes”, this article has you covered. You can also directly contact us to get in touch with a consultant dedicated to your prospect in Japan.
1. You will need business cards. A lot of them.
Our first point of Japanese business etiquette is rather simple: Japan is a paper-based country.
Surprised? Even though Japan is famous as a technology pioneer, a lot of its business processes rely almost entirely on paper: fax, inkan (carved stamp) and business cards are staples—even though the government is trying to push them out. As Japan does not seem ready to embrace a paperless bureaucracy yet, you will need to adapt and bring your own business cards with you! But be warned, business cards have their own set of etiquette rules to follow.
Some business cards rules
Business cards are called meishi in Japanese, you’re supposed to give them the first time you meet someone in a business situation as a way to introduce yourself and your company. They will allow your counterpart to immediately identify you and how to contact you in the future. You can see the business cards as a representation of the person who gave it to you, so you should pay the same amount of respect to the people and the card altogether.
As for your own card, the better the quality the better it is—as it is a representation of yourself and your company! It’s also best to have at least one side in Japanese, and having both an English and Japanese side is really common too. When you hand it out, put the Japanese side face-up.
Usually, you will exchange cards the moment you meet your counterpart. The timing can look a little bit intimidating at first (do some training with a friend or colleague who's used to it if you can!) but simply remember that you have to hold the card you received with both hands, as a mark of respect. Take time to read it over, pay attention and show that you are interested.
During the meeting, keep the business cards on the table and don’t stack them! Spread them ideally by rank, you can put them away when you feel like the meeting is on its way down, when people are busy with documents or notes.
“Why do I need a lot of cards?”, you may ask. You will exchange an average of 3 to 4 cards at every meeting as everyone participating should receive one. A rough estimate of your booked meetings plus some more “just in case” should help you calculate how many you need. It’s also nice to carry brochures or documents that you can give out during the meeting.
2. The attire does count
Yes, what you wear is part of business etiquette in Japan. In fact, it speaks volumes about you. The Japanese business uniform is almost always a dark-colored suit! Men or women, don’t forget to pack a dark-colored suit, white shirt and dark - not black - shoes—during autumn and winter, light grey for spring and summer. It is considered as the “uniform” for everything businessy. If you visit Japan during a cold month, it’s better to hold your coat or jacket on your elbow before entering the building. Startups might be more loose on the attire subject but you can never go wrong with a dark suit—which would be the opposite with, let’s say, a Hawaiian shirt and cargo pants.
To sum it up, you’re a professional and in Japan, that means suit and tie. Everything from your haircut to your bag color will reflect your company and your way of doing business, so pay attention to details when it comes to choosing your outfit.
3. Bring gifts to the meetings…
Bringing a souvenir from your home country, or the country your HQ is in, will do wonders. This little piece of Japanese business etiquette goes a long way!
In Japan, it’s customary to bring a souvenir in business and social situations. It’s also a great way to break the ice and leave a lasting impression on your counterpart. Consider it a sign of how motivated you are to make things work! Since we are talking about the food & beverage industry, some delicacies to sample would be the perfect gift. Extra marks if you can find souvenirs that come individually wrapped, the common style in Japan.
Your gifts should be neatly packed, presented inside a discreet bag and offered—and received—with both hands too. Gifts are not to be opened during the meeting, but after, and of course, a thank you note is a great follow-up idea.
4. ...and be early.
Punctuality is cherished in Japan, so you should do everything you can to be on time, preferably early, to a meeting. That usually means having a 10 minutes buffer just to be sure the meeting will actually start when it’s supposed to.
While this is one piece of business etiquette you should avoid breaking in Japan, especially for your first meeting with a partner, sometimes it’s unavoidable. If you are to be late—it happens, we’ve been there too!—, absolutely never use the good old “the train was late” excuse as it is unlikely to happen and above all, you’re expected to take preventative measures in the case it would happen. Public transportation is actually helpful in the way that it is highly reliable and practical in Japan. You can get anywhere you want in a timely manner, just prepare ahead of your meetings to arrive on time.
5. “Read the air”
Reading the atmosphere, or the air, is a rough translation of the Japanese expression: 空気を読む (kuuki wo yomu). It does look very similar to the English “reading the room” but embraces the whole Japanese concept of what’s unspoken being even more important than what's actually said. Don’t be afraid of silence during a meeting, it can be valued as reflection time, and respect. Confrontation, on the other hand, can apply too much pressure on your counterpart so avoid raising your voice and more generally being too direct unless necessary.
Avoid small talk, private matters, or physical contact unless your counterpart initiates it (handshaking, shoulder patting,...) and blowing your nose—it’s considered highly inappropriate. Be pleasant, smile and keep the volume down. Mimicking your counterpart might be your best ally in order not to be too pushy. You want to appear as a “partner” rather than a “conqueror”. Hierarchy is also important so be sure to respect it in everything you do.
These 5 essential tips might seem overwhelming right now, but knowing them will take out a lot of the stress of doing the wrong thing. Another aspect to keep in mind is that Japanese businessmen and women won’t expect the same level of Japanese business etiquette knowledge from a foreign counterpart. The more you know, the better but an honest mistake won’t put you at stake either. Be prepared to avoid breaching the protocol and you will help your counterparts feel comfortable and receptive to you.
Working in the food and beverage industry will most likely lead you to food trades in Japan, so don’t miss our specific guide to engaging with potential partners FOODEX Japan: How To Engage With Potential Japanese Partners? on the blog!
These 5 rules will help you make a great first impression. But they are just the tip of Japan’s business culture iceberg. If you’re considering launching your food and beverage product in Japan, then our experts, fluent in the Japanese language, culture, regulations, and much more, can make your path to success in this black-box market crystal clear.
Our bilingual consultants each have an average of 10+ years of experience on the ground in Japan, specializing in areas including:
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