Doing Business in Japan

Author: Tjc Global


Japan is often seen as a land of paradoxes where ancient tradition rubs shoulders with up-to-the-minute technology and internationally-acclaimed business practices; where you can see salary men enjoying traditional o-bon festival dances while kimono-clad teenagers talk on smoothly futuristic mobile phones. Japan is one of the most technologically advanced and vibrant business cultures in the world and the third largest economy, giving plenty of reasons why doing business with Japan is worth doing right.

The Japanese Language

The Japanese Language is very different to most European languages or even other Asian Languages. It has a verb-final construction – the verb comes at the end of the sentence – unlike English, which is mostly verb-second. This makes things complicated for Simultaneous Interpreters, as they have to wait until the end of the sentence in Japanese before they can start speaking in English and vice versa.

Japanese has no definite or indefinite articles such as the English ‘a’, ‘an’ or ‘the’. One must be very careful that your listener knows whether you are talking about ‘the document’ or ‘a document’. There are also no plural forms in Japanese so shiryou could mean either ‘document’ or ‘documents’

Because of these things a lot of Japanese communication relies on context. But not just because of that. The same word can have any number of meanings depending on the context it is used in. For example, hai, can mean ‘Yes’, ‘thank you’, ‘I understand’, ‘I agree’ and many more, simply by the situation which in which it is used.

The Japanese alphabet is made up of characters for syllables rather than letters for individual phonemes like English and they do not just use one, they use two. These contain 46 individual characters each, as opposed to the 26 letters of English. In addition to this there are around 8000 Pictographs or kanji in use which have multiple pronunciations and often only subtle differences between them. Contrary to popular belief these kanji are not just pictures, or even stylised pictorial representations of what they mean, but a complex system of radicals that must be mastered and learned off by heart.

Japanese is so unique that you need an interpreter or translator with experience and able to deal with a wide range of specialist terminology, not to mention the general complexities of the language.

Japanese Business Etiquette

The Japanese business practice of today has been westernised to a large extent but still retains some traditionally Japanese practices which are often misunderstood or mistaken by their non-Japanese business partners.

Business cards

Meishi (pronounced mei-she) are the Japanese equivalent of business cards. They have a special meaning and to receive a business card without due care and attention can be seen as a personal rudeness. The correct way to present meishi is held at the top corners with the lettering facing the person receiving the card. The receiver should then take the card by both lower corners, read it carefully and place it somewhere safe. When exchanging meishi the individual of lower status will pass their card first, and the individual of higher status will pass their card second. Meishi are usually given after bowing.


Keigo (pronounced kay-go) is a polite style of Japanese used frequently in business when talking to superiors. Keigo (literally ‘respectful speech’) is used to show respect or humility in the face of people you are unfamiliar with. It is often not taught in schools or at home so many businessmen receive lessons when they enter a company.


Uchi/soto means, roughly, Inner/Outer and refers to your relationship with a particular group. In Japan status is conferred not only vertically, i.e. superior and subordinate, but also horizontally, i.e. those with whom you are familiar and those with whom you are not. The group dynamic is a very important one and when you first meet anyone you will immediately take up the position of outsider, soto, even if you are from different branches of the same company or work in the same field. You should understand the distance that you are shown as a sign of respect, and not think that your hosts are being cold to you. The position of soto does have some advantages over that of insider, uchi, for instance you are given more leeway in your behaviour and are not expected to follow the same strict rules as someone who is uchi.


In Japan silence is very important. Though you may feel uncomfortable, try to analyse what sort of a silence it is, whether it is a respectful silence or an upset silence. There is a definite connection between silence and wisdom. The Japanese character for Knowledge combines the characters for losing and mouth, which goes to show that the Japanese consider people wise who refrain from speaking. As the old proverb goes, ‘better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove any doubt’. Some Japanese business books have also remarked on how westerners, especially Americans, feel uncomfortable with silence, so your associates may be trying to intimidate you.


Gifts in Japan are given to show appreciation of a favour done for you or to establish a sound business or personal relationship. Gifts should be something from your country and of a reasonably high quality, preferably with a special significance to your company or local area and not made in Asia. Gifts should be wrapped in ‘business colours’ like dark greens, greys, blues and browns, but avoid white as it symbolises death. Gifts should be given and received with both hands, as with meishi. Remember that to your business partners the gift you give and the way that you give it reveal a lot about your character and your attitude towards business.

When conducting trade relations with Japanese companies, one cannot underestimate the value of having in-depth knowledge of cultural etiquette. Our interpreters will act as a liaison for you, ensuring that everyone is satisfied.

Hints and tips on visiting Japan

When doing business in Japan, appearance is everything. Dress conservatively and avoid anything that might suggest a lack of seriousness or respect. Bring shoes which can be put on and removed very easily, as you will be required to do so in public homes and in many restaurants.

Bowing is something that also has its own intricacies. The depth and length of the bow both show your attitude to the person you’re bowing to, bowing is usually done in various standardised increments, depending on how you treat the person opposite. A good rule of thumb is to bow to the same degree as the person you\’re meeting, with your eyes down and hands by your sides. If you are unsure of yourself, do not attempt it. It may be embarrassing or, worse, be seen as mockery. Non-Japanese should feel free to just acknowledge a bow and hold out a hand to be shaken, rather than attempting to bow yourself.

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