More of the Art & Zen of Doing Business in Japan

This is the second instalment from cross-cultural business expert Dean Foster on doing business in Japan. Check out Part 1 here if you haven’t already.


Even when you make a mistake in Japan, you will rarely know it.  You will likely be assigned a Japanese colleague whose job it is to take care of you, make sure you are always comfortable, and that you always know the right place to sit at a meeting (across the table from your Japanese counterpart at a meeting, and next to them at a restaurant, based on your mutual titles, rank and responsibilities), how to order in the restaurant (follow their recommendations, especially as it helps to overcome the menu language barrier), keep your glass re-filled (you should also look to keep their glass re-filled), and help you with your chopsticks (Japanese chopsticks typically need to be pulled apart, and gently “scraped” smooth in your lap before use). 

Most importantly, at the very first meeting, this individual will introduce you to the people you need to know, so when you first walk into the room, wait and do not introduce yourself to others.  When introduced to someone, have your business card at the ready in your hand (never take it out of your pocket in front of them), and exchange your card with two hands, holding it in the top right and left-hand corners with each hand. 

Present your card so that it is readable to the other person (not upside-down to them), and if your card has already been translated into Japanese on one side (a very good move), present that side up to them.  Almost simultaneously, your Japanese associate will present their card, exactly in the same way to you, English-side up.  As cards are exchanged, be sure to make eye contact, then lower the eyes as you also bow slightly and look to the ground. After you both have received the other’s card, hold it in silence for a few moments, and read their name and title aloud, indicating that you have “digested” the very important information about them on the card.  As the Japanese work and make decisions typically in groups, anticipate moving down a receiving line, repeating this business card exchange with many individuals before taking your seat. 

Finally, once you take your seat, organize the business cards you have received into a seating plan in front of you above your notepad, with each card representing the individual and where they are sitting.  Leave these cards in place untouched during the entire meeting. Never “deal” out a business card to anyone, and never write on a business card in front of the person who gave it to you. When the meeting is over, carefully collect them and put them in a business card holder or a jacket pocket (never put them in your back rear pants pocket as this is considered to be very rude).


Especially during your first few days in Japan.  The goals of the first meeting are to establish your credentials as a potential business partner, and for both sides to introduce themselves to each other, clarify roles and responsibilities, and review the all-important agenda.  Prior to your visit, spend time coordinating as detailed an agenda for each day as possible, and once finalized, do not veer from the agenda, or introduce new ideas (save that for the evenings).  Remember, decisions are typically group decisions in Japan, so give your Japanese associates time to confer, discuss and make decisions in private. Do not press them for decisions on things they have not had time to confer with each other about (which they may or may not feel comfortable about doing with you at the table).  Consider that meetings are really information-gathering events, not opportunities for decision-making. That will come AFTER the meeting, and after much “nemawashi” (networking and consensus-building) between the members of the Japanese team.


Things will take more time (at least at the beginning), traditions are more formal (but not in the evening), and everything from the language to the food is different.  But here’s the good news: while those differences might be challenging at first, once you are a trusted business partner, you will have created a valuable relationship that will produce success for many, many years.  Ganbarou!  (Good luck!)

Dean Foster, author of five books on world cultures, travel and work (, is also host of the podcast, “Oops! Your Culture’s Showing!” ( and the CNN “Doing Business in…” series.  He is on faculty at the Intercultural Management Institute, American University, Washington, DC. His work has taken him to over 100 countries and he still loves getting on the plane.