How to succeed when doing business in Japan Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2010

When doing business with Japanese executives, it is imperative to understand the Japanese business culture in advance. Failing to understand the norms of the culture where you’re operating can cost you business, says Masae Okura, an associate at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC.

“If you try to do business with the attitude that you don’t care about their culture, that will not work,” Okura says. “You must study the business culture, and it’s always a good idea to consult with an expert to make sure that you don’t do anything that is considered offensive or rude in that culture.”

Smart Business spoke with Okura about what you need to know before doing business in Japan.

How should you act when meeting a potential client or businessperson for the first time?

Bowing is an integral part of Japanese culture. When you meet someone, make sure you always bow to show your respect. Shaking hands, giving a pat on the shoulder or hugging may be taken with surprise. Avoid making any direct physical contact, unless you are sure that they understand Western greeting culture.

The exchange of business cards is also important. You must treat the cards with respect. Bow first, then use two hands to present your card. Receive the person’s card with both hands, study it, and make sure you know how to pronounce the name. Then keep it on the table during the course of your meeting. It’s considered rude to put the card away.

Language may be a common issue most Americans encounter when doing business in Japan. Do not expect to have a meeting in English. Although English is spoken in many countries, that is not the case in Japan. You will heavily rely on an interpreter.

Japanese language has several levels of honorary expressions. As described by the common saying ‘Treat your customers like god,’ people will use a very high level of honorary language with their business counterparts. The higher the level of respect, the longer the expression may become. For example, after a long, long greeting speech made by a Japanese business partner, the interpreter may simply say, ‘Welcome to our company.’ Do not stare at your interpreter with suspicion. She is not hiding anything from you or trying to trick you. Instead, slightly bow (nod your head) with a nice smile and show your appreciation to such a polite and respectful greeting.

If you do not have any polite greetings in mind in return, be prepared to describe your impression about places that you visited in Japan or your appreciation of Japanese food. By showing respect to Japanese culture, you will be in a good starting position.

How do you get started doing business in Japan?

Japanese people value long-term relationship over short-term profit. You should really get to know your business counterparts and the people that you want to do business with. The first thing you should know is that the Japanese people do not like direct dialog. Try to avoid going directly to the main issue, especially if it contains sensitive contract terms. Directly expressing your own interests is considered rude; you may come across as greedy.

Instead, get to know your counterparts or your clients in an informal manner. Drink with them after work, play golf on weekends or sing karaoke. By doing so, you show yourself as someone who really wants to get to know his business partners.

Once you gain their trust, Japanese businesspeople will become more willing to talk with you. And once they like you, it becomes easier to discuss contract terms and other sensitive issues on the conference table.

How should you behave once you get to negotiations?

When it comes time to do business, do not raise your voice, ever, even if something unpleasant comes up. Do not show emotions, because that marks you as a person who cannot control emotions, and you lose their trust. Whatever happens, stay calm. Even if you’re not happy — especially if you’re not happy — keep a nice smile on your face.

It is also important to understand that Japanese people consider it rude to disagree or say no. So if they intend to break a deal, you will see a nice smile on their face and hear many polite words coming out of their mouth. So if you’re getting a polite smile and you’re not hearing any positive language — like when the next meeting will take place — you know your efforts were not effective.

How do work practices differ?

Although Japan does not have laws that allow gender discrimination, the woman’s role is predefined in society. Generally, family duties are given priority over career. So it is a common practice for woman to work part time or resign after she gets married. Therefore, females’ roles in business tend to be secretarial or assistant in nature, with not many opportunities for promotion. Female employees often serve tea, clean the offices and cater to the needs of male employees. Gender discrimination seldom becomes an issue in a workplace. Although women’s status has improved in recent years, you still see very few female executives in Japan.

In addition, while Japan has laws about overtime, it’s the cultural norm to show your loyalty to the company by performing voluntary overtime, coming in early or staying late. This is because most people were guaranteed lifetime employment once they joined a reputable company. Many male employees stay with one company until retirement. Challenging your company policy will not only hurt your promotion within the company, but your reputation as a good team player. Agreeing with superiors and showing loyalty to the company leads to long-term job stability. This is one of the reasons why you do not see many employment disputes in Japan. Lifetime employment may no longer be true due to the economic downturn, however, this kind of culture still exists.

Masae Okura is an associate at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC. Reach her at or (404) 223-2217.