Business structure in Japan is strictly hierarchical but with the central ethos to corporate success being based on group effort. Each worker has clear roles, responsibilities and boundaries with loyalty and long service being rewarded with promotions. Harmonious group activity and solidarity among workers is considered paramount and is the cornerstone of Japan’s success as the 3rd largest economy in the world. Japanese business culture places emphasis upon customer needs, giving the country a reputation for levels of customer service rarely experienced in other developed countries.
Japanese management style is bound by complex rules and emphasis is on harmonious relations between workers and their superiors. The relationships between line managers and their immediate subordinates are often as close as siblings, with loyalty and respect considered a vital attribute for career progression. While a strict management structure exists, Japanese businesses operate a decentralised decision-making culture known as the ringi system, whereby all workers reach a consensus on a proposed venture or idea. This system may seem arduous to someone from a Western culture, where most workers are used to top-down decision-making, but Japanese emphasis on consensus and the clearly defined roles of workers underpins the national ideal of group harmony.
Japan has an intensely formal business culture and politeness, sensitivity and manners are considered important to good business practice. Even the exchange of business cards, customary at the start of meetings, comes with a set of strict cultural rules (present the card with both hands, place a card from someone senior at the top of your pile, always place cards in a leather business card case and never in an inside pocket). First names are rarely used in a business setting and co-workers call each other by their last name with the affix ‘san’, for example, ‘Mr Tanaka-san’. If you unwittingly make a faux pas in a business environment, it is unlikely you will find out until much later, your audience being too polite to tell you your mistake.
Japan has a formal business culture and do not like to bring their private lives into the workplace. However Japanese office workers are encouraged to socialise with their boss and co-workers after work in bars and restaurants most evenings, particularly Friday night. Socialising with colleagues is generally not optional and is seen as part of workplace duties, to the point where if you must leave early, it is customary to apologise to your co-workers and congratulate their continuing dedication to their work before you leave.
Japanese people place great importance on business attire and sloppy or outlandish work clothing is unacceptable. Men should choose a dark-coloured suit, shirt and tie and wear polished shoes that are easy to slip on and off (removal of shoes is necessary in many homes, restaurants and hotels in Japan). Women are expected to wear long or knee length skirts (Japanese businesswomen rarely wear trousers), flat shoes as opposed to heels and keep their hair tidy and tied back.
Bowing, rather than a handshake, is used as a greeting and thanks in Japan. The speed and depth of a bow depends on who you are greeting. Deep, exaggerated bows are reserved for highly respected figures, senior managers and office bosses. However, most Japanese people do not expect foreigners to understand the bowing system and will offer a handshake to visitors from Western cultures. The European peck on the cheek is rarely seen, yet the air-kiss is not uncommon among friends. More information about bowing in Japan can be found here.
Punctuality is highly important in Japan and is woven deeply into the culture of ‘no hidden surprises’ (i.e. do not be unpredictable). Japanese people are very punctual and turning up to a meeting late would be seen as exceedingly rude, even by a few minutes. Public transport in Japan is known for being punctual to the second and most people like to arrive at meetings at least five minutes early.
Business meetings in Japan are highly-structured and strictly bound by social and cultural etiquette. At the beginning of a meeting, following a series of bows and the exchange of business cards, participants must wait until the highest-ranking person present is seated before they sit down. Meetings are very respectful and everyone is given their opportunity to speak. Over-gesticulating, talking loudly or over other people or being aggressive would cause great offence in a Japanese business meeting. It is not uncommon to see managers subconsciously copying their superiors’ gestures and mannerisms, from removing their jackets to writing notes almost in unison.
Business culture, along with other elements of Japanese culture, is dominated by intricate rules of etiquette, politeness and formality. Japanese people do not expect foreigners to understand each and every rule and are very forgiving of the odd faux pas. However, it is a good idea to try and keep a respectful demeanour, attempt the correct bow and learn some phrases of Japanese in order to gain trust in a business setting. Trying but failing is often considered worthy of respect in itself and can mean the difference when clinching a deal.
Most business in Japan is done in Japanese. English is widely taught in Japanese schools and, although many people are proficient in the language, most people will be too polite to stop you even if they do not understand what you are saying. When using English in Japan, try to speak slowly and keep what you say simple.