Current student shares advice on doing business in Japan

Our class is heading to Asia in March, and to  prepare we are sharing some business tips for the countries that we will be visiting. Matt Pettigrew lived in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefectur for two years. He was kind enough to share some tips that he learned from living abroad and experiencing Japan first hand.
Matt and his wife Bethany in front of the Golden Poo (Asahi Beer building)

Matt and his wife Bethany in front of the Golden Poo (Asahi Beer building)


Respect and Hierarchy 

I think the most accessible way to put Japanese business culture into perspective is in terms of “respect”.   In Japanese business culture it is assumed that everyone must show respect to their superiors. Who are your superiors, anyone who is older than you or in a more advanced position than you. If you are unsure if someone is your superior, it is best to assume they are until proven otherwise. The Japanese adherence to this hierarchy system can sometimes be quite strict, as someone who is even one month older than you is technically your superior and deserves your respect.Once you have determined who your superiors are, then you need to know the Japanese ways of showing respect. Some ways of showing respect are similar in Western countries, such as not interrupting others, letting others go before you, giving up your seat for elderly, opening doors for others and using polite words/phrases whenever possible. But there are some other ways of showing respect, which are uniquely Japanese:

1. Bowing: Is used in Japanese culture for greetings, farewells, apologies, congratulations, and whenever you feel like it. Boys bow with hands at their sides, girls bow with hands crossed in front. The deeper the bow, the more respect you are showing, and the longer you hold the bow also shows how much respect you give. That new 18 year old intern who just swept the floor deserves a 15 degree bow and a thank you. The department manager whose dog you just ran over deserves a full 90 degree bow, held for 6 seconds and the most polite apology possible. Actually, anything longer than 3 seconds for a bow seems kind of ridiculous and should be reserved for apologies. Sometimes you will also see rapid-fire bowing, (5 bows in 3 seconds), which can also be very respectful, but whenever I see a non-Japanese person do it, it always looks sarcastic for some reason.

2. Keigo: This is the special “polite” verbs and nouns that are used in Japanese when talking to your superiors. If you have studied Japanese language, you have probably come across the varying degrees of politeness, and have been told when and where to use them. If you haven’t studied Japanese language, it is not expected of you to use these words at all, so don’t worry.

3. Disagreeing: Don’t disagree with your superiors in front of a group, ever. If you need to bring up something that you disagree with, do it in private.

Random Etiquette

Business Cards: When someone gives you their business card, receive it with two hands, and don’t put it in your pocket until you have said goodbye to them. If you sit down while talking with them, put the card on the table as you talk. The card represents the person, and should be treated with respect.

Chopsticks: Don’t stab your chopsticks into your rice and leave them sticking up! That’s what they do at funerals, so don’t do it. Also don’t pass food from one person to another using chopsticks to chopsticks, it is rude!

Noodles: Slurping noodles is normal.

Party seating: Seating arrangements at parties demonstrate who is most deserving of respect. The seat furthest from the door and/or closest to the featured room decoration is the place of honor. The opposite seat (closest to the door, furthest from the decoration) is the lowest in the hierarchy or is used by whoever’s job it is to organize the party. So don’t show up and take whatever seat you want, because usually there is assigned seating or you draw a number for your seat.

Punctuality: Be on time, which actually means be 10 minutes early, always.

Drinking: At office parties, the first drink is important and is always preceded by a short speech by someone of honorable position. After they give their speech, they will say “Kanpai!” (cheers) and then you clink glasses and then you can start drinking. Also at office parties, you never fill your own glass, whether its beer, juice, tea etc… Filling your own glass means people around you aren’t taking care of you, so let others fill your glass and make sure you fill the glass of those around you too. Filling glasses makes for great conversation starters.

Silence: Buses and trains are usually very quiet places. You can have quiet conversations with friends around you, but don’t talk on your cell phone.

When I first arrived in Japan, I didn’t know any of these unique Japanese rules. Thankfully, Japanese people are very forgiving towards foreigners when it comes to their system of respect. As foreigners we are given a lot of grace when it comes to showing proper respect, like on my first day when I met the office manager and bowed to him with my hands in my pockets. (Don’t do that!) That being said, although they will let your mistakes slide the first few times, you should do your best to respect their system. It is also a very pleasant surprise when a foreigner comes along who already knows the system and acts accordingly. Overall, it’s a great way to avoid embarrassment and to earn some brownie points as well.

Susan Forrester


 Susan Forrester is a full-time student in the Masters in International Management program. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Portland State University. After living in Seoul, South Korea for two years she was interested in finding a career that linked Oregon and Asia together through trade. Susan enjoys the diverse background of the MIM student body that allows her to frequently practice her beginner level Chinese.


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Filed under Business and Asia, Common Questions, Japan, Susan's Entries

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