Doing Business with Japanese Companies: the How-Tos and the No-Nos

Western business owners are always looking for new clients, especially among the thousands of private and public companies in Japan, the world’s second largest economy. It’s no wonder that hundreds of books, college courses and seminars focus on this topic. The fact of the matter is, there is no secret code for being able to enter the Japanese market, but there are some commonsense things that even the tiniest firm can do acquire a Japanese client or partner.

After spending the afternoon at a Sumo match, a baseball game and a matcha tea bar, it’s time to get down to business in Japan. What exactly does it take to deal successfully with a Japanese counterpart. Whether you have your own company that is trying to break into the Japanese market, or work for a corporation that has assigned you to do a bit of advance work, there are essential skills you’ll need in order to be effective as a foreigner dealing with a Japanese client.

Know the social behaviors that make a difference. More than everyday etiquette, business people need to know how to act in an office setting, while negotiating a contract and when socializing with their Japanese clients or hosts. Here is a compilation of the very least you need to know:

Silence is a way of communicating

The Japanese view silence as another way of speaking. During meetings and formal discussions, don’t be surprised if your counterparts get quiet. Do not attempt to fill the void with chit chat or serious talk. Let it be for a while and soon things will ramp back up. Knowing how to “ride the silence” will demonstrate your knowledge of the culture, and you will be appreciated for it.

Business cards are extremely (repeat: extremely) important in Japan

This really can’t be over-emphasized. Many a good relationship has been sunk due to a misunderstanding about business cards. Always give and take cards with both hands, treat them with respect, do not ever write on them, and be sure to place them gingerly into your wallet, purse or card holder after “appreciating” them for a few minutes. A clever trick is to present your card (with both hands) first, watching carefully how it is handled and put away. Then, the Japanese business person will invariably hand you her or his card. At this point, be certain to replicate the exact steps that you just witnessed from your perspective. (It seems like so much mumbo-jumbo to Westerners, but this truly is a biggie for the Japanese).

Respect privacy

The Western way of doing business usually entails lots of small talk intermingled with business discussion, especially during the “getting to know you” phase of negotiations. In Japan, chit chat is okay too, but it never includes the exchange of personal information. Keep things light and no deeper than “Where are you from?” or “What is your favorite kind of food/movies/sports?” at the very most.

This also applies from your end as well; don’t volunteer your deep, dark secrets or you’ll just make your potential business clients uncomfortable. Basic family information is usually okay, as are why you chose your profession or what your hobbies are. (Where Westerners talk about the weather as a default topic, the Japanese discuss their hobbies).

Clothing (when in Japan) should be conservative

If you are visiting a client or potential customer in Japan, dress codes for business people are much more conservative than in the West. Men usually wear dark suits and white shirts. Women wear little or no jewelry, no heels, and almost never wear slacks of any kind. If the Japanese are on your turf, dress as you normally would and they will do so as well. Japanese really enjoy getting away from the button-down atmosphere of their home country, and look forward to “going native” in Western nations, with casual business attire when appropriate.


Books are a good place to start, but should be viewed only as an adjunct to real-life experience, academic seminars and specialized courses. One of the classic tomes is Doing Business with Japan: Successful Strategies for Intercultural Communication, by Kazuo Nishiyama. Dr. Nishiyama covers all the bases, from Japanese business structure to interpersonal communication. There’s also a very helpful section on how to work with large companies and how to negotiate a typical contract. Business schools and private seminars have been using this book for years because it really does offer a comprehensive treatment and does so in everyday language.

Another worthwhile read is The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture, by R. Davies and O. Ikeno. Also a classic, the book delves deeply into the intricacies of the Japanese character, exploring such topics as seniority, unspoken communication, simplicity, gift giving, family life, social obligation, and the use of silence as a means of communicating various messages. As fascinating as it is useful, the 280 pages are must-reading for anyone who aspires to transact business with Japanese individuals or firms.

Finally, The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, by Erin Meyer, is a gem that explains all sorts of universal principles for doing business with cultures other than one’s own. Its collection of core concepts is especially valuable for those who want to enter the Japanese market. The Culture Map is packed with valuable, real-world advice for professionals who sincerely desire to understand how others think and operate.

Westerners can learn many lessons from the structure of traditional Japanese matcha tea ceremony, where nonverbal communication is at the very core of the event. Paying attention to unspoken cues, understanding how the Japanese do things, and not verbalizing every thought that comes to your mind are three essential ways to approach any meeting with Japanese business clients.

Whether in Japan or on your home turf, the cultural differences between Japanese and the outside world are huge. Westerners who want to have productive relationships with Japanese companies need to make an effort to learn about the nation’s culture, history and social customs. As the world grows smaller each day, cross-cultural communication is fast becoming the new international language.

Filed under Japan, Lifestyle

Yuki thinks simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. His most significant accomplishment is learning how to sit with a good cup of tea and listen. When not online, Yuki talks with all things wild and free. He is a blogger and a matcha lover.

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