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Ten Tips to Make a Visit to Japan Easier

Ten Tips to Make a Visit to Japan Easier 

We’ve all read a dozen articles on how to behave in a business meeting in Japan. Most of what is written is pretty much an accurate description of how local Japanese behave, but for a first-time visitor, the best rule is just be yourself. Your counterparts know you are not Japanese and are not expecting you to act identically to the local culture. However, knowing a few behavioural tips and local customs will help to make things go smoothly.

Here are ten random tips our Tokyo long-term foreign staff provided when asked ‘what would you tell a first-time visitor to Japan?’

1. Should I wear a jacket?

Between May 1 and October 31, most companies do not require employees to wear a suit jacket or a tie. The ‘cool-biz’ scheme has been running since 2005.

2. Nodding, silence and hand waving

Nodding is very important when listening to Japanese speak, especially in English, you should nod to show you are listening and understanding the speaker.

Silence is a natural and expected form of non-verbal communication. Do not feel a need to chatter and you should resist the urge to fill every silence – there aren’t really any ‘uncomfortable silences’…

Waving a hand back and forth with palm forward in front of face means "no" or "I don't know" and is a polite response to a compliment.

3. Do I really need to treat business cards so carefully?

Yes. Treat a business card with respect as it is viewed as an extension of the person. Gracefully receive and place carefully in front on you on the desk during the meeting. Avoid writing on the card until after the meeting even if it is to note something important about the person's role or position etc. Playing with the card, using it as a fan, toothpick etc., is generally frowned upon. After meeting everyone and swapping business cards, line the cards up in the order of the seating positions at the table.

Bilingual business cards are useful but not vital - your Japanese counterpart will be able to read it in English, but his or her grasp of English pronunciation may not be strong, so having cards with one side in Japanese goes a long way in aiding communication.

4. Yes and no

During a meeting, if you say something and the person on the other side has nodded in response, or even said “yes, yes” do not assume that they agree with your statement - they are more likely simply acknowledging that they have heard and understood what you have said. To confirm agreement you need to ask the direct question “do you agree?”, or even better, the open ended question “what is your view?”. Japanese people do not say “no” and will rather make up excuses or not say anything.

5. Get them out of their office

The dinner table/bar is where significant business in Japan can really take place. It is important to engage with your customers outside of their office, when possible, as it will often provide key insight that they are uncomfortable saying at their office. Most companies have budget for this and it is expected that we/our clients will do the same at some point. It doesn't have to be extravagant – in fact, an atmospheric ‘local’ may create an even more relaxed and open environment than a fancy dinner.

Even having a meeting in a coffee-shop instead of the office once you have established the relationship can be a good way to make your counterpart feel free to let you know what is really happening – something they may not feel comfortable doing in the office.

6. Uber-timeliness

Be early. If the meeting is at 10am then the other side will be in the meeting room and expecting to start at that time - if you arrive at reception at 10 you are already late.

7. Catching forty winks

As in other parts of the world, sleeping in meetings in Japan is considered rude – but you’ll be surprised at how often you see it and it is tolerated here to a degree that is generally shocking to Westerners. The overarching logic is that workers are exhausted from working for the company and deserve some rest, even at inappropriate moments like meetings.

This doesn't mean its OK for you to do it though…

8. What about bringing a gift?

Foreign (business) visitors to Japan should bring gifts for important customers (you should always bring one for personal visits). However, in the business world, this should only be done once a business relationship has been established. Giving gifts in first meetings or at early-stage discussions is generally not expected or appropriate, and can actually have the opposite effect and make your counterpart feel uncomfortable. A bottle of whiskey or non-perishable local specialties from your hometown generally make for the best business gifts. Gifts should be wrapped, and  as they are almost never opened in front of the giver, it is OK for you to say what it is.

9. San

"-san" is a title of respect added to a name. It can also be attached to the name of occupations/titles & companies. As it is an honorific, it is only used for people who are not in your own ‘in’ group, and should NOT be used when introducing yourself or when talking about someone from your own company.

10. Where do I sit?

Guests sit on the side of the table furthest away from the door in meetings. If in doubt – ask your hosts! The story is that this custom developed back in the feudal era, when the seat furthest from the door was the safest place in case ninja assassins burst in…


Alex Gover
About the Author

Alex Gover

Alex Gover is our SVP of Business Development. Now based in London, he has worked in and with East Asia for the past 25 years, including at Sony's International Marketing Division at the company's head office in Tokyo. He studied Japanese, Chinese and Economics at Oxford University before going on to take a Diploma in Advanced Japanese at Sophia University in Tokyo.

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