How To Conduct Business In Japan

In this Business Brilliance article we look at Japan and how business should or could be conducted there. Doing business in Japan can be extremely lucrative. It’s the third largest economy in the world by GDP. No wonder many westerners want to do business there. It’s the home of some of the world’s most recognisable brands.

However, unlike other places in the world, such as Italy or the USA, Japan has quite the unique business etiquette. Being aware of this etiquette can only help your chances when trying to close deals in Japan, or even in your home country if dealing with Japanese businesses. Here are some of our top tips regarding how to conduct business in Japan. 

Image by kimura2 from Pixabay

The Art of The Business Card

Business card etiquette is extremely important in Japan, especially when swapping them for the first time. It goes by the name of meishi koukan (名刺交換), and is the custom of presenting business cards.

If you’re going to be doing business in Japan, you need to get some top quality business cards printed. Go for English on one side, Japanese on the other. Put effort into ensuring the translation quality is perfect. The card should be pretty clean and simple. Your business logo, name, office number and address should suffice. When you meet a business contact for the first time, you’ll certainly swap cards.

If they offer their card first, take it with both hands while thanking then, bow gently, and read the card as you do. Check the Japanese side, even if you don’t speak it, before moving to the English side. Place the card on the table, where you are going to sit. If it’s less formal and you’re stowing the card, place it in your wallet or even better, a business card holder. Don’t put it in your back pocket and fold/crumple it up, it’s disrespectful.

When you hand your business card over, do so again with two hands, Japanese side up, with the writing facing them so that they can read it properly. 

If you’re meeting numerous people at once, make sure you take the time to read each person’s card, even if only for a moment. It shows respect and care. Doing business in Japan may be your goal, so come across as respectful and that you’ve researched this important custom beforehand. Whatever you do, do not go to a meeting without business cards. It’s incredibly disrespectful, similar to someone refusing to shake your hand and comes across as “i don’t want you to have my card”.

Also, don’t assume your business industry differs in any way. They always use cards, they’re always important no matter what business idea of function you’re representing.

NeonBrand box
Keep a stack on hand ready to give out. Always give one back to those who give to you.

How To Bow

The truth is that your hosts will not want to make you feel uncomfortable, so they’ll likely go for a handshake. However, many in Japan are traditional and will bow. If you bow back, it shows you respect their culture and have done your homework. The art itself is called Ojigi (お辞儀) and involved the bending of ones neck or upper torso. It’s important that you don’t slouch, and keep your legs as straight as possible. Doing so would be a mistake as it shows disrespect Of course, in terms of bowing in business, there are several levels of bow. Each offers a seperate level of respect and you should choose the right one depending on the social situation.


Known in Japan as 会釈, the Eshaku is a casual business gesture, used for meeting colleagues of the same rank or status, or if you just bump into someone. It’s also used in settings where the more formal bows aren’t required…for example if you’ve known someone for a long time. It’s a shallow bow of around fifteen degrees, with the eyes just glancing at the floor.


The second form of bow, or the middle bow, is known as a Keirei (敬礼). The bow itself is at around thirty degrees. It gives a respectful impression, and can be used for meeting clients or potential customers, as well as thanking those you work with who are superior to yourself.


The most respectful bow is the saikeirei (最敬礼), which is and translates to the most respectful gesture. This is a gesture which shows utter respect for the person you offer it to. You can use it while asking for larger favours, or when you meet people at the highest levels of seniority. You go from around 40 to 70 degrees with this one, and it’s quite important that you hold the position for a time, to show you mean the gesture. It’s likely you won’t need this one, but just knowing each bow is important. Here’s a visual representation found in Second Life.

File:Ojigi 2016-05-15.jpg
The middle will be your likely choice.

Status Is Everything

Status is quite important in Japan, especially if you’re looking to do business with one of the large multinationals or conglomerates. As the guest, you’ll likely be at the top of the status tree…even if it’s you trying to woo them. But remember the reverse is true if you’re welcoming the visitors. If you’re meeting contacts at an office the likelihood is that you’ll be going into an elevator of some kind. As the guest, you’ll be asked to enter first. Don’t try to be polite and let them move first, just smile and say thank you, or better still, Arigatōgo. They will then enter the elevator in order of rank.

Similarly, in a meeting room. The person with the highest status, will usually be sat furthest from the door. So wherever is leading the Japanese delegation will likely sit at the head of the table with you by her or his side. Don’t enter the room and sit right by the door because it shows an ignorance towards their culture. Instead, wait for them to signal a seat. Do not just walk in and sit where you most feel like it. You must wait for them to offer it to you. Remember, this is exactly the same from the investment industry, right the way through to industrial machinery, government office contacts and entertainment. 

Don’t Start Drinking Right Away

The likelihood is, one of the entourage will offer you green tea, which you should always accept. They may also have different kinds of tea available, or coffee. However, trying green tea always looks a little better. You may be served by a receptionist, or the lowest ranking person of the entourage. When you receive your tea, don’t drink it as that would be a mistake. You should wait. Drinking it right away shows that you’re obsessed with the free drink, instead of thinking about the meeting. Thank the server, then refocus. When your host has taken a sip, then you can follow afterwards.

Nail Your Presentation

Presenting in Japan will be much like presenting elsewhere. Always speak to the room but remember the status code and pay more attention to the boss. You should always go for hard copy companions. Leaflets or pamphlets going into detail on what you’re presenting. Make sure this is in Japanese. You can print them in both languages and offer either to your hosts. Ensure there’s enough to go around. Make sure the leaflet holds information around you and your business, not just about what you’re proposing to them. Ensure you tie in well researched elements to their business too, and how you can add value to their model.

Get There Well Ahead Of Time

In a western business setting, if you meet at 11, getting there at 11 is perfectly fine. However in Japan, you’d be better off getting there early. It shows that you’re showing your host proper respect and that you want to make the most of the opportunity. Plan your route ahead and ensure you aren’t late. Remember, the metro and train system in Japan is a world leader so you should be fine. If you’re going to jump in a taxi, make sure you can translate or give the address in Japanese because a lot of drivers won’t speak English.

Be Prompt In Your Follow Up

Always be sure to send a follow up to whoever organised the meeting, and CC everyone present if you can. Thank them for their time, their hospitality, and for listening to what you had to say. Tell them you look forward to hearing from them, while in the meantime, you’d welcome the opportunity to clear up anything which they’re confused about, and are happy to answer any questions they may have. It shows willingness and an eager attitude which is well respected in Japan.

Learn Some Common Phrases

No one is going to expect you to be able to speak the language. It’s incredibly hard for a westerner, used to the romance languages, to learn Japanese. However, having a basic knowledge of simple words can again show that you’ve put some of the effort in to impress your hosts as well as interest in their language and culture. Here are some common phrases from Transparent:

  • Hai. Yes. はい。
  • Iie. No. いいえ。
  • O-negai shimasu. Please. おねがいします。
  • Arigatō. Thank you. ありがとう。
  • Dōitashimashite. You’re welcome. どういたしまして。
  • Sumimasen. Excuse me. すみません。
  • Gomennasai. I am sorry. ごめんなさい。
  • Ohayō gozaimasu. Good morning. おはようございます

Be Patient

Japanese people are extremely focused and efficient. However, things take time. Everything needs the right sign off from the appropriate persons meaning whatever you want has to be agreed. This is especially the case for those larger businesses with multiple corporate levels and if you’re talking big money, usually deep six figure territory, it can take even longer. Be patient, never push for an answer. Remember, things might move faster in Tokyo but if you’re doing business in some of the more rural areas things can take even longer still.

Japan is a beautiful, astounding country which has deep set traditions. Stick to these and you’ll only increase your chances of forging key business relationships. Get them on side by showing you pay attention to their customs, religions and beliefs. Not doing so many only alienate them and even the most lucrative business proposal might not get passed through. 

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