As the world’s third-largest economy, the majority of professionals in Japan are educated in doing business with the West, but if you’re hoping to close a deal there, some comprehension of how the Japanese operate can help to avoid any cross cultural misunderstandings.
A country of ancient and unique traditions, values and customs, it’s no surprise that Japan has its own distinct business culture.
Japanese society’s emphasis on altruism means that teamwork and group cohesiveness are valued highly in the workplace, as well as a deep respect for hierarchy.
Here, individuality is defined by a person’s position within their social group, with status determined by a number of factors such as age, employment, company and family background.
When doing business in Japan it’s important to understand the hierarchy within a company and to adapt your behaviour accordingly. Conveying respect through your behaviour, etiquette and body language is key, remembering that compromise and self-discipline are an important part of conducting business in Japan.
As your suitability as someone to conduct business with will be assessed during your first meeting, maintaining a sense of professionalism and respecting the formalities of Japanese interaction are essential.
Despite the bow being an integral part of Japanese society, Westerners doing business in Japan are not expected to bow. Instead, the most common greeting in these situations is a handshake combined with a slight nod of the head, before introducing yourself with your full name, position and company name.
As there is also a degree of ceremony to the exchanging of business cards in Japan, take time before you leave to ensure you have cards featuring a Japanese translation on one side. Keep these in a carry case in your pocket and always present your card Japanese side up, using either your right hand, or both hands and when there’s no barrier between yourself and the recipient. Accepting cards should be done with both hands, to show deference.
A successful relationship with a Japanese colleague or client is usually based on sincerity, compatibility and trustworthiness, so from this first meeting it must be clear you want to conduct business on a personal level.
How to close the deal
Although business decisions are rarely made within meetings in Japan, they are used to build rapport, exchange information or confirm previously made decisions.
Meetings are handled as a team, usually with a senior figure in attendance to represent the company, with lesser ranking employees doing the talking or negotiating. While you should greet attendees in descending order of rank, starting with the most senior, it’s important you try to build a rapport with everyone in attendance, as group consensus will usually be a factor in any decision making.
While meetings in the West are usually lead by explicit communicators, who assume the listener is unaware of all the background information and therefore provides it, the Japanese are implicit communicators. This means that minimal information will be conveyed as it will be assumed that you are fully informed on the subject, so detailed preparation is key.
Make sure you are fully informed about all elements of your company, service, product or proposal and that you also have supporting information in writing and be sure to answer all questions with professionalism and confidence. As silent pauses within a meeting are not uncommon and mean reflection is taking place, it’s important not to break these silences.
The emphasis in Japanese culture on maintaining harmony means when you’re looking to close a deal, negotiations should remain humble, indirect and non-threatening and you should never openly disagree. As money is not a leading factor when making business decisions in Japan, it should not be mentioned until you are asked for pricing and this may not be until your services are already accepted. Make sure there is some flexibility with your figures, as it’s better to offer a figure the Japanese team can say ‘yes’ to, avoiding the confrontation of saying ‘no’.
Success is achieved by using sincere, diplomatic language and ensuring any concessions are held until the end of proceedings.