Since the end of World War II when two atomic bombs changed Japan forever, the nation has fought to become the nation it is today. Japan is a nation that had two choices after the bombs were dropped, to die or prosper. Prosperity was chosen and ever since then the nation has been a leading innovator in engineering and technology making Japan a top country to do business with.
Innovation persists in Japan; miniaturising and automating processes have been the hallmark of Japanese industry and for outsiders to get in on the leading edge today one needs to have an advantage. One advantage that few consider, primarily because many Japanese people speak English is language. Language in any culture opens up doors, breaks down barriers and deepens respect and in Japan, respect especially is something of great importance.
Mastering the bow is a start when doing business in Japan, as is handing and grasping a business card with two hands. To the Japanese a Business card is an extension of the person referred to as Meishi. However, getting beyond this and further than Konnichiwa or Sayonara is the biggest challenge for many aspiring business people looking to do business in Japan. Relying on a translator is uncomfortable and awkward, emotion is lost and to be honest one doesn’t really know if the translation is truthful or exact. Translators also cost money and when some face time is required with your potential Japanese customer or partner, the translator is like a third wheel on a date.
Speaking Japanese automatically removes the third wheel and business relationships can grow deeper and stronger quickly. Even when making a few errors in Japanese your errors will very likely be forgiven because you are attempting what few actually do. Speaking Japanese shows respect and lifts levels of trust very quickly and when getting to the front of the queue to do business with a new product or partner with a progressive company you are leapfrogged to the front. Language in any country gives anyone an advantage, being able to converse and even make small talk or chuckle at a joke breaks down barriers fast. Not that Japanese business meetings are big on small talk but having a conversation with the receptionist or striking up a conversation with a general employee can prove useful.
Speaking Japanese gives you and your business a unique advantage when doing business in Japan. Not only does command of the language help in business meetings is also makes socialising with your customer, partner or supplier easier and just like every country in the world most business in Japan is not done in the board room. Speaking Japanese makes a round of golf much easier and conversation on any golf course is well known to be the conversation that closes the deal.
Japan is a country steeped in tradition and culture, and ensuring business etiquette is met in Japan in line with the traditions and culture is often the biggest fear for any person doing business with the Japanese. A great deal of the etiquette is common decency and politeness, but having some knowledge of what should or should not be done in a meeting, goes a very long way.
Perhaps the most common of all known elements of Japanese business culture, is the bow. It is common courtesy. Some people would say that it is better not to bow at all than to bow badly, but, the Japanese are very forgiving. If it is your first time doing business in Japan I am sure you will be respected. In communication prior any meeting, it is well worth while indicating this so when you do bow your client or host will understand and respect the fact that you are nonetheless aware of custom and are at least trying to conform. Do not offer a handshake immediately on a first time meeting and rather wait for the handshake to be offered to you, most people will offer one.
Another curious point about doing business in Japan is the seating. If your host is seated, do not wait to be asked to sit, it is considered polite to sit with your host. If none of your hosts are seated, do not break the ice and be the first, there is a certain hierarchy that is followed, the host or more senior of your hosts must sit first and then others will follow.
Much of the culture around business is common sense. Don’t rush and take your time, and with everything, being conservative is recommended. Don’t be brash, forceful or demanding as this can be disrespectful, and never dress in flash clothes or use expensive pens to make you look good, better or wealthier. Just be yourself. The Japanese are not easily impressed by money and showing off. And a little secret, only ever sign in blue or black ink unless instructed to do so otherwise.
Once you have settled in with your host or client, you will need to make conversation. Many Japanese businessmen speak very good English, but, speaking Japanese, even just a few phrases can make a tremendous impact on the person you are with.
Having an understanding of culture and etiquette is one thing but being able to converse in Japanese is something entirely different.
The Japanese language may seem a challenging language to learn but in actual fact it is not, English as a second language is by far the most complex and your Japanese counterpart is having to or has had to work a great deal harder to learn English than you have Japanese. Speaking the language creates trust and confidence. Your host will tell you things he or she would not it they were speaking another language with which they struggled, merely because they do not know how, or how to say it correctly. So much can be lost in translation but taking the time to learn the language and just do a little bit of research into doing business in Japan goes a very long way.
These blogs are about learning a foreign language and utilising that skill to forward your professional path.