11 Japanese Business Etiquette Rules To Remember

If you’ve ever done business in Japan, you may have been surprised by the various customs and etiquette rules that exist in the Japanese business scene.

Japan has a culture of valuing courtesy and abiding by the rules. It’s especially important to understand etiquette rules when working in Japan, as it will directly affect whether your business succeeds or not.

To help you out, we’ve put together a list of 11 basic Japanese business etiquette rules that you should know about.

1. Levels of Respect By Title, Age, and Hiring Date

Generally speaking, how esteemed someone at a Japanese company depends on ①their title/position, ②how old they are, and ③when they joined the company, in that order. Clients and guests should also be treated with high regard.

There are specific rules as to how to act when you’re around a person of a higher rank, and those who are able to abide by these rules are often considered to be competent in business. Those who don’t, on the other hand, can lose trust as a businessperson.

Examples of Appropriate Behavior

・Using respectful language and honorifics ・Operating the elevator and getting off after your superiors ・Remembering to HoRenSo (Report, Communicate, and Consult) ・Researching necessary information for business trips beforehand ・Remembering to bow ・Greeting your superiors when arriving/leaving the office

Examples of Inappropriate Behavior

・Getting on the elevator before a superior ・Being on your phone in front of a superior ・Smoking in front of a superior ・Disobeying a superior’s orders ・Sleeping while on the move

There are times that the above examples of inappropriate behavior can be tolerated, but remember to ask your superior for permission.

2. Seating Etiquette – Kamiza (Seat of Honor) and Shimoza (Bottom Seat)

There are rules regarding where you sit in a room for a meeting or when getting in a taxi.

Kamiza = Seat of Honor, where the superior will sit

Shimoza = Bottom Seat, where subordinates will sit

Generally speaking, the seat farthest from the door is the kamiza. In contrast, the seat closest to the door is the shimoza. This ensures that subordinates can quickly get up when necessary.

When getting into a taxi, the seat behind the driver is the kamiza, and the passenger seat is the shimoza.

Don’t forget that clients and guests are given priority when it comes to seating etiquette.

3. Rules for Respectfully Exchanging Business Cards

In formal situations, you’ll be required to exchange business cards in a respectful manner. There are strict rules for this, and you’ll make a bad impression of yourself and your company if you don’t follow them.

Folding a business card, using it to write a memo, or putting it directly into your pocket are all considered disrespectful. When you have a business meeting with someone, make sure you have immaculate new business cards and carry them around in a card case.

〇How to Exchange Business Cards

・The lower ranking person will give their business card first ・Don’t hand your business card across a table.<br/ > If you were sitting down, stand up and move beside the table before giving someone your card ・Hold your business card with both hands at a lower position than the other person’s card ・Hand over your card from in front of your chest to the other person’s hands ・Bow and introduce yourself (company name / department / name) when giving your card

〇How to Receive Business Cards

・Receive with both hands, making sure your fingers don’t cover the person’s name or their company name ・Receive cards in the order of their rank ・Apologize if a higher ranking person gives you their business card before you do

Once you’ve received a business card, you should leave it on the table during your meeting. When the meeting is over and you’re about to leave the room, say “Chodai itashimasu (thank you for the card)” and place the card on top of your card case before carefully putting it away.

4. Keep Body Language to a Minimum

The Japanese aren’t very accustomed to physically coming in contact with others.

Hugging and kissing aren’t things people usually do, even in close relationships. Be careful how much physical contact you make with others, as it may be met with expressions of surprise or discomfort.

Shaking hands is also something that isn’t customary. Some will act surprised and end up not shaking your hand, while others might not know how. If not absolutely necessary, you can skip it.

You won’t see much body language either. Opening your arms wide or leaning forward may be misunderstood as being angry or intimidating.

Some actions might have the same meaning in Japan as they do in your own country, but this isn’t always the case, so it’s safer to keep body language to a minimum.

5. Always Keep a Smile on Your Face

Modesty is considered to be a virtue in Japan and many people tend to avoid expressing their feelings directly. People separate their “honne” and “tatemae,” or one’s “true feelings” and “facade” respectively, and usually won’t share their real thoughts with someone they aren’t close to.

Sustaining a harmonious atmosphere is prioritized, so it’s common practice to discuss business with a smile even if one’s true feelings are the opposite. Expressing emotions is unfavorable, especially toward the elderly.

During a presentation or business meeting, you may hear Japanese people start talking about irrelevant topics as an icebreaker. This is also a technique used within a team. Even if the topic isn’t something one is really interested in, they might chat about it anyway in order to build a good relationship with the other person or group.

6. Be Considerate Before Expressing Yourself

Most Japanese people will try to be considerate and ensure nobody in the room feels uncomfortable.

When speaking in a business situation, it’s important not to say things that might offend others or interrupt the conversation.

If you criticize something in public or state a strong opinion, you may be making a bad impression as being inconsiderate or uncooperative.

In recent years, some companies have started to rethink this Japanese philosophy to be inefficient. But it really depends on the corporate culture of your workplace and your business partners, so be prepared to be flexible.

7. Only Say You Can if You Can Do It For Sure

In Japan, saying you can do something means that you are 100% sure it is feasible.

As this is the case, your business partners will proceed with other projects assuming you will get this certain task done. If things don’t work out, you’ll lose trust and your relationship with partners can start to deteriorate. Imply that you’re willing to make efforts by using phrases like “I’ll do my best.”

Or, you can explain that you have to check with your boss/company and can’t make a decision on the spot. Apologizing for this will help as well.

If you’re not sure whether you can do something, it’s best to avoid verbalizing your commitment to it.

8. Starting Time is Strict, Extra Hours are Vague

It’s perfectly normal for the Japanese to work overtime if they haven’t finished any work by the time the clock strikes 5 PM. Views on work-life balance differ significantly depending on the company.

You’ll also find that there are various get-togethers held as opportunities for bonding between employees. These events fall somewhere in between both the work and personal life categories. While they’re held outside of business hours, not attending work-related events can be considered rude.

It’s better to participate in such events as they’re casual occasions with the objective of deepening relationships between coworkers.

On the business side, punctuality is key. If you’re late, people will think you lack self-discipline and common sense, and you’ll consequently lose their trust.

Think of being on time as an absolute must when doing business in Japan.

9. Change How Deep You Bow Depending on the Situation

You may already know that the Japanese will often show their respect to others by bowing.

There are different types of bows, each for a different purpose and situation.

Walking by someone  Simple bow15 degrees
Greeting a superior Entering/exiting a room Welcoming/seeing off a guest Visiting a clientRegular bow30 degrees
Entering a room Apologizing/expressing gratitude Requesting an important taskMost respectful bow45-60 degrees

10. Mix and Match Fixed Phrases To Construct Emails

Business emails are constructed by putting together various fixed phrases in order to ensure there’s no rude wording.

You should include the following, and fill in whatever you are sending the email for.

・Recipient’s company, title, name ・Your company, title, name ・A simple title conveying what you need ・Fixed phrases explaining what you need ・A polite closing

The type of fixed phrases used depends on the company. You should imitate your coworkers’ emails until you’ve learned the phrases yourself.

11. Business Decisions are Made as a Team

Generally speaking, business decisions are made by the company as a whole.

Many countries give large responsibilities to the individual, but in Japan, decision-making is a team effort.

Unless you’re in a position with the authority to make decisions yourself, business ideas will usually be taken back to the company to be discussed within a team before any project goes forth.

Thus, returning answers and making decisions can take time. Hurrying somebody or making compromised decisions on your own is not a good idea.

In Conclusion

Some of these business etiquette rules may seem strange when compared to those of your own country, but every country has its own unique values. If you’re hoping to successfully do business in Japan, it’s important to be respectful of the country’s customs.

Even if all of this is too much for you to remember, you’ll be able to work things out as long as you don’t forget the basic ideas that the Japanese attach importance to.

We hope the explanations in this article help your business succeed in Japan!