In a relationship-oriented business world like Japan, building and maintaining personal relationships with business partners and colleagues is essential. Business dinners in Japan are therefore not used to continue discussing business issues; rather, they are used to get to know each other better and create a foundation of trust. One or two dinners are generally not enough to accomplish this. It requires repeated efforts on both sides to come together over and over again. You should always accept invitations, even at short notice.
In a restaurant
When you enter a Japanese restaurant, you always let the highest-ranking person take the lead. Take off your shoes at the entrance of the restaurant and slip into the pair of slippers that are provided or simply walk on in your socks. You will then usually go to low tables and sit on pillows placed on tatami mats. Do not extend your legs lengthwise under the table in the direction of the person opposite you.
The seating order is important, at least as far as the high-ranking participants are concerned. They usually take the best seat in the middle of the table and place the highest-ranking guest directly opposite.
The more official the occasion for a business dinner, the more formal the procedure will be. Often, there are a number of short speeches, and a good mood is encouraged by many toasts and “kanpai“, the classic Japanese toast.
Should your host recommend any of the house’s specialities, it is polite to try them. Good hosts will choose the food when they make their reservations.
Eating Japanese food
Japanese food is served very decoratively in many bowls. It is useful if you can eat with chopsticks, as knives and forks are not always available. Never put your chopsticks in the rice, because you think that they look pretty there! This is evocative of mourning ceremonies in which incense sticks are placed in a bowl.
At the end of the meal, you will be served soup. Make sure to slurp it directly out of the bowls to show that you have enjoyed it. However, if this gets your nose running, sniff it up. Cleaning your nose is considered to be extremely unappetizing!
If you want to visit the restroom during your meal, you must exchange your restaurant slippers for plastic slippers at the toilet door. Don’t forget to replace them with the other slippers when you leave!
After the meal
After the meal usually green tea or coffee will be served. Then your host will say, probably in the middle of the conversation, “Ikimasho-ka?”, which means, “Let’s go.” As a rule, the host will pay the bill after the meal. By the way, the amount of money spent on a meal is often used to determine the value of a relationship.
In the end, everyone heads out, puts on their shoes again and usually thanks each other effusively for the beautiful evening. If your host doesn’t arrange a taxi for you to return to the hotel, you may be going on to a “second stop”, which is often a bar or a karaoke bar, where you continue partying.
Although Japanese people are very formal and reserved in business life, they are very sociable outside the workplace. Enjoy these high spirits and don’t be a buzz kill.
The more relaxed the evening, the better the conversations will be on the following day. Plenty of alcohol will loosen your tongues so that you can get to know each other as much as possible. Drunkenness is not only tolerated in Japan but is even demanded in many business situations. It is considered that people can only speak their minds with impunity in this state. The next morning all the “missteps” of the previous evening are forgotten and there will be no decrease in respect for you, quite the opposite.
The Japanese call this kind of behavior “nominication“. This means something like: drinking as a “kind of communication”. The expression is a combination of the Japanese verb “nomu” (to drink) and the English term “communication”.
Nominication offers the Japanese the opportunity to put forward new ideas as well as cautiously voice concerns and light criticism.
If you are invited to sing karaoke, you should overcome your inhibitions and join in the fun. The best way to do this is to remember that it is not a singing competition. Don’t let yourself be demotivated if a Japanese business partner can sing extremely well. The fun only starts with colleagues who are enthusiastic about singing a song that sounds completely weird. If you still don’t dare to sing alone, grab the hand of a Japanese partner and drag him onto the stage to sing with you.
In rare cases, and only if there is a greater mutual interest in a personal relationship and initial trust has been established, a private invitation to the home may be issued. Show your appreciation and prepare yourself well in advance.
It is absolutely necessary to give a host gift, whereby the value of the gift will reflect the importance of the relationship. High-quality packaging is just as important as the content. Suitable presents are high-quality edible delicacies, such as special flawless fruit in a gift box, special sweets and the like. Products manufactured in Europe, such as well-known perfumes, pralines or very good chocolate, are also popular.
When entering an apartment, always take off your shoes at the entrance door and exchange them for slippers. When greeting the hosts, their parents and children, bow down and hand over your gifts with both hands.
Before you leave, praise your hostess for her culinary skills and thank her for her hospitality. Japanese do not say goodbye to their guests at the door, but bring them to the exit of the building or to the car and say goodbye there warmly.
In Japanese business culture, joint activities such as sightseeing, visits to museums or events, golf games or foot massages are part and parcel of building and maintaining relationships.
When visiting an onsen, a bath fed by natural hot volcanic springs, it is important to follow clear rules. You must take off your shoes at the entrance and then leave your clothes in the changing room in a basket. The bathing area, which is usually separated by sex, may only be entered covered with a towel. You’ll have to take a shower first, though. Unlike in Western countries, you will sit on a small stool to shower, in front of a tiled wall with shower and shower fittings. After a thorough soaping, you wash off all the soap. Ignorant foreigners who do not follow these rules exactly and go into the bathing area unshowered are very unwelcome guests. The bath attendant will then drain the now dirty water completely and close the bathing area. And one last hint: After bathing, you are not allowed to enter the changing rooms without drying off.