If you want to do good business with Japanese people, you should ensure that you develop personal relationships through frequent meetings. In Japan, business is not conducted at the factual level, via product quality, prices and services, as is e.g. customary in the Western world, but at the relationship level.
Before starting to do business, it is common for Japanese people to get to know each other personally in order to get a “gut feeling” for the potential business partner. Therefore, your first goal should be an evening business dinner with the relevant partners.
In Japan, business contacts are often made through third parties, ideally through managers at higher hierarchical levels who know both parties well. They can act as intermediaries, so-called “shokai-sha”, to organize initial meetings with the desired Japanese company representatives.
As a rule, they will be personally present at the first discussions and introduce both sides to each other. Shokai-sha bear a moral responsibility for the success of a business initiation.
Upon meeting new Japanese contacts in person for the first time, bowing is the correct form of greeting. As a sign of respect, look at the floor. At this time, business cards are handed over and received with both hands so that they can be easily read by the recipient.
When whole teams meet, the highest-ranking members greet each other and exchange business cards first. Only then do the other team members greet each other in turn. The employees of the highest-ranking will be one step behind their boss during the greeting.
On the whole, dealings in Japan are extremely formal. The depth of bowing depends on the hierarchical level. However, it is not necessary for foreigners to learn these subtleties. The mere hint of a bow already signals the necessary respect to the Japanese.
Even if you feel the ritual of greeting is quite stiff, do not try to loosen up the situation with humorous remarks or gestures. Those may not be understood by the Japanese because of their different cultural backgrounds.
Many Japanese who work for large international companies have embraced Western forms of greeting such as shaking hands. If a Japanese shakes hands to greet you, do not interpret the extremely soft handshake as a lack of self-confidence.
In Japan, your business card is considered part of your personality, which is why its appearance is important. To signal this to the outside world, it is best to store your business cards carefully in a high-quality cardholder. And please: never hand over business cards that no longer look fresh from the press!
Your business cards should be in English at least and preferably in Japanese on the back. A meaningful business title is particularly important because it provides information about who is on a comparable hierarchical level on both sides. In Japan, it is very important to talk to business partners on a comparable hierarchical level first and to negotiate later. If you communicate with Japanese people at a lower hierarchical level than yourself, you will lose respect. Your business title on your business card, therefore, determines which Japanese interlocutors you will talk to and negotiate with in the future.
Your outward appearance during the first business meeting is just as important as having a meaningful business card. Business partners are often judged by how they dress.
For men, the standard business dress code is a dark suit with a discreet tie and a white or light blue shirt. Sloppy or casual clothing is considered disrespectful and puts you and your company in a bad light. Tattoos, piercings or men’s earrings are absolutely taboo in the Japan business.
Women should wear a discreet skirt or trouser suits. Short skirts are unsuitable, and long hair should be worn up. Make-up should be used, but very modestly.
Small talk is an important part of doing business in Japan. It serves to build and maintain personal relationships. Every meeting starts with small talk, a warm-up to create a good atmosphere between the two partners. Praise and compliments about Japan and its people are especially suitable at the beginning. Avoid business issues initially. Try to find out what you have in common so that you can get back to it at the next meeting.
PowerPoint is also standard in Japan for presentations of your company. If you are used to holding presentations, which are very fact-oriented and peppered with many facts, figures and texts, please be aware of the fact that the Japanese prefer to give a personal visual overview of the company’s history, location and development. Pictures of people, teams, company buildings and products are shown and only the most important facts and figures are given.
Relationship before business
After your first meeting, you should make sure that your personal relationships are strengthened through many more meetings. In Japan, business relationships are generally designed for the long term. It may take a little longer to set up a lucrative business with the Japanese, but once you’ve established and nurtured your contacts, these relationships will last a very long time.