Before a meeting with Japanese business partners, you should coordinate an agenda. Do this as early as possible, so that your partners have enough time for nemawashi. (Pronounce: Nemawoshi)
Nemawashi refers to the practice of clarifying all possible questions internally with all persons or groups concerned in advance in order to make more rapid progress in subsequent meetings. The goal is to build consensus. Any necessary conversations take place face to face. The process can therefore take some time. If you do not give your Japanese business partners enough time for nemawashi, you run the risk of upsets and misunderstandings.
In Japan, meetings are not usually held to make decisions, but only to prepare for them. Adjust your expectations in advance if necessary. Also, it is crucial to talk to business partners on a comparable hierarchical level. If you communicate with Japanese people at a lower hierarchical level than yourself, you will lose respect. So make sure that the partners present at a meeting are at a hierarchical level that is equivalent to yours.
The highest-ranking representative will enter the conference room first, followed by their team. Seating arrangements continue along hierarchical lines. When a foreign delegation visits a Japanese company, both delegations sit opposite each other on the long sides of a conference table. The respective bosses sit in the middle and the other participants will be placed on both sides in descending hierarchical order.
Who is talking?
High-ranking Western company representatives tend to hold meetings actively and talk a lot. High-ranking Japanese, on the other hand, primarily let their subordinates talk and quietly observe the behaviour of the participants during the course of the meeting.
However, at the beginning of an important meeting, the highest-ranking Japanese representative in his role as host will speak some welcoming words or give a short opening speech. The highest-ranking foreign guest should formally reply to the welcoming words in a very short speech.
The respective delegation leaders will then introduce their staff in hierarchical order with their names, titles and functions and state the reason for their presence. If necessary, a few additional personal words will be spoken, such as: “He is our best soccer player in the company team.” A more casual introduction by the individual employees themselves is rather inappropriate in Japan.
In Japan, a holistic approach is used in meetings, i.e. agenda points are not necessarily worked through one after the other. If it is difficult to reach an agreement on a topic, people temporarily switch to another, easier negotiating point. After this “cooling off phase,” you can return to where you left off.
The Japanese presentation style is inductive, which means that the most important thing comes at the end. Foreign businesspeople, on the other hand, are quite often used to deductive presentations. That is, they expect the core statement right at the beginning. This inductive style of a presentation, therefore, comes across as lengthy and not target-oriented. Even if you get impatient with a Japanese presentation, please do not interrupt.
If you give a presentation in English in front of a Japanese audience, you should speak slowly and clearly. Avoid terms and in-house terminologies that might not be understood. Be aware that constant polite nodding does not necessarily mean approval, but only that you are being listened to. Also take plenty of time for explanations and subsequent questions.
You should prepare your handouts at least in English. If you want to earn brownie points, you can also create and distribute a Japanese version.
Japanese listeners often talk to each other, e.g. to coordinate their positions internally. It’s best if you just ignore this. The Japanese just believe that foreign interlocutors do not understand the whispering in Japanese and thus do not find it disturbing.
Be prepared that cell phones often ring in meetings and appear to have priority.
It is also not unusual for a Japanese listener to nod off during a meeting with a lot of participants. Don’t get irritated by that! And please: Avoid blowing your nose. If you need to, you better sniff it up than blow your nose in public.
Food breaks and the quality of food are very important in Japan. Meetings are therefore often interrupted for a joint business lunch. For Japanese business partners, sandwiches are not an alternative to lunch in a restaurant or canteen.
Ending a meeting
At the end of a meeting, a high-ranking Japanese person who has held themselves in the background so far will often summarize the contents of the meeting and praise the good cooperation, even if there has been disagreement on some points just before.
Mutual words of appreciation and short closing speeches follow the same pattern as the opening speeches.
A summary of the results at the end of a meeting, preferably in the form of a written memo, provides an opportunity to identify and clarify different views or misunderstandings. Be careful, however, not to list a whole lot of problems or unresolved issues. This will disturb harmony.