We here at Jelly are firm believers that communication is an integral part to any successful business strategy. We have worked with a variety of international clients, partners, and stakeholders over the years. Doing so has allowed us to develop a wealth of experience when it comes to international business culture and customs.
Our Japanese clients have unique business practices, many of which are rooted in tradition and a culture of hierarchy and respect. Are you working with a Japanese client? Perhaps you’re hoping to expand your business to Japan? Find out more about Japanese Business culture below.
Seniority & Hierarchy
Age usually equals seniority and this is often synonymous with rank in a Japanese business setting. This hierarchy is strictly adhered to and it is custom to treat older executives with a marked difference than younger ones. Examples of this include greeting the most senior person in the room, and offering your business card to them, first. Senior Japanese business persons should be treated as V.I.Ps and given as close to the red-carpet treatment as possible. When possible this should include executive flights, meal options, and hotels distinct from what is offered to lower ranking members of staff.
- Greet the most senior person before you greet the others.
- Offer your business card to the most senior person first.
- Treat senior members of staff as V.I.Ps
- Prioritise junior members of staff over senior members of staff.
- Always assume someone has seniority because of age. It’s important to double check.
When booking hotel rooms, senior members of the Japanese team should be allocated rooms on the highest floors and they should always be on a higher floor than junior staff. With that in mind, tour guides and third party assistants should not be elevated to higher floors when the business’ clientele are on lower floors.
The number four has bad omens associated with it in Japanese culture and older, more superstitious Japanese people may feel uncomfortable being allocated a room on the fourth floor or in room number four. The number nine is also an unlucky number and should be avoided where possible.
- Book senior members of staff on the highest floors of the hotel.
- Ensure senior members of staff are booked into executive suites where possible.
- Place junior members of staff on higher floors than senior.
- Place third party staff (such as tour guides, or agency assistants) on higher floors than the business’ clientele.
- Put Japanese guests in rooms or floors including the number four or the number nine.
Business Card Exchange (Meishi)
The exchange of business cards (known as meishi) is a custom which commands a lot of respect. The quality and condition of a person’s business cards speaks volumes about how they conduct their business.
When presenting business cards it is traditional to offer and accept the card with both hands and read the information carefully before placing it in a business card holder (if standing) or placing it on the table (if seated) for the duration of the meeting. It is considered a faux pas to place a business card in your back pocket or wallet. When presenting a business card it is respectful to hold the Japanese printed side facing the person you are offering it to.
- Keep your business cards in good condition by carrying them in a business card holder.
- Offer your business card with both hands by the bottom two corners ensuring the information is as visible as possible.
- Present the business card with the Japanese printed side facing the person you’re offering it to.
- Make sure to carefully read any business cards you receive from Japanese clients.
- Place business cards into business card holders if standing.
- Place business cards on the table for the duration of the meeting before placing them in business card holders at the end (if seated).
- Place business cards you receive in your wallet or back pocket.
- Simply put the business card away without reading it first.
Dates and Deadlines
Deadlines and delivery dates are taken very seriously in Japanese business culture. Non-committal dates can be taken much more literally than intended. For example an email giving a deadline of “around the 15th” in Western culture implies leeway either side of the date but a Japanese client is likely to understand the 15th as the ultimate deadline.
Estimates and ambiguities are generally frowned upon as deviations from these can cause issues for a Japanese client coordinating their calendar around certain dates. It’s preferable to be honest about not having a fixed date for a booking/meeting/event than to give a rough idea and have it change later. Bear in mind that once you confirm a date for something this should not change.
- Give exact dates when organising activities/deadlines with a Japanese client.
- Be honest if you don’t have a fixed date rather than giving a date that is subject to change.
- Be aware that the Japanese take deadlines very strictly and expect Western partners to adhere to the deadlines they agree to.
- Be vague or ambiguous when discussing dates.
- Set a date and then change it later.
Communications are often handled by mid-level managers and going over their heads to discuss a matter with a senior member of staff is considered rude. Senior staff prefer to have their affairs handled for them and will not appreciate external parties communicating with them directly. This is important to remember when making bookings or organising logistics.
When communicating with a Japanese client you will be introduced to the main contact person for the account. All communication with the client should happen via the account coordinator. This should work both ways with the Western company maintaining a singular point of contact on their end. Unnecessary changes in points of contact should be avoided as communications between company and client are seen as part of the relationship building process.
Where possible, it is important to let Japanese clients know how they can contact you if there’s a problem that requires immediate attention. Designating an emergency contact is preferable and establishing more than one contact method is paramount. Lines of contact should include email, office phone and mobile contact where appropriate in case any of these methods fail.
- Establish a main point of contact between yourself and the Japanese client early on.
- Establish multiple methods of contact in case on fails (email, office phone, mobile phone etc…).
- Designate an out of hours ‘emergency’ contact, if possible.
- Go over a mid-level manager’s head to discuss a matter with a senior member of staff.
- Change the point of contact unnecessarily.
Unhappy Clients / When Things Go Wrong
Responding appropriately when there is a problem is key to maintaining a positive relationship with a Japanese client. When there is a complaint it is important to be willing to take responsibility for inconveniences the client has experienced. Over explaining the problem or attributing issues to forces beyond your control is seen as poor business practice.
The appropriate protocol is to apologise for problems/inconveniences the client has experienced regardless of whether they were your fault. Follow this by letting the client know you are looking into the problem and that you are working on a resolution.
- Respond in a timely fashion when a Japanese client voices a concern or complaint.
- Apologise and take responsibility for any inconveniences the client has experienced, regardless of whether they were your fault.
- Emphasise your commitment to uncovering the root cause of the problem and to ensuring it won’t happen again.
- Blame issues on other members of staff, third parties, or forces beyond your control.
- Over explain a problem or make excuses.
Looking to improve your international business prospects? Jelly offers a first-rate partnership building service. Get in touch and fnd out what Jelly can do for you at firstname.lastname@example.org.