Japan: Doing Business in a Unique Culture

by Kevin Barry Bucknall, PhD




List of Tables


CHAPTER 1.  The Most Important Elements in the Culture

Self-Awareness, the Group, and Conformity
Social Change

Art and Culture

Work and Hierarchy

Gender Roles

Laws and Regulations

Other Cultural Features

CHAPTER 2.  Some General Advice

Living and Moving About

Some Warnings

Health Issues

Money and Behaviour

Other Matters

CHAPTER 3.  Approaching Japan

Before You Go

Things to Know When You Arrive

Dealing With the Japanese

Early Considerations

CHAPTER 4.  Who to Send

Why You Need a Team

Who Should Lead the Team

Who Should Be on the Team

Who Might Better Be Left Off The Team

The Best Use of High Level Visits

CHAPTER 5.  The Early Meetings

The First Meeting

On Being Introduced

Generalities of Meetings

Language And Interpreters

CHAPTER 6.  Subsequent Negotiations – your approach

What To Do

What Not To Do

How to Behave When Presenting Your Case

Some Things You Can Expect to Find

After You Return Home

CHAPTER 7.  Subsequent Negotiations – their methods

Attitudes Towards Time

Their Behaviour

Their Tactics

CHAPTER 8.  Socialising and Proper Behaviour

Gift Giving

Drinks After Work and Sporting Invitations

Table Manners and Dining Etiquette

When Visiting a Japanese Home

The Japanese Tea Ceremony

CHAPTER 9.  Working in Japan

General Business Matters

Distribution and Marketing

Worker-related Issues

Working for a Japanese Company 

CHAPTER 10.  How to Treat Visitors to Your Country

Early Matters

Where  and How To Meet

Social Aspects

A Few Other Matters

CHAPTER 11.  If You Are a Woman

Some Specific Problems of Being Female

Body Language And Dress

A Select Bibliography


This book is about good manners and was written with business people and public servants in mind, but some of the advice will also be useful to those visiting Japan as tourists. In recent years, advances in technology have speeded up transport and communications and some might think that this makes dealing with foreigners easier. In fact the opposite can be true: we now have so much more opportunity accidentally to insult those from a different nation. What is considered to be proper manners and that works well for you in your society might not do so in a different one and could even cause you trouble. If you want to succeed, perhaps sell technology, buy products at the best price, or sign an agreement between your government and theirs, then you might have to make changes in your normal approach, behaviour or dress style.

When visiting Japan, you will get on better if you act in ways considered to be polite in their culture. Behaviour and style are extremely important to the Japanese and they spend much of their lives making sure that they do things properly in the only socially acceptable way. In our culture we often do things in any way that seems convenient at the time but in Japan many actions often have to be done in a closely prescribed way. An observant outsider might notice and remember the way their Japanese counterparts do a few things and in this way learn about the behaviour considered “proper”, but even an intelligent and aware observer is unlikely to notice all. And more to the point, however observant we are, we are rarely able to notice the things they avoid doing. This book will help you learn both what to do and things to shun.

If you are there on business it is particularly important to behave in an acceptable manner, because this can speed up the all-important development of your relationship and shorten your stay. This saves you both time and money. Behaviour seen as proper is also likely to improve your chance of actually reaching agreement, so it is really worth making the effort.

You should not think that “doing things their way” is in any way dishonourable or demeaning. You might find yourself wondering “Why must I do it their way, why don’t they do it mine”, but remember that you want to sell, buy, sign or whatever, and a few sympathetic changes in your behaviour can help you gain what you want. This said, you might feel that some suggestions are unacceptable, for instance on the grounds of political correctness. Fine! At least you are making a choice and you know what is involved.

Chapters 1 and 2 provide information about the main elements of Japanese culture and offer some general advice on how to behave. Chapter 3 considers what you should do in your first approach to the country and in Chapter 4 you get help with the tricky business of choosing your team. Chapter Five 5 with the early meetings, and Chapter 6 goes on to cover the later ones, providing hints on improving your negotiating skills. Chapter 7 looks at common Japanese tactics. The important issue of socialising is covered in Chapter 8, while Chapter 9 provides help and advice on what to expect if you go to live and work in Japan. Chapter 10 covers how to treat a Japanese team visiting your country. Finally, In Chapter 11 there is special advice to the women readers of this book. If you are male but likely to have a female on your team, this chapter should also be considered required reading.

You might notice an occasional repetition of advice in different chapters; this is deliberate, as some particular point made earlier might be particularly important in a new context and I felt a reminder would do no harm.

You will be aware that societies are always in a process of change, so that the advice given here tries to cover the tried and tested ways of succeeding. The younger generation is starting to change, sometimes quite radically, and before too long some of the advice offered here will doubtless seem a little old-fashioned. However, research tends to show that although Asian youngsters readily adopt the consumerist trappings of Western society, they often cling to their own traditional values, reverting to them as they grow older. More importantly, youngsters in Japan are rarely given real power so that the important people you deal with tend to be more advanced in years. The advice is aimed squarely at dealing with the older power holders, which is where a favourable (to you) decision can be made.

You should bear in mind a few things. First, with this kind of advice there is a danger of stereotyping and thinking that each person you meet must fit the typical mould. Remember that not everyone is identical and that you will probably encounter individuals who do not seem to fit too well. This may be because some are ignorant of the niceties of accepted good manners, owing to factors like class background, family dysfunction, or a different geographical location; others are aware how to behave but simply do not care much.

Second, when doing business it helps immensely if you know about the culture and appropriate ways of negotiating as it can give you a strong edge over your competitors. Yet it must be seen as a valuable extra tool not a substitute for your other management skills. You still need the normal good business practices of being mentally agile, creative, able to negotiate well, make good decisions, and stitch together favourable deals.

Third, do not be put off by the amount there seems to be to learn – even a little bit helps, and each time you negotiate or socialise with Japanese business people or officials you will notice things and find yourself understanding and remembering more. You do not have to slavishly follow all the advice and it is possible, for example, for foreign, young, bearded, extrovert males (not ideally suited to succeed in Japan) to do well – but it is harder for them and tends to take them longer before their efforts are crowned with success.

Fourth, reading and learning in advance should reduce the degree of culture shock that you will probably experience the first few times you visit Japan. This will help you by reducing the tiredness caused by a battering of unexpected and what might seem strange behaviour and procedures. With more energy you can expect to operate more effectively.

Adopting political correctness of the Western kind can be tricky in Japan, where male superiority is not questioned by the majority. Mostly you will be dealing with male power holders; the women you encounter will probably be young and attractive “Office Ladies” (OL’s), rather than people of authority. I have largely stuck to using “he” throughout the book to reflect this situation.



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