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Better Beware Boris – eight tips for doing business in Japan

Image Credit: The Times

Image Credit: The Times


This week, our very own Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has jetted off to the Land of the Rising Sun in a bid to strengthen ties with a number of Japan’s key cities and promote our capital as a “major investment destination”.

With good reason too – Japan boasts the world’s third largest economy, produces 25% of the world’s high-tech products and 30% of the world’s cars, and has arguably the most advanced mobile communications market in the world. It’s also due to host the Rugby World Cup and Olympic & Paralympic Games in 2019 and 2020 respectively – cue spotlight.

But while he may have gone in guns blazing, banging the drum for London’s life sciences, fintech and big brand retail exports, he would be ill-advised to approach potential Japanese investors without doing due diligence and researching the market.

Japan is, after all, a land full of customs, traditions and etiquette. So, while you won’t be expected to know the intricacies of the culture, you’d be surprised how far a respectful nod to their heritage might go.

To Boris and all the others out there keen to impress the Japanese business world, here are eight things you should know:

  1. Relationships are paramount: If you’re meeting a potential business partner or investor for the first time in Japan, don’t expect to talk business straight off the bat. The Japanese highly value long-standing relationships and it’s likely you will need multiple meetings and/or business dinners (know as settai in Japanese) before you make any headway in terms of commercial discussions.
  1. Treat business cards with the utmost respect: I cannot stress this point enough – you must have business cards (meishi) on your person at all times. When handing them out, do so by holding it with both hands and with details facing the recipient so that they can read everything immediately. Never throw or slide cards across a table, never write notes on them and never fidget with them. When young graduates first enter the workforce in Japan, they even undergo lessons in correct business card etiquette to give you an indication of how important this is.
A business card exchange

A business card exchange


  1. Age equals seniority… and importance: Perhaps deriving from the importance placed on lifetime employment, it’s likely that the oldest person in the room will be the most senior member of the team. In Japanese culture, having a distinct hierarchy is a prominent feature in all business, so it’s polite to attend to senior executives’ needs before the rest of their party – make sure to greet them first and place them in the most ‘prized’ seat in the room, which is generally the one furthest from the door.
  1. You can bow wrong: One of the strongest associations we make with Japanese businesses in the West is the culture of bowing. But be warned – it’s a more complex matter than it would first appear. Social status, age, experience and job position will all come into play when determining how deep or long you should bow for (the Japanese also have lessons in this), so contrary to popular belief, it’s better not to bow than to bow badly. If you want to show understanding, a small bob of the head is often greatly appreciated.
Japanese Minister for Foreign Affairs bows at wreath laying ceremony

Japanese Minister for Foreign Affairs bows at wreath laying ceremony


  1. Don’t go in with the hard sell: There’s nothing that the Japanese hate more than confrontation, so don’t be too brazen with your proposals. Instead, find more gentle ways of suggesting ideas, make sure to read between the lines and remember that silence is gold in Japan. It’s better to say a few effective words than waffle on. It’s also worth noting that no one individual gets to make the decisions in Japan – everything is agreed by consensus, so it will take time before plans can be executed.
  1. Be early for everything: Japan’s transport network runs like clockwork, so unless there’s an earthquake, make sure you plan your route ahead of schedule and arrive at least 15 minutes in advance of a meeting. For extra brownie points, call a couple of hours beforehand to confirm the meeting is still taking place and that you are on your way.
  1. Pay attention to the little details: There are a number of small gestures that, while completely innocent here in the UK, are considered extremely embarrassing in Japan so do think before you act. Blowing your nose in public, for example, is a big no-no – instead, excuse yourself and pop to the bathroom. There is also very little ‘skinship’ in Japan – so hugs, pats on backs and kisses on the cheek are out of the question. Many are also reluctant to shake hands, so wait for them to extend their hand first!
  1. Sayonara spells ‘the end’: You may be tempted to impress your Japanese business partner or investor by throwing in a little native lingo – sayonara, however, is not the word you should choose. It actually carries far more weight than you might expect – it doesn’t just mean ‘goodbye’, but ‘this is the end’, a final farewell if you will. If you’re keen to continue the relationship, you’d therefore be better off with a friendly yoroshiku onegai shimasu – effectively ‘looking forward to doing business with you’, but literally translated as ‘please look kindly on me’. Now there’s a tongue twister.

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