What can we learn from Japanese business culture?

Published by Ngoc Tran on

Figure 1. Japanese business culture and practices

Generally, Japanese organizations have quite traditional business culture, which remains hierarchical, conservative, and detail-oriented. This seems to be quite opposite of many Western cultures, but both distinct business cultures have proven to be successful and progressive throughout decades. What can we learn from them? What is the best way to prepare for business relationships when your counterparts’ business culture is far different from yours? This article will give you answers when dealing with Japanese culture. For Western cultures, you can enjoy reading other posts that I’ve researched about Dutch, British, and American business etiquettes.

Greetings is one of the most noticeable examples representing formality and hierarchy in the Japanese business world. Employees greet each other with a bow which is held longer for greeting senior rank. Men shall keep their arms by their sides while women may cross their hands at thigh height. Also, avoid keeping eye contact during the bowing ritual as it is often done by competitors in martial arts in Japan. When addressing people in conversations and emails, you should use the person’s last name followed by “san” – meaning “honorable Mr/Ms”. When a Japanese introduces herself as Tanaka Sakura, Tanaka is the last name and Sakura is the first name. This is opposite to Western names.

Building business relationships and trust is indispensable when going into business with Japanese firms. Japanese want to know and trust a counterpart before setting up a business with them. Some of the ways to build relationships with the Japanese are via informal social gatherings, an introduction through a third party that has a good working partnership with the Japanese firm, etc. Informal socializing takes place in various forms, such as dining out, karaoke, golfing, etc. On these occasions, business is unlikely to be discussed, but rather about establishing a personal relationship to let a Japanese partner know who you truly are. Besides, being punctual and attentive in meetings helps increase your reliability, thus improving trust from your Japanese counterparts.

In addition, this implies another interesting aspect of Japanese business culture – risk-averse. According to Hofstede (n.d.), Japan is one of the most uncertainty avoidance countries in the world. Therefore, a lot of effort and time is put into feasibility studies and all risk factors must be worked out before any project can start. By investigating how Japanese companies have grown sustainably, we may find out the connection between their success and their aversion to risk. In contrast to Western companies’ risk tolerance, Japanese firms mainly strive for getting something done better next time with the ultimate goal of achieving excellence. That’s why Kaizen – continuous improvement – has become deep-rooted in Japanese business DNA. Thus, you may attract a Japanese company by the capability of reducing risks rather than adding more revenue. Offering free test samples, small-scale testing, and warranty are some examples of establishing relationships with Japanese businesses. For example, if you would like to start selling your products at a Japanese supermarket chain, it would be a good idea to let the supermarket owners try your products to evaluate their quality. As the Japanese tend to avoid risk as much as possible, providing a warranty is a way to send an implication that your business is reliable.

Not many foreigners are aware of how to properly ask the Japanese about their opinion. Don’t ask directly a Japanese in the meeting as he may feel confrontational. Furthermore, in Japanese and many other Asian cultures people try to avoid ‘losing face’. It’s about avoiding embarrassment for yourself or others. Hence, if you plan to ask for opinions, try to share your ideas/documents in advance so that your Japanese colleagues can discuss them with each other and prepare their comments. During the meeting, you can offer to write down ideas instead of speaking them out individually, and then you can ask to share the notes anonymously.

Japan is known as a group-oriented culture. Hence, the decision-making process may take a long time as the Japanese try to gain consensus from everyone. This partially stems from the unwillingness of taking risks, which makes the Japanese act more cautious and take extra time in making any decision. Two decision-making methods commonly applied in Japanese business are Nemawashi and Ringi.

  • The Ringi method is a management technique that passes around a proposal document, starting from the mid-management level to the next higher level until the highest management. During each stage, they read the proposal, make changes or suggestions, and approve by putting their stamp on the proposal. In short, it is quite hierarchical, bottom-up, and consensual.
  • The Nemawashi method is used to sign off on a proposal. This process might be more informal, beginning with making a proposal, gathering input, and solidifying support.

Japan is known for its slow-paced culture. In contrast to American culture, the Japanese believe that if something is worth doing, the chance of doing it does not disappear quickly. This means that people tend to take their time and enjoy life rather than rushing around all the time. If you find it difficult to adapt to this culture, see below a few tips that may help you speed up the decision-making process with Japanese:

  • Remove the language barrier: Try to simplify your writing style, including bullet points. In case of misunderstanding, propose a meeting to get each other on the same page.
  • Meet your Japanese counterparts’ needs: Send emails, reports, and other work documents in a style that they are familiar with.
  • Number of decision-makers: Suggest reducing the number of people needed to sign off on a given decision (keep in mind that your Japanese stakeholders need to adapt to your culture as well).

To provide you with a clearer picture, shall we have a look at Figure 2 which shows a comparison among diverse cultures including Japan?

Cultural differences based on 8 factors

Figure 2. Cultural differences based on 8 factors (Meyer, 2014)

As shown in Figure 2, eight cultural perspectives have been used to analyze differences between two Asian countries (Japan and China) and two Western countries (France and Germany). Japan differs enormously from Germany and France in terms of communicating, evaluating, persuading, and disagreeing. Meanwhile, in scheduling (linear-time) Japan is similar to Germany and in leading – to France. Recognizing and adapting to these particularities will help you become more intercultural-aware when doing business in Japan.

In conclusion, the most effective way to adapt to another culture is to equip yourself with knowledge about that culture and be open-minded.

Thank you for reading and please share if you find it useful!

Recommended reading:

Meyer, E., (2014) The Culture Map













Image source: https://www.bizjournals.com/bizjournals/how-to/growth-strategies/2015/09/etiquette-tips-for-business-in-japan-brazil.html


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