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Cultural Considerations for Working in Japan

Top Tips for Settling into a New Role Quickly and Smoothly

Image by Jezael Melgoza via Unsplash

With Brexit Britain a sobering thought, as many as 15 percent of British people would consider emigrating after we leave the EU. Japan is an appealing choice offering many different roles and opportunities. If you are thinking of moving to the land of the rising sun, read on for tips to ensure a smooth transition into working in this new cultural environment.

Bowing

When working in Japan, individuals acknowledge each other with a bow. The gesture ranges from a little nod of the head (easygoing and casual) to a deep bend from the midsection (the deeper the bow the more respect demonstrated). A nod of the head from a non-Japanese national is typically acceptable; most Japanese individuals accept that foreigners will not understand the subtleties of the bowing principle. It is unusual to shake hands in Japan.

Footwear

There are strict standards for indoor behaviour in Japan concerning footwear. Shoes are taken off in the home, as well as in many ryokan (Japanese style motels), historical buildings, temples, and some restaurants. The place to remove shoes is not outside the door of a building, but in the entrance known as the "genkan," and shoes must always to be pointed towards the exit as opposed to into the building.

First Meetings

Japanese business etiquette isn't so dissimilar from the UK—good manners are essential. The principle distinction is that business interactions are more formal, particularly at initial meetings when swapping business cards is a fundamental custom. After you have bowed and been introduced, the business card ritual commences, and it is important to understand the cultural expectations here.

Business Cards

Cards should have both an English and Japanese side. Offer your card with the Japanese side up towards your acquaintance. Using both hands to present the card shows an increased level of respect. When meeting with a larger group of Japanese business people, cards will be offered to you in accordance to your rank, with the most noteworthy individual presenting theirs last.

Once you have been presented with a card you are expected to inspect the card in detail and memorise the key information regarding your new acquaintance. Business cards in Japan are not just used to provide contact information and should be treated as an extension of the individual. Once you have committed the details to memory, place the card carefully into a card holder and refrain from damaging or bending as this will be received as an immediate affront.

Business Meetings

It is best to wait for direction from your host as to where you should sit. A great deal of significance is placed upon seating in meetings and your location will be determined by your status. In most cases, the most important person will sit at the head of the table and the lower ranking individuals will sit on either side. Ranking will diminish further along the table you get.

Further Notes on Meeting Etiquette

  • Dress conservatively and formally for your meeting; it is better to be over- rather than under-dressed.
  • You should also act conservatively; Japanese business people are neither brash nor abrasive.
  • Refrain from using red ink; black or blue will be fine.
  • Wait for others to initiate sitting, drinking or eating and follow their lead.
  • Aim to show you are interested and engaged during meeting—it’s acceptable to take notes.
  • If you are given a gift which is wrapped, the etiquette is to wait until after you have left the meeting before you open it.
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