Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Doing Business in Japan

Japan is often seen as a land of paradoxes; a place where ancient tradition meets ever evolving luminous gadgetry. Its economy is technologically advanced, futuristic to outsiders, and the Japanese people have seemingly innate talent for innovation. At the same time, Japanese society has veins of tradition running through it; a highly developed sense of formality and politeness shows itself in everyday ceremonies that leave many Westerners nervous at the thought of embarrassing themselves or their hosts. 
      These fears shouldn't put you off; Japan, and its industries, are vibrant, enchanting things. Simply, if you're going to do business there, you have to do it right. Our helpful guide, compiled by our Japanese expert interpreter, can assist you if you should decide to venture to that colourful island without an interpreter.

Japanese Business Etiquette

A Westerner venturing to Japan for the first time will recognise many of the country's business practices, as the Western influences of international trade pervade the workplace. However, there are a reassuring number of traditional Japanese practices still around to attract your cultural interest, though they are often misunderstood or mistaken by non-Japanese businessmen.

         Meishi (名刺 pronounced mei-she) are the Japanese equivalent of business cards. Usually exchanged after bowing, they have a special meaning; to receive a business card without due care and attention can be seen as a personal rudeness. The correct way to present meishi is to hold it at the top corners with the lettering facing the person receiving the card. The receiver should then take the card by both lower corners, read it carefully and place it somewhere safe. There is a procedure to this exchange; the individual with a lower position within their company should give their card first, before the senior member completes the exchange with their own meishi.

         Keigo (敬語 pronounced kay-go) is a polite style of Japanese used frequently in business when talking to superiors. Keigo, meaning literally “respectful speech”, is used to show respect or humility to people you are unfamiliar with. This polite style is unknown to many Japanese people until they enter a company, since it is often not taught in schools or at home, and it becomes part of the learning curve for a new employee.

         Uchi/soto means, roughly, Inner/Outer and refers to your relationship with a particular group. In Japan status is conferred not only vertically, i.e. superior and subordinate, but also horizontally, i.e. those with whom you are familiar and those with whom you are not. This group dynamic is very important, and when you first meet anyone you will take up the position of soto, or outsider. One can be soto simply from being in a different branch of the same company, and the foreign traveller should not see it as xenophobia. Instead, you should see the distance you are shown as a sign of respect.
In fact, the position of soto does have some advantages over that of insider, uchi; you are given more leeway in your behaviour and suggestions and are not expected to follow the same strict rules as someone who is uchi.
         In Japan, silence is golden, and Japanese culture makes a definite connection between silence and wisdom. The Japanese character for knowledge, 知, combines the characters for losing 失 and mouth 口, and highlights the fact that Japanese consider people wise who refrain from speaking. Westerners may consider this silence hostile or uncomfortable, indeed some less scrupulous Japanese business books advocate silence as an intimidation tool against Westerners. The vast majority of the time however silence is simply to allow thought; try to analyse what sort of a silence it is through body language or the all important context, and decide whether it is a respectful silence or an upset silence.  

         Gifts in Japan are given to show appreciation of a favour done for you or to establish a sound business or personal relationship. Gifts should be something from your country and of a reasonably high quality, preferably with a special significance to your company or local area and not made in Asia. Gifts should be wrapped in “business colours” like dark greens, greys, blues and browns, but avoid white as it symbolises death. As with meishi, gifts should be given and received with both hands. Remember that to your business partners the gift you give and the way that you give it reveal a lot about your character and your attitude towards business.

Hints and tips on visiting Japan
         When doing business in Japan, appearance is everything. Dress conservatively and avoid anything that might suggest a lack of seriousness or respect. Tattoos, because of their association with the yakuza, are frowned upon, and one should do your best to cover them up. Bring shoes which can be put on and removed very easily, as you will be required to do so in public homes and in many restaurants.
         Bowing is something that also has its own intricacies, and could fill several blog entries by itself. For now, know that the depth and length of the bow both show your attitude to the person you’re bowing to. Bowing is usually done in various standardised increments, depending on how you treat the person opposite. A good rule of thumb is to bow to the same degree as the person you’re meeting, with your eyes down and hands by your sides. If you are unsure of yourself, do not attempt it, as it may be embarrassing or, worse, be seen as mockery. Non-Japanese should feel free to just acknowledge a bow and hold out a hand to be shaken, rather than attempting to bow yourself.

The Japanese language
The Japanese language is very different to most European languages or even other Asian languages, and its nuances will take many years to fully master. In the first place, its sentences feature verb-final construction – the verb comes at the end of the sentence – unlike English, which is mostly verb-second.
        Furthermore, Japanese has no definite or indefinite articles such as the English “a”, “an” or “the”, nor does it have plural forms. Shiryou might mean 'document' or 'documents'. Also, the same word can have any number of meanings depending on the context it is used in. For example, hai, can mean “Yes”, “thank you”, “I understand”, “I agree” and many more, simply by the situation in which it is used. A lot of Japanese communication relies on context, which you (or your interpreter) must take into account to fully understand what is being said.

        The Japanese alphabet is made up of characters for syllables rather than letters for individual phonemes like English, and they have two alphabets. Each contain 46 characters, in addition to
around 8000 pictographs, or kanji, which have multiple pronunciations and often only subtle differences between them. Contrary to popular belief these kanji are not just stylised pictures of what they mean, but a complex system of radicals that must be mastered and learnt off by heart.

 This post has, hopefully, taught you much about the intricacies of Japanese business culture. There is, however, a lot more to learn, a professional life time's worth. At TJC Global, our interpreters are experts in Japanese practices as much as they are experts in the language. To find out how our services can assist you on your next business trip to Japan, visit TJC Oxford or contact us.

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