Are you dealing with Japanese customers, suppliers or colleagues? Then be sure to take into account a number of social and communication rules, if you want your relationship to be successful. Also, if you need to handle translation from or into Japanese, then there are a few important things you should be aware of.

Japan is hot nowadays. Tourism in Japan is at an all-time high. The country’s economic outlook for 2017 is excellent. And in 2020, Japan will be hosting the Summer Olympics. So, the country will be welcoming a lot of Western people in the coming months and years.


Of course, at Yamagata Europe, we couldn’t be more thrilled about this evolution. However, working for a company from Japanese origin, we know the challenges, pitfalls and peculiarities of Japanese culture all too well. That’s why we have a few tips for you that might help you to cross the Japanese cultural and linguistic barriers.

1. Get to know the social rules

Some things are obviously different in Japan. Take the traditional clothing for example, or the extremely small capsule hotel rooms. But the things you don’t notice at first glance – the social rules of conduct – are more difficult to deal with. Typical of Japanese behaviour is the punctuality and the politeness. For example, being late at a meeting is not appreciated, as is blowing your nose in public, finger pointing or calling on your mobile phone in public.

Some more examples? Japanese people will greet each other with a bow. The deeper they bow, the more respect (or apology) they show for the other party.

Exchanging business cards is done with two hands and when possible during a meeting, you need to put the business card on the table in front of you. You will always first exchange cards with the highest in rank. Don’t write on the cards and don’t put them in your pocket or wallet, because this is considered as disrespectful.

2. A business meeting is not a business meeting

Face-to-face communication is very important in Japan. If you want to maintain your Japanese business relationship, this means that you should be paying a lot more customer visits than would be considered as normal in Europe. Here in Europe, visiting the same customer every month would in many cases be seen as a waste of time, for you and your customer. But in Japan, it is a necessary part of your sales strategy.

Business as asual

That doesn’t mean that every business meeting is actually business related. In the Japanese business world, there are at least three types of meetings. First, there is the aisatsu meeting, which is a social meet and greet event, intended to develop a bond with the one you plan to do business with.

Another kind of meeting, which might also very well happen outside the office, is nemawashi. This type of meeting is aimed at finding a consensus with everyone in the meeting about a business proposal, before actually pitching that proposal to your superiors. If you have a great idea and you want to propose this to your management, you should not do this in front of everybody before doing your homework. Nemawashi relates to small meetings between colleagues that are held in order to tackle potential problems and to prepare a business case.

Japanese people are usually very formal in business, but the concept of nominication – nomimasu (= Japanese for drink) + communication – allows them to let their guard down and be emotional. Going out for drinks or karaoke is an important Japanese bonding ritual. So, when you want to gain trust with your potential business partner, it is good to have a drink together and show your inner feelings.

3. Become a polite superhero

Politeness is extremely important in Japanese culture. For Japanese people, politeness is a means of respect. It’s about not dominating the conversation and being aware of other’s feelings. Westerners should be aware that politeness is truly ingrained in Japanese culture and very complex. In fact, in comparison to many western habits, the Japanese are polite superheroes.

But it goes further than that. In Japanese, different levels of politeness are almost different languages. At least three types of politeness can be distinguished. First, there is teineigo, which is the plain language and commonly spoken on television. It is also the language that foreigners learn to speak.

The next two forms are humble and honorific language. This is the language you typically hear in business language between inferiors and superiors, or in a customer-supplier relationship. The inferior will speak humble about himself and honorific towards/about his superior.

There are fixed rules to conjugate verbs according to these three forms of polite language. But the most difficult part of learning honorific and humble language is that there are a number of words that have separate verbs for honorific and humble forms.

The Gaijin wildcard

Still with us? Don’t worry too much if you think these cultural differences are complex. Foreigners usually can make use of their Gaijin wildcard. As a foreigner (gaijin), you will receive instant forgiveness for your cultural ignorance, so it is possible to skip certain Japanese social rules you don’t feel comfortable with. For Japanese people, it is sometimes easier to shake hands than having to face awkward bowing attempts from foreigners.

That does not mean you shouldn’t try your best as a foreigner in Japan. Here’s an easy tip for you: eating your last grain of rice during dinner will make a far better impression to your Japanese friends and colleagues than a clumsy bow.

Eat your rice

Stay tuned for more

So far for the social dos and don’ts. In the second installment of this blog series, we’ll talk about some of the peculiarities of the Japanese language.