Jun 17, 2019

First business meeting in Japan: Business-meeting etiquette & survival

First business meeting in Japan: Business-meeting etiquette & survival photo

Before getting into the nuances of business-meeting etiquette, survival tip number one for getting through your first business meeting in Japan is to go into said meeting with the understanding that it will be the first of many. So many. In fact, rarely is a decision made in Japan, business or otherwise, without a meeting being held beforehand. 

Business-meeting etiquette and survival points covered in this article:

Getting seated

Exchanging business cards

What to do with your phone

The complimentary drinks


Being brave

What not to say

How and when to leave

Post-meeting notes

Shaking hands and other forms of greeting

The seemingly unbound propensity for a meeting in Japan can perhaps be put down, rather crudely, to two core reasons:

1) Group mentality rules in Japan - and many Japanese are still saddled with a fear of taking the initiative. Even if a problem is identified along with a potential solution there is a reluctance to take the initiative and act solo … lest things be made worse. No, calling a meeting beforehand means sharing the responsibility and potential blame. A much more comfortable circumstance for most.

2) Trust needs to be built - and this is the main purpose of early-stage Japanese business meetings. This takes time though. While Reason 1) largely applies to the in-house business meeting, Reason 2), the importance of building trust, is really more business-to-business, or business-to-customer, meetings. In this regard then expect little to be achieved in a single business meeting in Japan. Rather, brace yourself for the long-haul and let Japanese colleagues take the lead until all parties concerned are prepared to let their guard down enough to reveal their hand.

In fact, one of this expat’s earliest experiences of Japanese business meetings was a six-month period of twice-monthly meetings throwing about ideas for a potential B2B project. Time spent in each meeting was filled largely by watching two elderly salaryman types laughing about how many shared golf buddies they have. The result of six months of toing and froing? Silence. A cessation of the business meetings. It felt a bit like watching test cricket -- five days of safe shots or dropped catches resulting in a score draw, or a loss for both sides in this case.

Still, we don’t really want to get bogged down by the social peccadillos and structures that have shaped the culture and etiquette of the business meeting in Japan to what it is. And this article isn’t aimed at the business traveler from overseas jetting into Japan armed with an interpreter and a handsome expense account -- you lot can largely forget the Japanese business-meeting etiquette and get through proceedings as you see fit -- leaving the interpreter clean up any resulting mess while you get down to more pressing business with the minibar. 

This article aims to convey the reality of the business meeting in Japan in such a way that those foreigners living and working in the country can go into a first meeting armed with basic knowledge of flow, protocol and Japanese business-meeting etiquette.

Will I be called into meetings regularly?

If you often find yourself “the only foreigner in the meeting room,” in Japan, chances are your level of Japanese is such that it is believed that you can handle it. Think JLPT N2 or N1. Anything below this and you’re probably in the meeting just for show.

Point 1, Business-meeting etiquette: Getting seated

Oh, as if Japanese business meetings aren’t tedious enough, there’s is actually seating etiquette in play, apparently. I say apparently because the reality is, particularly with the in-house business meetings in Japan, little thought goes into where people sit. If there is clearly “the most important person in the room” present -- CEO, director et al - then avoid the seat furthest from the door. That’s not for you, unless you happen to be that most important person in the meeting room.

Look, don’t get too bogged down with this aspect of business-meeting etiquette. Chances are, as a foreigner, you’re probably the least important person in the meeting room. Consider that a good thing. Traditional protocol would dictate that you sit nearest the door. Lucky you! You can make a quick getaway. The most important person in the room, the person who holds the highest position, sits farthest away from the door. Everyone else just makes the best of whatever seats are left.

Things will likely get more formal for those Japanese business meetings held with clients and other representatives. As a member of a visiting party you’ll likely be seated along with your colleagues away from the door. Do likewise for clients and parties visiting your office.  

Wherever your seat is, don’t sit in it until after …

Point 2, Business-meeting etiquette: Exchanging business cards

If you work for a Japanese company, or any company in Japan outside of the English-teaching industry, you’ll probably be issued with a business card. Most business cards will have Japanese details on one side, English on the other.

First business meeting in Japan: Business-meeting etiquette & survival photo

It’s not the end of the world if you forget to bring your business cards to a business meeting in Japan but in your head it will get things off to a crappy start and when, as a foreigner wrestling with the language, culture and etiquette, you’re likely to feel self-conscious about your contribution to meetings (or lack thereof), you at least want to get the basic business etiquette right and get off to a good start. 

I’ve asked many times about who should take the initiative in the exchange of business cards in Japanese business meetings and nobody around me seems to know. Maybe they’re useless. Maybe nobody cares. I’ll go with the latter. In all the myriad of business meetings in Japan that I’ve attended, no patterns have emerged about who takes the lead in the exchange of business cards.

You’ve got a card case right? You should have one. You’ll look like a bit of a plonker pulling cards straight out of a wallet or purse. 

Business-card-exchange etiquette, in brief:

First business meeting in Japan: Business-meeting etiquette & survival photo

So, card case out, have at least one card ready, index finger and thumb of each hand pinching the top two corners of the business card (as above) and pass it over with a light bow, saying … 

“(Company name) no (your name) to omoshimasu.” “I am (your name) from (your company)." 

Let’s say you work for Z Company and your name is Tom -- “Z Company no Tom to omoshimasu.”

Since the company name will already be known in the case of a pre-arranged meeting, some people choose to ditch their company name altogether during the exchange of business cards.

Perhaps finish all this off with a, “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.” - essentially a phrase of white noise but the Japanese seem to like it. Actually, it’s something to do with being grateful for a person’s future efforts and consideration but has no literal English translation. Either way, saying it loudly and proudly will get your first Japanese business meeting off to a good start.

Everyone exchanged business cards? Now you can think about sitting down, but probably best to avoid being the first person to do so. 

First business meeting in Japan: Business-meeting etiquette & survival photo

Don’t put away the cards that you received. With Japanese business meetings this is saved for the end. Place them neatly on the table in front of you along with your card case.

Point 3, Business-meeting survival: Try extra hard to remember names

If you’re like me, you’re the kind of person for whom names go in one ear and straight out of the other. As if it isn’t hard enough for the foreigner to make a contribution to Japanese business meetings anyway, forgetting names, and thus the grammatical subject or object with which you might feel comfortable launching into a sentence, makes it even more so. 

Try extra hard then to match your business cards with the people you received them from (by a subtle arrangement on your section of table), and don’t be afraid to glance at them during the meeting (you’ll sometimes see others do likewise).  

Not all business cards will have English details on one side, so either you’ll need to remember names from the get go, or effectively forget about directing your comments to that person during the business meeting.

Point 4, Business-meeting etiquette: What to do with your phone?

For a first business meeting in Japan it’s perhaps better to keep your phone in a pocket or purse, on vibrate, and let it ring / vibrate out if the case should arise.  

If this is the first of a series of meetings (very likely the case), as things progress the atmosphere might be familiar enough that you can break free of meetings later down the line to take incoming calls, depending on their importance of course. Although this is really just limited to those business meetings in Japan for which you are with the host party.  

After the first meeting, you should also feel free to have a phone placed in front of you along with your business cards, laptop, and notepad.

Point 5, Business-meeting etiquette: Starting on the complimentary drinks

Perhaps this point of etiquette for the business meeting in Japan is really just a case of common-sense manners. Cups of tea, maybe bottles of water, are pretty standard at B2B and B2C meetings across Japan. If you’re with the receiving party in your Japanese business meeting, wait for a formal acknowledgement from one of the givers that you can start drinking.

If it doesn’t come (it should) just wait for one of your hosts to start sipping. For some ultra-polite Japanese business persons it may even take a couple jabs from the host until they feel comfortable enough to start drinking. Don’t waste your time with this. If you want to start drinking during your business meeting in Japan, when you’ve had the nod of approval, go ahead.

If you’re on the host team, just get started whenever.

Point 6, Business-meeting survival: Be prepared

Perhaps if the business meeting is being conducted in your native tongue, you might be able to wing it, to improvise. But the chances are that your first business meeting in Japan will be held in Japanese. 

Now, you may also be able to wing it in Japanese. If so, your language level and Japanese-business-meeting experience is likely such that you have no interest in the advice being dispensed in this article. 

Look, it’s really hard to keep up with the flow of a business meeting in Japan if you go in carte blanche. Chances are you’ll do your best to keep up at the start, but 10 minutes into the meeting things will start to slip away and your attention will turn to suppressing yawns.

Read up on the meeting materials beforehand. Even have some comments or suggestions ready that you can loose off in Japanese during the meeting if you really can’t think of anything to say on the spot. At least be able to say something.

Just as your first business meeting in Japan will likely be conducted in Japanese, so too the meeting materials will almost certainly be written / typed in Japanese. This is worth stressing. Were such materials written in your native language you could perhaps skim-read them enough to get the basics in just a few minutes. In Japanese though, a few presentation slides can take on Shakespearean proportions. Save time accordingly.

Point 7, Business-meeting survival: Be brave

Without much in the way of confidence, early Japanese business meetings can feel like those classes in school where you don’t know the answer to the teacher’s questions and so stare hard at the desk hoping somehow to be rendered invisible. It’s a crappy feeling.

It’s easier said than done but how about going into your Japanese business meetings determined, and prepared, to make at least one half-decent contribution? You’ll feel much better for it.  

This harks back to doing the preparation and having one or two comments or suggestions ready to go. I usually find that there is space at the back-end of the business meetings. You don’t want to go in too early with this kind of thing lest other parties think you’re actually quite fluent and are going to be contributing throughout.

Point 8, Business-meeting survival: Don’t say too much

It probably depends on one’s country and culture of origin but many foreigners attending Japanese business meetings may find themselves frustrated at the lack of words being spoken that actually carry any utility. It may take a long time before parties in the meeting feel comfortable enough to get to the point of, “We have X and want your Y, what kind of deal are you prepared to do?”

It may be tempting during your first business meeting in Japan to just cut to the chase and get the ball rolling quickly. Doing so though, will probably mean that your first business meeting in Japan will also be your last. And not in a good way.

On show in Japanese business meetings is the art of saying something without really saying anything. This is very frustrating for the foreigner who is just trying their best to say anything at all, and with the clarity of something that can be understood.  

No, in this case then, it might well be better in the long run to just say nothing, if all you can formulate in Japanese are those phrases that will reveal too much of your hand.

Point 9, Business-meeting etiquette: How and when to leave

The final point of etiquette to address for a first business meeting in Japan is regarding how to leave the meeting room.

Rare is the case that a foreigner in a Japanese business meeting will be the one to whom everyone turns when looking for closure. In this regard then, you just wait for others to wrap up proceedings. You can know this is happening when everyone starts saying, “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.”  

It’s at this point that you can start to put business cards into their case, and your case into a jacket pocket or purse and stand to leave the room. 

First business meeting in Japan: Business-meeting etiquette & survival photo

Japanese business-meeting etiquette dictates that in the situation where a visiting party is leaving the building, hosts will guide them to the elevator or exit where pleasantries are exchanged and both parties part with a deep bow until elevator doors have closed or both parties are no longer in sight of each other. For the first-timer to Japanese business meetings this deep, long bow can make for more one of the more striking visuals.

Point 10: Business-meeting survival by taking post-meeting notes

Not so much a point of survival for your first business meeting in Japan, rather this is a point of survival for the almost inevitable follow-up. 

You might be able to store the content of a meeting in your head had it been held in your native tongue but doing so in Japanese is really difficult. It pays then to jot up some notes about what went down so that you can be as prepared as possible to get through the next meeting in the series. Oh, and don’t forget where you put those notes!

Should I shake hands?

Japanese business meetings are typically bookended with a bow. As “the only foreigner in the meeting room” though, you might feel some kind of duty to lend a bit of cultural exchange to proceedings by extending a handshake to visitors.  

Honestly, you could give it a go. It’s entirely unnecessary but it’s also unlikely to upset the balance of business-meeting etiquette in Japan (although it might cause surprise). Going in for some kind of European cheek-kissing greeting, however, would be a huge faux pas. Even outside of the office and dressed in their civvies the Japanese rarely hug and kiss in public. I’m almost tempted to advise you try it during Japanese business meetings though, at any stage, just to imagine the reactions.

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