10 Tips For Business Success in Tokyo and Avoiding Cross Cultural Faux Pas

If you know you will be traveling to Tokyo with the objective of doing business, take the time to think ahead and prepare yourself as much as possible. Find out about the company you will be visiting and their expectations. If you have colleagues who have already worked in the Tokyo office, talk to them about it. What tips can they give you? It sounds so obvious but it always amazes me how many people arrive here with very little idea of the culture or background of the people they will be working with.

10 tips to help prepare the way for a successful trip to Tokyo:

  • Leave your usual expectations at home. Don’t assume anything. The unwritten rules that you might rely on back in New York or London, for example, are not the same here. In order to build a working relationship, try and put yourself in the shoes of your Japanese counterparts.
  • Make your life much easier by not coming over as the arrogant expat who has come to change the way things are done here. This is all too often the method that has been employed and witnessed by Japanese personnel and it is not appreciated. Showing respect and understanding will give you a far higher chance of success in gaining the co-operation of your Japanese counterparts and make the whole experience a far more pleasurable one.
  • Social Conventions. Most deals, discussions and formal business often take place outside of official working hours over a beer or meal. This is the accepted custom and you will find that people are far more relaxed in this environment than if you approach them over the same matter in the office.
  • Yes is not always yes. In Western culture, silence is often deemed to mean agreement or acquiescence. Silence in your conference room in Tokyo may not mean the same thing. Japanese people often struggle to express uncertainty or to clarify necessary information. In Japanese culture, the traditional process in meetings is that everyone takes their turn at speaking. If you want to find out the real temperature amongst your participants, you need to be a little more direct and encourage interaction. If you expect people to interrupt and express their opinion, you may face some problems – even in the most global of companies. It can be frustrating when you reach the end of a discussion and find that what you thought was a yes was actually the complete opposite. The golden rule is to confirm and gain agreement as you go.
  • Maybe is yes? Another significant cultural difference is the reluctance to actually say yes! Ask a sales person if the item you are buying will work when you travel overseas, you’re likely to get the answer “maybe.” Not the most helpful answer within Western cultural standards. To get around this use questions and confirmation to pin down real action, dates and times. Again be respectful about doing this but it is the only sure way to be (99%) certain you have reached the end you desired. Follow this up with e-mail and don’t forget the all important after hours socializing. This may be when you hear true feelings, objections and concerns.
  • To bow or to shake hands? As a Westerner, it is normal practice to shake hands and it is fine to greet someone in your normal manner. It takes years to learn the intricacies of bowing. Depending on someone’s seniority depends how low and how long you bow. If you want to join in as a mark of respect, then observe those around you and follow suit is the best advice.
  • Business cards, or meishi as they are know in Japan, are an essential part of your arsenal if you are serious about doing business in Tokyo. Cards are handled with respect and never shoved into pockets or bags. When someone gives you their card they will present it to you with both hands and you should give and receive in the same way. Read the card and then put it on the table next to you. At the end of your meeting you place it carefully in your card case or other container.
  • Traditional Japanese hierarchy. In traditional corporate structures, staff move through the ranks according to their length of time with the company and age. It is very rare to find a new graduate or younger member of staff in a senior position. Although this is beginning to change, it is still a matter of fact in many domestic companies. This can be quite a culture shock for Westerners, especially when you see good ideas being dismissed because they come from a junior member of staff.
  • Appearance. There are many stories about the number of black suits you will see walking around Tokyo and it is a fact that this city is probably one of the most suited and booted in the world. Not all the suits are of the finest quality but both men and women in professional positions are expected to be suitably attired. When you go into a meeting, keep your jacket on in until you see someone else take theirs off. You might be considered rude if you do this before your host. In short – look smart.
  • Common sense. Japanese people are very welcoming as a general rule. It can be hard as a non-Japanese person to fully gauge what is going on as tone and gestures are used differently and to a lesser degree. Don’t be afraid to ask questions but do it in a respectful way. If you are overly direct then your question may be seen as a criticism or as an attack. If this is what you intend then fine, but if you want to build long lasting relationships this is not the best way to go about it.

As a final note, don’t worry about making mistakes. They will happen. But more than anything show a willingness to participate in and understand the culture around you. This simple act can be the key to making or breaking your success.

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