by Shawna McAlearney

Business Etiquette: 10 Cultural Faux Pas You Should Never Make in Japan

Apr 27, 20093 mins
IT LeadershipOutsourcingRelationship Building

Gaining respect when doing business in Japan is important. Do you know enough about the culture to impress them? Or is it so unfamiliar to you that your potential Japanese client won't want to sign on the dotted line?

From language mishaps run amok—”I once said ‘That’s wonderful’ when a person said her uncle died,” confesses businessman Ron McFarland—to blowing your nose in public, there are many faux pas people unknowingly make when doing business in another culture. And Japan is rife with opportunities for Westerners to make mistakes.

Those mistakes could be what’s standing between closing a big deal that will help your company weather the current economic storm—or not. Can you afford to leave anything to chance? (Don’t miss 6 Cultural Faux Pas You Should Never Make in Russia, 10 Cultural Faux Pas You Should Never Make in India and 11 Cultural Faux Pas You Should Never Make in China.)

Below is a list of 10 common faux pas that you shouldn’t make when in Japan as submitted by international business people.

  1. Wait to be introduced. And while it may be customary for you to shake hands, the traditional form of greeting in Japan is the bow—the deeper you bow, the more respect you show.
  2. As in China, treat the business card you receive as you would the person: receive it with both hands, examine it carefully and put it in a safe place after the meeting. It’s a good idea to have one side of your card translated into Japanese; if you do, present your card with that side facing the receiver.
  3. Wait to be told where to sit; protocol is important.
  4. Realize that every member of the team is important and needs your respect, including the older gentleman in the corner snoozing through your presentation and the most junior facilitator. When presenting, do so to the senior member of your client’s team.
  5. If you decide to give a gift, the way it is wrapped is very important. Quality chocolates or small cakes are good options, but steer clear of white flowers and potted plants, except for bonsai trees. Present it to the most senior person at the end of the meeting.
  6. Food facts: Learn to use chopsticks and never point with them; if you don’t want a refill, don’t finish what is in your glass; conversely, if you do not want more rice, finish every grain in your bowl.
  7. Be careful with facial expressions; frowning can be interpreted as a sign of disagreement. Other signs to watch for include tilting the head, and scratching the head or eyebrows.
  8. Footwear facts: Take your shoes off when entering a restaurant or someone’s home. Toilet slippers will be provided for bathroom use, but, cautions Hamish Taylor of Shinergise Partners, “Wearing the toilet slippers back to the tatami mat room in the restaurant is a no-no.”
  9. Don’t blow your nose in public Western style or react negatively to a Japanese person sniffing. As Taylor notes, each culture has their own way of dealing with the common cold.
  10. Speak clearly and consistently rather than s-l-o-w-l-y and loudly if you believe someone is having difficulty understanding you.

Mistakes are accepted graciously as long as genuine respect is shown.

Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list. Tell us about the cultural mistake you made—or observed—in the comments section below. Don’t you wish someone had shared their experiences with you before you became the laughingstock of the water cooler brigade?

This story was written by Shawna McAlearney. Follow me on Twitter @ms_shawna

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