In Japan, the new school/fiscal year starts in April. For many Japanese, it is a fresh start of the year, often accompanying different positions, roles, and starting in new environments.
Thus, April is a good time to revisit some aspects of Japanese business etiquette that is still practiced ritualistically, even with the changing times. While business etiquette is something that is required for the Japanese businessman, Japanese people will not require the same for international workers in Japan. Although there are many unwritten rules, customs, and traditions, demonstrating respect, some knowledge of Japanese culture and traditions and the willingness to learn will go a long way when working in Japan. If nothing else, your friends and colleagues will be impressed and happy, maybe even grateful that you are trying to learn a very complex and difficult culture.
As with any culture, the first meeting is the most important. You can only make a first impression once, and getting things right in the first encounter is key. In Japan, business etiquette for a meeting starts even before you reach the meeting room.
First and foremost, Japan is all about punctuality. As the old ICS proverb goes;
Being late for a meeting is unacceptable, and will come with a cost. Always allocate some time other than the time for transportation to go to the bathroom, etc. If you are going to be late, you should make a call giving your business counterpart a reason and your estimated time of arrival.
If the meeting is held at your opponent’s office, you must first take your coat off before entering the building itself. In Japan, you will see many business professionals with their coats neatly folded and hanging from their arms before they enter an office building. The origins of this custom comes from a tatami mat culture, where everything from eating to sleeping is done on the tatami mat. In that kind of living environment, it was important to keep the tatami mats clean, and people were careful not to bring in kegare (uncleanness, defilement) from outside into their rooms. As a guest, you had to be extra careful to show respect, and to show you are being careful not to bring any kegare from outside. Thus, people fold their coats inward, hiding the outer shell of the coat which might contain dust, debris, or rain dew – a demonstration that you are not bringing any kegare from outside. This custom has remained and the Japanese still practice this as a way to demonstrate consideration for other people’s space.
Once you reach the meeting room, you must wait until you are offered a seat. This is the same with any drinks that are brought to you. Don’t drink it as soon as it is brought to you, wait until the host offers.
When your business counterpart arrives, it is customary to bow to each other rather than shake hands in Japan. The bowing will be accompanied by an exchange of business cards, which follows a protocol. Japanese business cards are known as the meishi, and for the Japanese businessperson, the meishi is almost an extension of their identity. Therefore, when exchanging the meishi, it is important to treat it with utmost respect. When presenting your business card, make sure the meishi is faced so that your counterpart can read it, and give your card with both hands. Never toss or push your card to the other side of the table, always make sure you get up and exchange the meishi face to face. When receiving the meishi, bow slightly as you take it. You may notice that your counterpart will try to place his/her meishi lower than yours to show their respect for you. When Japanese business professionals do an exchange, the meishis tend to go lower and lower, which turns into an impromptu meishi limbo competition!
Once you have received their meishi, examine it closely with respect, being careful not to cover the name of your counterpart with your fingers. Making appropriate remarks about the company’s logo, or their name may help to break the corporate ice. After you are seated, place the meishi on top of your meishi case and refer to it when you need to until the end of the meeting. Never write on it or shove it in to your pocket or wallet in front of them.
You should also note that the meishi speaks a lot about the holder’s character. If the meishi you present is wrinkly, has lots of stains, and has information crossed out or edited by hand, you could give the impression that you are an unorganized person, and therefore not trustworthy. Always carry your meishi in a meishi case, keeping it clean and crisp.
So much business etiquette and we have only reached the beginning of the meeting! In Japanese Business Etiquette Part 2, we will explore the dos and don’ts during the meeting.