How to make a great first impression doing business in Japan

How to make a great first impression doing business in Japan

 My first meeting in Japan was with the country manager of Apple, in the Apple Japan corporate headquarters.  He was an Australian and showed up in camping shorts and a hunting hat.  Don't count on a casual meeting like that the first time you go to Japan, and be prepared by learning the manners, etiquette, and have very nice business cards.

My first meeting in Japan was with the country manager of Apple, in the Apple Japan corporate headquarters.  He was an Australian and showed up in camping shorts and a hunting hat.  Don't count on a casual meeting like that the first time you go to Japan, and be prepared by learning the manners, etiquette, and have very nice business cards.

The key to making a great first impression for doing business in Japan

I was recently asked an interesting question on Quora: What are the top ten phrases in Japanese to help us hold a good meeting with customers in Tokyo, Japan?

Another contributor, Yabuta-san, listed out several basic words and phrases that would be top of the list, including (credit to Yabuta san for taking the time to write out this list):

  • はじめまして(hajimemasite) Nice to meet you.
  • 私の名前は…(watashino namaewa) My name is…
  • 私は…から来たものです。(watashiwa …. kara kitamonodesu) I belong to ….
  • よろしくお願いします(yoroshiku onegaiaimasu) — a very common phrase in all meetings in Japan with no direct translation. Loosely translated, it means “please be nice to me from now on.” People use this phrase to show respect for the other.
  • お名前をお伺いしていいですか?(onamaeo oukagaishite iidesuka?) May I ask your name please?
  • ありがとうございます(arigatou gozaimasu) Thank you very much.
  • 賛成です(sannseidesu) I agree.
  • 反対です(hanntaidesu) I disagree.
  • 何かありましたら、ご連絡ください(nanikaarimasitara gorenraku kudasai) Please contact us if there is anything.
  • またお会いするのを楽しみにしています(mataoaisurunowo tanoshimini siteimasu)

When I saw the question, I realized that what they may not know is that the success of any meeting between foreigner business people and Japanese customers will be determined more by knowledge of manners and etiquette and less by language.  

It's less about language and more about manners

I studied international negotiations in business school under a professor and gentleman who emphasized that culture, business and language are most critical to success in Japan.  English is common business language in Japan, and interpreters are always available.  What interpreters can't do is set the tone of the meeting. So I decided it would be good to introduce everyone to a very basic introduction scenario, both in terms of language as well as a few fundamental business card manners. I also tried to provide a quick scenario between a foreign businessperson (me as an example, with my company Tech Concierge) and a Japanese businessperson (Kaneko-san, in this case). I wrote it out below first in English, followed by pronunciation, followed by the Japanese. Let me know if this helps!

If you are going to be meeting in Japan, the meeting will likely be conducted in English, especially if the other (non-Japanese) business team doesn’t speak Japanese. Pro tip: It’s ideal if a member of your team is Japanese-speaking, even if the individual doesn’t ever put forward that they speak and understand Japanese. That is a common practice in Japanese international negotiations where interpreters are used but not actually needed. Simply having an interpreter provides the Japanese business professional who understands English extra time to think and strategize. It’s quite interesting to watch, and a brilliant strategy during intense negotiations.

Introductions and business card etiquette

The two most important elements of the meeting in Japan will be 1) introductions and 2) manners.

The business card exchange is probably the most critical part of the meeting, as it can set the tone for the meeting moving forward. The respect paid to the individual sharing their business card is reflected in how you handle the business card. Receiving the business card with two hands, taking a moment to look at it. Holding it with care. Having a business card wallet to receive the business card, and never, ever putting the business card in a wallet or in your back pocket. In Japan, a business card is still seen as one’s “face”. You’re holding the paper self-image of the individual who gave it to you in your hand. Don’t put it in a back pocket of your pants, don’t sit on it, and don’t write on it. It’s an American (and somewhat Western) thing to write notes on a business card. Don’t ever do this with a Japanese person’s business card, even if they wrote their name in English on the front or back before giving it to you.

As for language in an introduction, here’s an example of how a business meeting can start (using me as the foreigner, meeting Mr. Kaneko, the Japanese businessperson):

Coleman:

Good morning, how are you? I’m James Coleman with Tech Concierge. (presenting my business card) I am very happy to have this opportunity to meet with you.

[Ohayō gozaimasu. Honjitsu wa oisogashii tokoro, ojikan o totte itadaite kyōshuku desu. (Meishi o sashidashite) Tekku Konshieruju no Koruman to mōshimasu. Yoroshiku onegai itashimasu.]

おはようございます。本日はお忙しいところ、お時間をとっていただいて恐縮です。(名刺を差し出して)テックコンシェルジュのコルマンと申します。よろしくお願いいたします。

Kaneko:

(takes the card and offers his own) It’s my pleasure. I’m Tomoaki Kaneko. (motions toward a chair) Please have a seat.

[(Meishi o uketorinagara jibun no meishi o sashidashite) Kaneko de gozaimasu. Yoroshiku onegai itashimasu. (Isu o shimeshite) Dōzo okake kudasai.

(名刺お受け取り、自分の名刺を差し出して)金子でございます。よろしくお願いいたします。(椅子を示して)どうぞおかけください。

Coleman:

Thank you.

[Osoreirimasu.]

恐れ入ります。

Additional resources and further reading

Japanese Cultural Encounters (link to Amazon US) by Hiroko Kataoka is a great primer for anyone going to Japan for any reason at all, and a must for anyone getting ready to do business in Japan.

If you want to go deeper and get inside the head of your Japanese colleagues, I highly recommend The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture (link to Amazon US) by Roger Davies and Osamu Ikeno.  It's a deep dive into Japanese Society and is incredibly helpful in understanding why many Japanese interact with each other they way they do.  In fact, for any non-Japanese married to a Japanese, this will help you preserve your relationship and take it to the next level.  Trust me on this.  Some of the topics explored in the book include: 

If you're looking for a good primer book on taking your Japanese language to the next level of conversational capabiilty, get this book: Basic Connections: Making Your Japanese Flow (link to Amazon US) by Kakuko Shoji. I bought this book when it first came out. It did more for me than my first two years of Japanese at the University level, and I still review it at least once every few months.

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A masterless Samurai, like a boss

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