Japanese business culture


Business meetings in Japan

2.  business meetings in Japan

In the previous section introducing Japanese business culture, I mentioned that many executives of foreign companies starting business in Japan, consider their first encounter with Japan's business culture to be at their first Japanese business meeting.

If your first meeting is with a Japanese distributor used to dealing with foreign companies, or with the trading division of one of Japan's large multinationals, then the chances are that the employees fielded by the 'other side' will speak English, possible extremely fluent English and, they having dealt with many hundreds or thousands of foreigners, you will soon feel pretty much at home. If however you are dealing with a smaller domestic distributor, a smaller company or an internal division of a major corporation (even one of Japan's multinationals), then the entire meeting may be in Japanese with English being restricted to "Good morning/afternoon.", "Nice to meet you.", "My name is Tanaka." etc. at the outset.

"The Japanese in English."

In the first of the above scenarios you will pretty soon forget you are in Japan and neither Japanese business culture nor etiquette will seem to be an obstacle to your success. Very often you will proceed quickly to a profitable business relationship but equally as often you will not. The problem is that the conversation may be in English but the other side is thinking in Japanese and, being polite, the Japanese side will not wish to hurt your feelings. Japanese salesmen instinctively know when they are being politely rebuked - most foreign executives do not, particularly if they are hugely relieved to find a prospective customer or partner that speaks fluent English!

I have seen distributors and prospective customers shower abundant praise on a foreign executive, his/her company and his/her product/service and yet all the while have absolutely no intention of ever doing a deal. I have seen second meetings, third meetings, expensive dinner meetings (including one that was hosted by the Japanese side and probably cost more than $2,000) but still the Japanese side never had any intention of doing a deal - they were simply being polite and waiting for the foreigners to lose interest. I have seen foreign company executives after such meetings who were convinced they were on the verge of multi-million dollar deals - the problem being that they assumed that because the Japanese side was talking fluent English, the differences in business culture were irrelevant. Never calculate your probability of success with a Japanese using the same metrics that you might use in the US or Europe - the metrics are different.

Politeness and meeting manners are a key aspect of Japanese business culture and, as noted above, one which can mislead foreign executives. I have often noticed that many Japanese businessmen show a heightened sense of politeness when speaking in English with foreign company executives. The same man speaking in Japanese will be more direct, saying what he really means, or rather, he will say "No" in a way that while polite will leave a Japanese salesperson in no doubt of his meaning. Why are they so polite in the first instance but more direct in the second? I will leave that one for the academics.

"The Japanese in Japanese."

In the second of the above first meeting scenarios, the differences in business culture will be emphasized by language differences and that (depending upon the character and quality of your interpreter) can be either very enlightening or very frustrating. In a Japanese language meeting, the Japanese side are likely to be very polite, show a substantial amount of formality and reserve and you will be concerned that they are not 'opening up' and that the meeting is not going well. Very often the pattern is as follows:

  • you are greeted by your initial contact upon arrival and taken to a meeting room,
  • the Japanese team troop into the meeting room and politely exchange business cards with you,
  • they politely sit through your presentation and take copious notes,
  • ask some questions, bow politely then all troop out leaving you with your initial contact!

Such polite, reserved and well-mannered meetings are typical of Japanese business but are often especially frustrating for US company executives because, in the US (and to a lesser degree in Europe), business is very informal and businessmen meeting for the very first time can often seem to have been lifelong friends within minutes of first shaking hands. Do not be disheartened though - just because the Japanese side is not talking about yesterday's ball game does not mean they are not interested in your product/service. I once did over half a million dollars of business with a Japanese customer who just 2 or 3 weeks before had had a very 'chilly' meeting with the then Chairman of the company I was representing!

In this second scenario, a good businessperson will use his/her interpreter to probe and test the Japanese sides impressions and reactions. They will often be more forthcoming because they are talking to your interpreter (and in a sense rejecting him/her rather than you) and your interpreter will be able to advise you accordingly. If the Japanese side is genuinely interested in your product or service then they will want to meet again irrespective of language differences. If they are not interested then you saved a lot of time, energy and can move on to more profitable prospects.

3.  the Japanese company in Japan's culture >>

Japanese business culture

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