Japanese business phrases


Essential for doing business in Japan?

The Japanese business phrases are at the bottom of this page but before skipping to them, spend a couple of minutes understanding why you do not need to become a walking dictionary of Japanese business phrase to succeed doing business in Japan.

First, language fluency and business ability are not necessarily (maybe rarely) related as many foreign companies doing business in Japan and which have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on hiring and firing failed (but perfectly bilingual) Japanese executives can attest to.

Second, in sales and business, whether in Japan or elsewhere, language ability is secondary to attitude, motivation and commitment. In my personal case, my Japanese language ability, while more than adequate to get me through everyday life and business meetings, is far from perfect. Yet I have sold millions of dollars of software products in Japan and have consistently outperformed many perfectly bilingual people I know. For example, in my very first year in Japan I knew about 50 words of Japanese and did over $1m in software sales - if I can do it then believe me so can you!

Third, to learn to speak fluent Japanese takes at least 2 - 3 years (unless you are like a friend of mine who speaks 7 or 8 different languages fluently and learned Japanese in less than 6 months!). Fortunately you can hire a bilingual age 22 - 28 graduate Japanese secretary or marketing assistant for around $30,000 which is less than many US secretaries earn. If you make that hire through one of Japan's head hunters it will typically cost more because they tend to deal with older women who know that foreign company subsidiaries tend to pay a lot more than domestic Japanese companies do. Why? Probably because foreign companies make more use of recruitment search firms and of course a head hunter receives his/her 30% commission based on the recruited employee's salary.

A 22 - 28 year-old Japanese woman may not be the world's greatest businessperson but you are not hiring her to run your business - you are recruiting her to interpret your message and relay the response back to you. In fact in my experience, the problem with many older, supposedly more experienced, and much more expensive bilinguals is that they think they are businesspeople, start to heavily filter the content of customer responses and will even answer questions on your behalf and (because the conversation is in Japanese) without you being aware of it - that can be a lot of missed opportunities! If you have ever sat through a meeting where your bilingual employees are chattering to the customer and only occasionally referring to you for answers then you now know what is happening.

"Japanese speaker or not, Carlos Ghosn has turned Nissan's fortunes into solid gold!"

In the section on deciding whether to search for a Japanese executive or expatriate for your Japanese company President, I noted that many Japanese think that Carlos Ghosn, the Frenchman President of Nissan, is Japan's most successful executive at this time. I do not suppose (though I have not met him and may be wrong) that Monsieur Ghosn speaks fluent Japanese - when he makes one of his frequent appearances on Japanese TV business news he always uses a French-Japanese interpreter. Japanese speaker or not, Carlos Ghosn has turned Nissan's fortunes into solid gold and I am waiting to see how Nissan fares after his impending return to France.

Although you do not need to become a word-perfect Japanese speaker, many Japanese people really do appreciate foreigners who make the effort to learn at least a few Japanese words and business phrases. Very often it will be a wonderful ice-breaker and help build much stronger customer relations if you are able to make a polite greeting or two in Japanese. So, if you (like me) are not so fortunate with linguistics as my friend mentioned above, then: i) how far should you go in learning business Japanese, ii) what phrases are of most value, and, iii) when should you use those phrases? Here are a few:

  • when handing out your business card:
    • 'Watashi no namae wa Brown desu' - means 'My name is Brown', if I ever meet the Emperor then this is the one I will use (although there is a much politer more humble version I would be required to use if I were Japanese!).
    • 'Brown desu.' - means the same as 'Watashi no name wa Brown desu' but is more colloquial, way less formal, much easier to remember and will not get you into trouble.
    • 'Hajimemashite' - means 'Hello, I am pleased to make your acquaintance' and you only use it the very first time you meet unless you want to break the ice by being a comedian.
  • General greetings:
    • 'Ohayogozaimasu' - means 'Good morning' and is generally used before 10:00am.
    • 'Konnichiwa' - means 'Good day' (when meeting) and is used from 10:00am ~ 6:00pm.
    • 'Kombanwa' - means 'Good evening' (when meeting) and is generally used after 6:00pm.
  • Upon parting:
    • 'Domo arigato gozaimashita' - pronounced 'domo aligato gozaimashita' means 'Thank you' (in this case for the event that just occurred) and can be used when parting morning, afternoon or night. Do not use 'Sayonara' (pronounced 'Sayonala') which is more of a final (or long-term) 'farewell'.
  • Please and thank you:
    • 'Onegaishimasu' means 'If you please' and can be used for example if you are at dinner with a customer and he/she offers you wine. It can also be used (as by fawning Japanese salespeople and me!) in an expectant way when asking for an order (of the revenue-bearing contract variety)!
    • 'Domo arigato gozaimasu' - pronounced 'domo aligato gozaimasu' means 'Thank you' (in this case for the event that is just occurring!) and can be used when thanking a customer for an order or for a meal.
    • 'Gochisosama deshita' - means 'Thank you' but only to your host when leaving a restaurant or bar (it literally means 'I was spoiled' as in having received food and drink).
    • 'Doitashimashite' - means 'It's my pleasure.' and if a you bought lunch/dinner for a customer and he/she says "Gochisosama deshita'.
  • Sorry and excuse me:
    • 'Gomen nasai.' means 'Sorry' and can be used when you stand on your customers foot as you both get into an over-crowded late-night train!
    • 'Sumimasen.' - means 'Excuse me.' and can be used when excusing yourself from the table or room or when calling a waiter/waitress.



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Japanese business phrases

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