After being in business for 28 years and servicing 50+ cities around the world, we’ve picked up a few things when it comes to international business etiquette. Today let’s take a bite-sized look at what to keep in mind when doing business in Japan.

How you handle business cards is as important as the card itself

If you’re used to doing business in the West, you probably accept business cards without more than a glance. You say a quick thanks, stuff it in your wallet, and move on to business. But in Japan, you must handle business cards (or ‘meishi’) with great respect or risk causing offence.

  • When giving a business card: hold the card with both hands and present it to the other person face up with the text facing them.
  • When receiving a business card: accept the card with both hands and carefully read the text. Show your interest, express your appreciation, and place the card in your business card holder (not your pocket or wallet). If sitting at a table, you might want to keep the business card in front of you for the rest of the meeting.

Don’t be so direct (a.k.a. being direct is perhaps not the best option)

Japanese people are famously reluctant to give a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Japanese culture is one of subtlety and understanding through context and what is unsaid. This can be hard for many Westerners to initially get used to but ensuring you soften your speech will make working relationships with Japanese much smoother.

Instead of saying a direct ‘no’ to a request, you might wish to do as the Japanese do and say something like, ‘that might be a little difficult’. You could also convey your ‘no’ through a pained expression and a look as though you are considering their request. This will be interpreted as a ‘no’ but will feel a lot less blunt.

Small gifts from your country are always appreciated

Gift giving is a vital part of Japanese culture. So much so that when a Japanese employee goes on holiday, they will bring back small souvenirs for all of their coworkers. To not do so would seem cold and inconsiderate. Guests will also bring gifts, such as a bottle of wine or some food, when they are invited to someone’s house.

Japanese people are extremely curious about other countries so the perfect gift for Japanese business associates is a small souvenir from your country (e.g. biscuits, spirits).

When giving a gift, it’s always best to present it in a humble manner. You might wish to point out the fact that the gift is not so significant. You might even want to learn this common Japanese phrase that accompanies gift-giving: “chotto tsumaranai mono desu ga”. This means you are giving them something unimportant. Even if you are giving an expensive gift, this is a nice phrase to use.

Meetings are not for decisions

If you’re from a Western country, you are likely used to going into a meeting with an agenda. You need to tell everybody what you know, what needs to get done, and then make a decision so you can go off and take action.

But in Japan, meetings are more for learning and building familiarity with people and issues. You should not expect a decision (particularly big ones) at the end of a meeting. Decisions can take many weeks of careful consideration and information must be filtered and gathered through different appropriate layers in the company.

When in a Japanese business meeting, do not hurry the process or try to chase a decision. Supply relevant information, listen carefully, and go with the flow of the majority. This will have a positive impact on your relationships with your Japanese associates.

Let the Lewis Model guide your behaviour

The Lewis Model is a graph that plots the world’s different cultures and shows you their relation to one another.

You can see, for example, that the U.K. is a predominantly linear-active culture, whereas Japan is a reactive culture.

A reactive culture is one that prioritises respect, careful listening, silence, considered reactions, and avoiding confrontation.

A linear-active culture is one that prioritises planning, polite but direct manners, being results-oriented, and confronting with logic.

Knowing where your culture sits in this model and where Japan’s culture sits can help you moderate your behaviour in business situations. You’ll know that you should cut down how much you say, pay extra care to show respect, and avoid confrontations. Acting in these ways will vastly improve your working relationships with Japanese business partners and clients.

Shoes off

This is one you might already know. But it’s so important it bears repeating. Always take your shoes off before entering someone’s home. There is a little area in the entrance of every Japanese home (called a “genkan”) that is for removing your shoes. Walking into someone’s house while still wearing outdoor shoes is one of the biggest cultural faux pas you could ever make and is sure to make a relationship sour.

Fill others’ glasses before your own

When drinking at a restaurant, if you want to fill your glass, make sure you top up everyone else first. It’s even better if you can give people a top up and refrain from filling your glass. One of your associates is sure to immediately fill your glass back up. However, you will often find that your glass does not have a chance to get empty because your associates will always fill it up before it does. If you don’t want to get drunk, you should ensure you glass stays half-full for the duration of the meal.

Group solidaritiy is more important than the individuals

Japan has a strong collectivist culture. This is very different from the individualistic culture of many Western countries.

It is important to remember that collectivist cultures are predominantly concerned with what is best for the group. This mindset has a tangible grip on business meetings in Japan and means that praising the group as a whole is always preferable than singling anyone out for special treatment. Complimenting just one person will result in embarrassment. Complimenting the whole department, company, or country will result in pride.

Enjoy your time in Japan and cherish the relationships you create

Whole books have been written on the subject on Japanese business etiquette. As such, it’s impossible for this to be a comprehensive guide but it should certainly give you a push in the right direction and make sure your business in Japan goes smoothly.

Most importantly of all, make sure you have fun and enjoy your time in Japan. Japan is a fascinating country with a rich culture and Japanese people are extremely accommodating and friendly.

For information about freight forwarding services to Japan (including Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, and Kobe) visit



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