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Anyone who has spent time working with the Japanese knows that their thoughts, motivations, and priorities are often hidden from view.

The Japanese are more likely to rely on non-verbal cues and context, than the literal meaning of the words they use to say it. This is so orthogonal to the Westerner  style that given enough time or interaction, a conflict or miscommunication is almost unavoidable.

Below is a list of seven things that we’ve found even the most experienced business travelers don’t realize they don’t know about Japanese culture. How about you?

1. If you need a fork, be careful not to ask for it.

Let’s say you’re out to dinner with business associates in Japan when you notice the only utensils on the table are chopsticks — only you’re not a chopsticks person. Well have no fear because most Japanese restaurants you’re likely to visit will have a fork you can use. But don’t ask for it.

Effective communication in Japan is often indirect. Nuances, gestures, and non-verbal actions are used to ‘say’ much of what needs to be said. When your Japanese colleagues notice you’re uncomfortable holding the chopsticks, staring at the chopsticks, or any other visual clue, they’ll pick up on it. They’ll ask you if you’d rather have a fork, and they’ll gladly ask for one on your behalf.

That’s why you won’t need to ask for a fork, here’s why you shouldn’t ask. The Japanese derive meaning from what is left ‘unsaid’ and rely on context. So asking for a fork could unintentionally signal that you have no desire to learn about their culture — e.g., if you’re unwilling to learn about chopsticks, how would you handle more critical business situations with bigger cultural differences?

By the way, did you know that when you go out for drinks, or play golf with the Japanese that they use those opportunities to evaluate your character?

Quiz: Let’s see if you are ready to go on a business dinner in Japan. 

2. They do say ‘no,’ and they say it often.

You may have heard the Japanese say “yes” when they mean “no”. If only it was that simple. In fact, the Japanese say “no” all the time. Just not in so many words, so to speak.

Avoiding confrontation, saving face, and keeping harmony are a few of the values that influence how the Japanese communicate disagreement, or for that matter anything they think could be upsetting to another person.

So while the word “no” is avoided, there are many ways the Japanese indicate they mean “no.” Here’s just a few:

  • Indicate that something might be difficult
  • Tilt head, sucking air between teeth
  • Confirm that they understand
  • Suggest an unrelated alternative to the problem
  • Change the conversation
  • Stay silent

3. It’s better not to bow than to bow badly.

Bows are so integral to Japanese behavior that you’ll see the Japanese even unintentionally bowing to the person on the other end of a phone call.

But executing a correct Japanese bow can be a very complex matter. Social status, age, experience, and job position all come into play into how deep and how long to bow.

Because the Japanese won’t expect you to know all the intricacies involved, you won’t be expected to bow. A small bend at the waste though is a good idea, and will show just enough deference to their culture to be appreciated.

4. Meetings are not for brainstorming or decisions.

Question: What is the difference between why Europeans or Americans attend meetings and why Japanese attend meetings?

Answer: Europeans and Americans send 1-2 people to a meeting to tell you everything they think you need to know. The Japanese on the other hand send 20 people to a meeting to learn everything you know.

In Japan, meetings are primarily held to acquire information. But ideas are discussed and decisions made through a long and involved consensus building process–not in single meeting, no matter how far you’ve flown to get there. But watch out : Attempts to do otherwise can harm relations.

5. Who – San? 

Japanese people use many kinds of suffixes. Which one should you use?

Generally you’ll want to refer to others by their last name followed by san (i.e. Kimura san). Alternatively you could also use the suffix sama (although this conveys a very high level of respect that might not be necessary depending on the situation). Should someone ask you to call them by their first name, it’s ok to do so, but it’s recommended to follow with san (i.e. Akira san), unless explicitly asked otherwise.

photo of girl laying left hand on white digital robot

6.After the meeting – when business really begins

In Japan, when a meeting is over, the meeting continues. The vibe is completely different. Very often meetings move to restaurants or bars. Food and alcohol are used as a social lubricant in Japan. This is a way to connect to the person, as opposed to the business partner. You will not be judged much during these more goliardic components of the meetings, but it’s your chance to make yourself more likeable and it’s ok to get loose a little.

You will very often be expected to drink but it’s perfectly ok not to. To avoid embarrassing moments (such as rejecting someone who wants to pour you a cup of sake), it’s best to be upfront. The same goes for dietary restrictions or allergies you may have.

7 Practice up on your karaoke

After dinner and drinks, one of the favorite pastimes in Japan is Karaoke. You may be an awesome singer, or an awful one. No one will actually care or pay attention to it. It’s all about unwinding a little and bonding together. This does not prevent you from making some conscious choices that might make your party more comfortable. For example, many not-too-young Japanese people may not be all too familiar with the latest western hit songs, but they will most likely know (and get very excited to hear a native speaker sing) some oldies: Hey Jude, We will Rock You, Take me home, country road (they actually have a Japanese version of this song too), Happy, YMCA, and several others are almost sure successes.


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