By Ryoko Ward
Tokyoesque are experts in Europe-Japan relations and provide clients with unique cultural insights that can be used to accelerate business growth across the globe. In this article, we offer some simple tips that might come in useful when planning a business trip to Japan.
Why plan a business trip to Japan?
One of the biggest differences between Japanese and western business cultures is decision making — or, more specifically, the speed at which decisions are reached. In Japanese business scenes, it’s common to take much longer to make a decision, particularly when it comes to more significant commitments such as closing a new deal. For western companies who are seeking partnerships or clients in the Japanese market, this often results in feelings of frustration. One of the reasons why the process is so slow is that Japanese tend to be risk averse and they need more time to figure out whether the company is trustworthy.
Turning up in person to see potential partners or clients in Japan is one way of earning that trust. Although this won’t necessarily accelerate the speed at which Japanese companies reach a decision, they will definitely appreciate the effort of flying all the way to the Far East to pay them a visit.
Here, we outline our top recommendations to consider when making arrangements to visit Japan on business.
1. Hire a local interpreter
Don’t speak Japanese? In this case, we strongly recommend preparing a locally-hired professional interpreter. The majority of Japanese business people would definitely appreciate it if you brought an interpreter with you on a visit as they tend to feel uncomfortable when English is the only language being used. Even if you are meeting someone who works at a large global corporate, they aren’t necessarily going to speak fluent English.
2. Schedule your business trip well
It makes perfect sense to schedule as many appointments as you can to make the most out of your business trip to Japan. After all, it’s such a commitment to fly all the way to Japan in the first place. When you make appointments, ensure you have enough time to travel between the various meeting locations. This may sound like common sense, but there are two reasons we advise this.
Firstly, public transportation in Japan, particularly in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, can seem quite complicated if you’re not used to it. The easiest way to get around might be to hire a taxi for the day. Bear in mind, though, that taxis are considered to be the most expensive transport option in Japan, so the most cost-efficient is public transport such as the train or bus. The good news is that, thanks to the Tokyo 2020 Games next year, many signs have now been translated into English and stations are labelled with a numbering system. So while you don’t necessarily need to know the name of the station you’re travelling to, you might want to allow yourself enough time in case you get lost or accidentally take an incorrect route.
The other reason we recommend allowing enough time to travel between appointment sites is that Japananese people have an expectation of others to be punctual. Showing up late for an appointment by five or ten minutes won’t cause Japanese business people to cancel a potential deal, but it would definitely be frowned upon and as a result you may come across as being incompetent.
Check out our previous blog post on the difference in time perception between Japan and the west for more on this.
3. Take a good stack of business cards with you
One of the most common things that Japanese business people expect from you is your business card. This is the case even if they already know your name, position and contact details. Exchanging business cards is almost like a compulsory ritual in Japanese business scenes — if they haven’t exchanged business cards with you, it’s as if they haven’t officially met you yet. Because this is the formal way of greeting people in the context of Japanese business, they tend to think it’s rather rude not to conduct an exchange of cards.
You should also expect that every single person you meet will want to exchange business cards. This means that, for example, if you are meeting a couple of people from one firm you made an appointment with, you have to give out your business cards to everyone in the group, not only to the main representative. So there’s no need to feel awkward even if they form a queue in front of you until everybody has exchanged business cards with you. Although it’s very unlikely that they would dismiss you for making a faux pas in this regard, running out of business cards in a Japanese business context is not looked upon favourably. Be prepared to give out more than expected, making sure to pack extra business cards in your suitcase.
4. Learn a few Japanese words
This might not be unique only to Japan, but even if you are hiring an interpreter to accompany you during your business trip in Japan, learning a few words in the local language will always be a gesture of goodwill. Some easy and useful Japanese words would be;
- ありがとうございます (arigato gozaimasu) or simply ありがとう (arigato): They both mean ‘thank you’ except the first one is more formal and polite than the latter and should be used in business situations.
- はじめまして (hajime mashite): This can be translated as ‘Nice to meet you’ and is suitable to use when greeting someone for the first time.
- よろしくお願いします (yoroshiku onegaishimasu): This can also mean ‘Nice to meet you’ although is not limited to that definition, depending on the context. For a more detailed explanation of this phrase, take a look at our past blog post on ‘Untranslatable Words’.
- ーさん (‘- san’): This is a gender neutral name suffix and can be used for anyone regardless of their marital status (it’s equivalent to Mr, Miss, Mrs and Ms). Japanese people rarely call each other by their first names in workplaces, but instead address them using their family name followed by ‘-san’ at the end. This is all common etiquette within a Japanese business context. On the other hand, they might take a more relaxed approach and tell you to call them by their first name, but otherwise if you want to refer to a Japanese person, it’s useful to keep this in mind.
5. Be prepared to ‘read between the lines’
We mentioned that hiring an interpreter to accompany you when meeting potential clients in Japan is important, but this does not necessarily mean you automatically understand what’s going on. You want to avoid being misled by taking what’s being discussed at face value. It’s common to see non-Japanese delegates misunderstanding the true feelings of Japanese representatives during business meetings. It often seems as though the Japanese side has an overall positive response, but the western delegates are perplexed when they discover that, in fact, their Japanese counterparts didn’t like their proposal even after investing a significant amount of time on it.
This might be due to a key part of Japanese business culture in which people often answer questions indirectly. In order to avoid awkwardness and conflict, they keep their wording sounding positive but they’re actually implying ‘no’. It’s important to keep in mind that literal interpretation doesn’t necessarily give you the full picture of what Japanese business representatives are thinking. Make sure you understand that Japanese culture tends to be highly contextual, meaning people’s honest thoughts aren’t necessarily made explicit through their language, but they are nevertheless implied.
Need help planning your Japan trip? Let Tokyoesque be your guide.
Tokyoesque provides business trip planning assistance to ensure you can make the most of your time in Japan. Be it sourcing an interpreter, scheduling appointments with potential partners/clients, booking accommodation, or setting up a workshop on Japanese business culture, we can add real value to your business, enabling you to maximise your opportunities in the Japanese market.
Contact us to discuss your requirements.