What I learned sitting in Japanese business meetings

My experiences attending business meetings with Japanese clients

Photo by Ryo Yoshitake on Unsplash

I traveled and worked in Japan (at an early stage in my career) for a short period (around 2009–2010). This was for implementing software to IT customers — All Nippon Airways and TIACT (Tokyo International Air Cargo Terminal LTD). I was primarily based in the district of Hamamatsucho in the Minato-Ku ward in Tokyo.

These are some of my learning and observations from sitting in review and discussion meetings. They are not exhaustive, nor are they definitive and merely reflect my observations. I have also not listed some of the obvious business etiquettes that you should follow in Japan. Some of these might be useful to business analysts even in general scenarios.

  1. The agenda is important— The agenda is always shared before the meetings. Any document which is to be discussed is also attached in the meeting request mail. The expectation is that both sides read and understand the document to be discussed. This makes it easier to then discuss, analyze and proceed to the agenda of the meeting. This also means that both parties should not deviate too much from the agenda, or introduce absolutely new documents in the meeting.
  2. Be punctual — Reach the meeting on time. Shows respect for both parties and starts the meeting on a pleasant note. Remember, being punctual is ingrained in their culture. I learned it initially the hard way when I used to run to the Hamamatsu train station in the mornings and miss the train by 30 seconds. Because they always left ON TIME.
  3. Be comfortable with the fact that there might be a translator in the meeting — Oftentimes, you would have to take the help of a translator for a meeting. This means that the meeting duration will be a bit longer with the constant back and forth. Be patient with that. Be precise with your communication so that complex issues don't get lost in translation. In fact with the translator would often give you and the other party time to think about your position. Take it as a blessing in disguise.
  4. Be precise with your communications — Avoid phrases like ‘this will be delivered next week’ or ‘this issue will soon get fixed’. I often saw the Japanese customers noting down details promised in the meeting. For them, it was always important to be specific in terms of dates, effort estimation, etc. It's better not to be vague.
  5. Embrace the ‘checklist’ — When I used to return from a customer office in Haneda back to Hamamatsu station and then walk back to my apartment, I used to see some construction workers in a huddle. They would be comparing their checklists and ticking them, every night after finishing work before leaving for home. Similarly, you would always see the Japanese customers with a checklist (a paper one at that) in every meeting. A checklist of issues to be discussed in meetings, a checklist of software defects, a checklist of dependencies to manage, etc. They would meticulously tick it once they are satisfied with the outcome. It is important to understand this culture of quality and preciseness when interacting with them in meetings.
  6. Empathy for language gap — Understand that they would not be able to express a complicated issue or feeling in English, a language that is not primary to them. Be empathetic to this. Be ready to whiteboard scenarios to make them clearer, as visual communication is the most common and accurate.
  7. Avoid conflicts in meetings — In my experience, things do not move fast with conflicts in meetings with Japanese customers. It’s always good to avoid them. But in turn, it also makes sense to get your point on record as well. Work to build a consensus, rather than taking the road of conflict to win an argument in a meeting. Consensus might take long, but it is better than spoiling the tone of the meeting, which leads to further issues down the line.

These are just some of the things that i noticed in my short stay of 6 months. Overall, there are a lot of good things that can be embraced by observing their way of conducting meetings and their focus on quality. Again there is a lot of learning that they could use to keep pace with the new-gen fast-paced workings of the worldwide IT industry (more on that for another day).

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Pushkar Anand

Pushkar Anand

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Business Analyst. Dreaming big. Exploring world viewpoints. Aviation, Hospitality, Campaign Management, IoT, Fintech.