Blog Posts

Japanese Business Quirks

Jessica Hutchison

Whenever you’re working in a foreign country, you’re going to run into different customs. I mean, even America can have some strange business customs.


It’s good to understand the culture you are getting into, not just so you can impress a potential employer, but so you can show that you respect your boss, your coworkers, and anybody you come into contact with in a professional manner.


So let’s dive into some unique aspects of Japan’s business culture.


  1. Business Cards


If you’ve ever gotten a business card in the U.S., it’s pretty anticlimactic. Maybe there’s a little pile of them on someone’s desk. You can grab one so you’re able to give them a phone call later, or, more likely, email them (come on, who calls people anymore?). If they hand it to you, it’s casual and you probably shove it in your pocket and forget about it until you find the mushy remains of the poor paper in your pants after washing them.


If you do this in Japan, you are going to offend someone.


Business cards are very important in Japanese business culture. In Japan, your business card (名刺 meishi) is basically a representation of you and your company. People make sure that they look clean and professional, and that they have the proper information on them. A bad business card can make a terrible impression. So you need to make sure you put some effort into making your business cards.


But having a stylish card is not where this ends. There are also rules of etiquette when it comes to handling a business card. The business card must always be presented facing the receiver. You don’t want them to have to flip it over to read it. That’s just a pain.


You should also always handle business cards with both hands. It’s pretty common in Japan to use both hands to hand someone something, but make sure you also accept business cards with both hands. This shows how important the card is, as the presenter is basically giving the receiver a little bit of themselves. Give a nice bow when presenting or receiving as well. Bowing is always good in Japanese culture.


When you get a business card, don’t just shove it in your back pocket. First, you should look it over for a moment. Show the person that you actually care about them by reading the card briefly. Then you should have a business card carrier that you keep either in a breast pocket or a purse. You can literally get these at the dollar store, but you can get really nice ones for more. Take care of the cards you receive to show that you value your relationship with whoever gave it to you. It’s also nice to have a carrier for your own cards to keep them super fresh. Also say thank you. Bowing and “thank you” are Japanese staples of politeness.


This is something a foreigner could easily mess up, just because we don’t use business cards in the same way. Showing that you understand business card culture can really impress a potential employer.


  1. Senpai/Kohai Relationships


If you’ve watched anime, or know anything about that sort of culture, you have probably heard the term “senpai.” But what does it mean?


“Senpai” can be roughly translated into “upperclassman” or “senior.” In school, these would be the kids in the grades above you. In a work environment, these are the people who have more experience than you. Whether they are older than you, have worked there longer, or have higher qualifications than you, they know more.


“Kohai” is the opposite of this. It means “underclassman” or “junior.” In school, these are the kids below you. In work, these are people who you outrank in some significant way. You are their senpai.


So why does this matter?


Well, if you are working in a Japanese company, you need to show that you respect this social structure. You’ll need to adjust your speaking patterns based on who you are talking to. We do this a bit in American culture. You talk to your boss a bit differently than you do your neighbor Steve. But maybe you don’t, depending on your company. In Japan, you would talk very differently with Hara-san, who has been at the company for 40 years, than you would with Takashi-kun, the intern that started last week.


Showing that you understand this sort of ranking system within the company can be very impressive, even though it may take a bit to fully understand where you are in the line. Put in the effort to figure it out. It will be worth it to have your coworkers respect.


  1. Drinking


Surprised to see this on an article about business culture? It’s a bit of a fun tradition.


So, basically, drinking in Japan can be a business matter. The idea is that after work all the employees go out to the bar, order some drinks, and complain about work. It’s a way to relax and get to know your coworkers. Sometimes your boss will come too, which gives you an opportunity to get to know them outside of the more formal work setting. A lot of business matters are discussed over drinks, so participating in these gatherings can actually help you be successful in your job. If you don’t drink, you can still go. Just don’t order a drink.


This is probably one of the most surprising quirks, especially considering the more conservative nature of Japanese people.


Japan is well known for its business culture, and if you want to make it there, you’ll need to adjust to fit in with it. There’s nothing less attractive in a business sense than someone who ignores proper etiquette, so do your best to be polite and understanding. Hopefully, these short explanations can help you get a better sense of the Japanese business world.