This series is edited by Dick Locke, SI’s resident expert on International Trade, author of Global Supply Management — A Guide to International Procurement (which was the definitive guide for almost a decade), and President of the Global Procurement Group which regularly gives seminars on International Trade and working with International Cultures.
As highlighted in last year’s post on Overcoming Cultural Differences in International Trade with Japan, the Japanese are very different than anyone else. They were historically isolated, crowded by geography, and their language is pretty much its own language group, despite the fact that they have three writing systems (kanji, hiragana, and katakana). Furthermore, the beginning of Tokogawa rule in 1603 marked the beginning of 250 years of almost complete isolation, until 1853 when Commodore Matthew Perry arrived.
With respect to Locke‘s seven key cultural differences (first outlined as six in his classic text on Global Supply Management), power distance is present, as there is a defined hierarchy and no decision can be made without approval from the top, but the power distance is not as great as one might think, as an approval will normally not be granted until a consensus decision has been reached at the lower levels and pushed up. Time is fluid. They are punctual to a tee (monochronic) but will never commit to a decision date (polychronic). The buyer always outranks the seller, but negotiations will continue only so long as their rules on social and business conduct are followed. Harmony is a fundamental foundation of their web society and face must always be maintained. Despite the appearances put on by the younger generation in the big cities (like Tokyo and Osaka), individuality is actually quite low and privacy is highly valued. Finally, uncertainty is to be avoided at all costs.
With respect to verbal communication, they are very indirect, even though, like the Chinese, they will ask you very blunt personal questions in order to determine how to best maintain harmony with you. Communications and negotiations should remain calm and soft, and you should never raise your voice.
With respect to non-verbal communication, your body language conveys your respect, and you should learn how to bow, stand, and even sit (suwari and seiza) appropriately. Despite the large number of gestures used in Japan (which you will not understand for quite some time), your gestures, facial expressions (as smiling and frowning have multiple meanings), and emotions should be reserved and your body position should mirror those around you. You should maintain as much distance as can be afforded, and reduce eye contact which is seen as disrespectful, especially to someone who is seen as your senior. Don’t touch in public, and especially don’t touch someone of the opposite sex. (Or, as indicated in Part II, you might end up with a new girlfriend or boyfriend.)
You should take notes in meetings (as it shows seriousness). It may take several meetings before you get down to business, as they will want to get to know you first. With respect to negotiations, your best offer is expected up front, and concessions are rare. Business is often discussed over meals, but you must wait for them to initiate. At a meal, do not empty your glass or plate as it is a signal to refill it, but do empty your rice bowl, as leaving a small amount is a signal that you want a refill.
Finally, the business card carries a pre-eminent importance in Japan, which has an elaborate custom around giving and receiving, and you should carry no less than a hundred for every week you plan to be in the country (with an English side and a Japanese side).