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For Westerners, the rules of Japanese business etiquette may seem to directly contradict the customs of their own countries. The finer points of business etiquette are taken quite seriously in Japan, however, and a visiting businessperson should thus understand and closely obey these points or risk endangering his deal. Many of the rules of Japanese business etiquette are based on personal appearance and body language. Also important to understand are the customs surrounding seating arrangements, beverage consumption, and the giving of business cards and gifts.
Japanese businesspeople value a professional personal appearance. Thus, business visitors should avoid casual clothing, choosing well-tailored, clean suits in dark, solid colors instead. Generally, women should opt for a suit with a skirt rather than a pantsuit. All visitors should wear shoes that can be removed easily, as they will likely be frequently asked to take off their shoes as they enter buildings.
The rules of Japanese business etiquette are also closely tied to body language. Prolonged eye contact can be considered offensive, so a visitor should not be surprised if his host seems to avoid looking directly at him. In addition, many Japanese businesspeople consider it rude to say no directly, and they may thus agree to something they do not truly wish to consent to. Therefore, it is important to analyze the body language of one’s host to understand his true intent. Also, visitors should follow their host’s lead in offering a greeting, allowing him to decide whether he wishes to bow or shake hands.
Seating arrangements in meetings and at dinners are another important facet of Japanese business etiquette. Generally, visitors should not take a seat until they have been told where to sit. The highest-ranking member of the host firm will usually occupy a table’s head seat. Other firm members and visitors are then seated according to their seniority.
Whether at a meeting or a business dinner, beverage consumption is also mandated by the rules of Japanese business etiquette. Generally, a guest should not pour his own drink, but should instead wait until someone else has poured it for him. In addition, he should not drink from his glass until the highest-ranking member of the host firm has taken a sip from his drink.
The giving of both business cards and gifts are also important to Japanese business etiquette. Business cards should be passed and accepted with both hands, and a visitor should take care to visibly admire each card he receives. In addition, he should avoid writing on or otherwise altering someone else’s card. Business hosts often present their visitors with gifts which may relate to the town or region which they are from. It is considered good etiquette for a visitor to receive his gift with a great amount of enthusiasm and gratitude, regardless of his true feelings about the item.
I've heard multi-million dollar business propositions have failed simply because of a breach of etiquette. Japanese business customs and culture have developed over many centuries, and it falls on Western visitors to learn them, not the other way around.
Business decisions are not generally made at open board meetings in Japan. There is usually a group of experienced executives who meet in private to discuss any new proposals. Many of these men would be well past retirement age in the United States. Decisions are not made right away, and attempts to pressure Japanese businessmen into quick decisions are consider serious breaches of Japanese business etiquette.
I remember studying Japanese business practices in college, and one concept is called sempai/kosai. The closest Western idea would be senior and junior partners. In Japan, the person most likely to attend the first meeting will be the junior partner, or kosai. His job is to listen to the presentation, ask probing questions and then report to the senior partner, or sempai. A kosai rarely has the authority or the experience to make binding decisions during that meeting, so the proper etiquette for visitors is to make their pitch, answer all questions and wait for a formal response later from the sempai.
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