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“Japanese business manners are complicated and hard” is a common complaint by many foreign nationals, but practising proper Japanese etiquette not just gives others a great impression of you but also helps business and workplace communication flow better.
In this article, we give a brief overview of basic Japanese business etiquette from appropriate business attire in Japan, how to address others, exchanging business cards, and more.
Table of Contents
Business etiquette is acceptable social behaviour or manners when at a workplace and when interacting with colleagues, customers, and business partners. Upholding good business manners is essential to making a good impression, improving the company’s image, and gaining the trust of customers, colleagues, and superiors.
There are many ways to learn business manners - studying books, watching videos, attending seminars, or just from watching your boss and seniors throughout the work week.
These are basic business manners that apply to everyone regardless of industry or occupation. One such example in Japan is the usage of 「Watakushi」when referring to oneself, instead of the usual 「Boku」or「Watashi」. Needless to say, 「Ore」should not be used.
Below are some other examples.
As much as we like to say “don’t judge a book by its cover”, first impressions are usually based on one’s appearance, which is why how you dress is so important. Have a look at the article for a better idea of acceptable workwear in Japanese companies. When getting ready, ask yourself these questions:
Are your clothes and makeup too flashy?
Are your clothes wrinkled or dirty?
Is your hair messy?
Are your fingernails long or dirty?
Did you put on too much perfume?
Did you put on deodorant?
Of course, what you wear also depends on your workplace. Recently, there are quite a few companies that allow casual wear, fun hair colours, and long painted nails. If your company assigns uniforms, of course wear that.
It is basic manners to greet and/or bow when meeting someone in the Japanese business world.
Regardless of the time of day, whether evening or night, when you arrive at work, greet your colleagues with:
- Good morning.
You may find it strange to greet someone with “Good morning” when it’s night time, but the logic is that you’re starting work now which makes that time the start of your day.
Osaki ni shitsureshimasu.
- Excuse me for leaving first.
In return, colleagues will say 「お疲れ様です Otsukaresama desu」to you, or vice versa.
For other formal and casual greetings and when to bow:
15 Japanese Greetings to say Hello (and 5 to say Goodbye)
Japanese names are structured differently from Western names with the family name followed by the given name. So what exactly is the appropriate way to address someone in the office, whether it’s your boss, colleague, or client?
Learn the structure of Japanese names and how to use the proper suffix in this article:
Depending on your company’s culture, it may be more suitable to call your boss or senior by their job title or position. In which case, this article explaining the common higher ranking titles will come in handy:
Punctuality is a big deal in Japan with many employers being strict with their employees arriving at work in time and even train stations issuing Proof of Delay slips (遅延証明書 chien shoumeishou) when trains are late. Most Japanese companies require this paper slip as evidence that your lack of punctuality was no fault of your own, though there are some companies that consider you late regardless.
So what do you do if you’re late? Bow and apologise. Here's how:
Keigo (敬語), Japan’s honorific speech, actually consists of 3 levels of politeness:
尊敬語 - Honorific Language
- Language used to offer respect to those in a higher position, like boss, senior, customer
謙譲語 - Humble Language
- Language used to humble yourself as a sign of respect
丁寧語 - Polite Language
- Polite speech not taking position into account; the regular -desu/-masu form of Japanese
Learn Japanese etiquette when it comes to handling business operations including sending emails, answering telephone calls, and exchanging business cards; especially how to exchange business cards and seating etiquette Kamiza (上座)・Shimoza (下座) which is unique to Japanese business etiquette culture.
Exchanging business cards in Japan is a whole section in etiquette training itself. Where and how to stand, who to give the card to first, how to hold the card, how to receive the card, what to do after receiving the card, and what not to do. There are even training courses offered to teach the proper way to exchange business cards. Read more in the dedicated article.
NOTE: Sometimes you will receive 2 cards; one is a business card, the other is the person’s name card.
When making calls, avoid calling at times that will inconvenience the other side and during lunch break hours. Always speak clearly and politely.
When making a call, start with a greeting of 「お世話になっております。Osewa ni natte orimasu.」, followed by your company name, personal name, and a clear description of why you are calling.
When answering a call, try to pick up within 3 rings of the phone. Do not answer the phone with 「もしもし Moshi moshi」as this is considered casual. Instead greet them with your company name, a simple 「〇〇です。 (Company Name) desu.」will do. Listen to what the other side has to say. If the person they are looking for is not available, ask if they would like their call returned:
Orikaeshi o-denwa itashimashouka.
- Would you like [us] to call you back?
If the other side says yes, note down their name, contact information (if you don’t already have it), and issue. Follow-up with whomever they are looking for as soon as possible.
Japanese business emails are generally a lot wordier than English business emails. A typical business email format contains:
Addressing the Receiver
Formatting is quite clean and clear when it comes to options like dates for meetings but all in all it takes quite some time to get to the point.
Kamiza meaning “top seat” and Shimoza meaning “bottom seat” is Japanese seating etiquette that indicates ranking/position/supremacy depending on where you sit. It applies to all situations involving sitting like in meetings, in vehicles (cars and even planes), in restaurants, and more. It also applies to elevators.
Kamiza refers to the best seat in the room, the calmest innermost seat in the room or the seat with the best view. Shimoza refers to the seat nearest to the entrance of the room.
In Japanese business etiquette, the most important person (boss or customer) will be guided to the Kamiza. For example, during a meeting with a client, the client will be offered the top seat like so:
Oku no seki e douzo.
- Please have the seat at the back.
Knowledge of Japanese business etiquette is necessary to work as a member of Japanese society. By acquiring this knowledge, you will make a good impression on others and business will flow smoothly. Best way to pick up Japanese business manners is to learn from watching others, training courses, and books.
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