How does culture affect international business in Japan?
Technological developments have meant that the global marketplace is more accessible than ever for SMEs as well as large, multinational corporations. This increase in globalisation has meant that cross-cultural teams are becoming more common in the workplace which in turn means that businesses need to understand cultural differences, particularly if they want to succeed at trading in foreign markets.
In our previous blog, we discussed how culture can affect many different aspects of a business such as communication, attitudes and etiquette. We discussed how culture can impact simple things such as terms of address, which should not be overlooked. By definition, culture is the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular person or society, but how does culture affect international business in Japan? Below we are going to take a look at some Japanese customs which you will need to be aware of if you ever visit Japan on a business trip!
In Japan, people greet each other by bowing. A bow can vary from a small nod of the head to a bend at the waist. A deeper, longer bow indicates respect whilst a small nod with the head is more casual and informal. Bowing with your palms together at chest level is not customary in Japan. There are several situations in business where bowing may be required other than just for greeting purposes. Bowing can also be used when starting a class or meeting, whilst thanking or apologising to someone, to congratulate someone and when asking someone for a favour.
Whilst visiting Japan on business, you may spend time visiting bars and restaurants with colleagues or potential business partners. Therefore, it is important to note that tipping is not commonplace in Japan, and if you do, you will probably find the restaurant staff rushing to give back any money you’ve left behind. Instead, it is polite to say “gochisosama deshita” (thank you for the meal) when leaving.
Another thing that impacts business in Japan is that money is rarely passed directly from hand to hand. This means that when you purchase an item, you won’t hand money directly to the cashier. Instead, you’ll place your payment (whether cash or card) on a small tray provided. If change is due, your change will be placed here for you as well. This practice is prevalent in Japan, and you can expect to encounter this system frequently in hotels, restaurants and taxis.
The value of silence
Another cultural difference in Japan is that silence is often valued over excessive talking, especially in a business setting. In Japan, silence represents wisdom and emotional self-control which is different from countries like the UK where silence can be seen as a lack of confidence and hinder communication. Therefore, a more reserved and formal approach, especially at the beginning of a business relationship, is likely to be better received when doing business in Japan. To support this, the Japanese have many proverbs that signal the importance that they place on silence, for example, “The duck that quacks is the first to get shot.”
Although punctuality is viewed differently in some cultures, being on time in Japan is essential. If you experience delays on your journey, your Japanese counterpart would have expected you to anticipate this and account for them when planning your journey. The best advice is to always plan to arrive early. Don’t worry though, if you’re visiting Tokyo you won’t be short of something to do as Tokyo is one of the places in the world with the most restaurants and coffee shops per head than anywhere else in the world!
The hard sell doesn’t sell
A hard-sell approach will not succeed in Japan. Replace the confrontational approach that is commonly found in the UK and US with a more gentle, persuasive presentation that showcases the value of what you are proposing. Find points of agreement and then build on those but don’t push too hard on decisions about deadlines. Trying to speed up the decision-making process may appear to be disrespectful to the Japanese way of doing business. Be patient and try to see the long process as an opportunity to build trust in the business relationship.
Group Solidarity is of utmost importance in Japan. It’s widely known that Japanese culture is group-oriented as solidarity is valued greatly over individualism. Japanese culture believes there is strength in a group, as the famous Japanese saying implies: “A single arrow is easily broken, but not ten in a bundle.” This cultural mindset impacts certain behaviours in business such as how praise is received. Whilst in the UK individual praise and recognition is desired, the opposite is true in Japan. Singling out an individual in the group for special recognition, no matter how helpful they are, is likely to embarrass that individual. Always remember that the team concept is very important in Japan and strive to give credit to the entire group.
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