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Understanding Japanese Culture in Business Contexts

"Business is war without bullets", they say. This is especially true in Japan. In this ancient country, the deep-rooted nature of its culture may oftentimes be alienating. Especially for those who are not familiar with Japanese values and traditions. But, what are the particularities of Japanese culture in business contexts?

On the surface, Japan may seem like a country that's all about big business. Just think of the major corporations headquartered there, from Toyota to Sony and Panasonic. However, if you scratch beneath the surface, you'll see that business in Japan is about much more than just making money. It's about relationships, respect, and understanding the subtleties of communication.

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If you're British and you're thinking of doing business in Japan or working for a Japanese company, pay attention. Having a basic understanding of Japan and its people is as important at being talented at what you do.

Here are some key aspects of Japanese culture in business contexts that you should keep in mind:

The Importance of Hierarchy

In Japan, it's important to maintain a clear hierarchy in the workplace. Indeed, people feel a lot of respect for those who are in positions of authority. One of the most salient aspects of Japanese culture in business contexts is that it's crucial to defer to your superiors when appropriate.

This can be a challenge for those who favour a more egalitarian work environment. So, remember: In Japan, hierarchy is key.

Let's consider an example. Imagine you're a British expat working in Japan. One day, your Japanese boss asks you to do something that you don't necessarily agree with. When faced with this difficult situation, it's important to remember that your boss is in a position of authority. Therefore, you should defer to their judgement.

Of course, this doesn't mean you should always agree with your boss. However, it is important to be respectful of their position. More importantly, it is crucial to express your disagreement in a way that feels tactful and nuanced.

The Importance of Face

In Japanese culture, it's important to maintain a sense of ‘face’. This means that people are generally very careful about how they present themselves in public. In fact, they work hard to avoid any situations that could embarrass them or make them lose face. There are some things that are perfectly normal in British culture. For example, being heard by other people while speaking on the phone. Or, say, making a mistake while printing mistake. However, these events are sometimes deemed as shameful in Japanese business culture.

For instance, imagine you're in a business meeting with a Japanese client, and he spills coffee on his clothes. In such a case, it's important to try to downplay the incident and avoid making a big deal out of it. In this case, you could say something like "Oh, don't worry about it. These things happen" or "It's no problem, really". By doing this, you'll help the other person save face and avoid any embarrassment.

Oh, and try not to make jokes about the incident! In general, it's best to avoid any humour. Unless, of couese, you're an expert in Japanese culture in business contexts. As it happens, jokes tend to be locally based and they can often be lost in translation.

Avoidance of Conflict

Japanese culture often seems "indirect". This means that people tend to avoid confrontation. Instead, they prefer to find more subtle ways of communicating their thoughts and feelings. As a result, it may take some time for British people to understand the way people conduct business in Japan.

However, it's important to remember that this is just a different way of doing things.There's no need to get upset or angry about it. Instead, try to be patient and understand that indirect communication is just a part of Japanese culture.

japanese culture in business contexts - patience

For example, imagine you're in a meeting with your Japanese colleagues. How would you react if someone went for a sales strategy that you don't think is going to work? In such cases, it's important to avoid getting into a heated argument or debate.

Instead, you could try expressing your views in an indirect way. For example, you could say something like "That's a very solid idea. I was actually thinking of a similar strategy, which I think could complement yours very nicely". By doing this, you'll be able to make a different suggestion without causing any tension or conflict.

The Importance of Building Relationships

In Japan, it's important to build strong relationships with your colleagues and business partners. These relationships play a crucial role in Japanese culture in business contexts. They are based on trust, respect, and mutual obligations.

However, not everything is about etiquette and responsibilities. Building successful relationships in Japanese business contexts often involves socialising outside of work.

In fact, it's not uncommon for Japanese businesspeople to go out for drinks or dinner with their colleagues after work. There’s even a name for this type of meeting! Drinking parties with coworkers, called “nomikai” in Japanese, perform a very important social function within the company. They reinforce team spirit, and enable workers to get to know each other in a more relaxed atmosphere.

Japanese culture in business contexts: Final thoughts

Japanese business culture can be very different from what British people know. But, by understanding some of the key differences, such as the importance of face, avoidance of conflict, and the importance of building relationships, you'll be well on your way to success in your business dealings with Japan.

Just remember one thing. If you ever find yourself in a business meeting that's starting to get a bit too heated, just try to relax and have a drink with your colleagues afterwards. It's all part of doing business in Japan.

Would you like to learn or improve your level in the Japanese language before your next business meeting in Tokyo? At Language Trainers, we offer customized Japanese lessons, taught by native teachers who can help you to achieve your goals, whether you need to prepare for a Japanese job interview, a Japanese exam, or just spend a few days visiting this Japan’s top touristic spots.

Steven, who took a one-to-one Japanese course at his home in Bournemouth, says: “I have thoroughly enjoyed my lessons with Yukari. She is super friendly and patient and has a real knack for explaining things when I don't understand a topic. She has also been very accommodating to my needs, as I've been working full time."

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