Understanding Japanese Culture in Business Contexts

It is said that business is war without bullets. This is especially true in Japan, where the deep-rooted nature of its culture may oftentimes be alienating 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, such as Toyota, Sony, and Panasonic. But 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, then it's important to have at least a basic understanding of Japan and its people.

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, and 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 are used to a more egalitarian work environment, but it's important to remember that in Japan, hierarchy is key.


Let's consider an example. Imagine you're a British expat working in Japan, and 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, and you should therefore defer to their judgement.

Of course, this isn't to say that you should always agree with everything your boss says – but it is important to be respectful of their position and 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, and they work hard to avoid any situations that could embarrass them or make them lose face. Things that are perfectly normal in British culture, such as being heard by other people while speaking on the phone, or making a mistake while printing mistake, could be seen as shameful in Japanese business culture.

For example, if you're in a business meeting with a Japanese client, and he spills coffee on his clothes, 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 you're an expert in Japanese culture in business contexts, as jokes tend to be locally based and they can often be lost in translation.

Avoidance of Conflict

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

However, it's important to remember that this is just a different way of doing things, and 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.


For example, imagine you're in a meeting with your Japanese colleagues, and someone makes a sales strategy that you don't think is going to work. In this case, it's important to avoid getting into a heated argument or debate.

Instead, you could try expressing your views in an indirect way, such as saying 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 the way business is conducted in Japan, and 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! Japanese drinking parties with coworkers are called “nomikai” and they perform a very important social function within the company, as they are thought to reinforce team spirit, and enable workers to get to know each other in a more relaxed atmosphere.

Japanese business culture can be very different from what British people are used to. 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, 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.


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