Understanding Japanese Business Etiquette

This past Friday, I inadvertently observed a key tenet of Japanese business etiquette – and violated another – as I skidded into Michiko Yamashima’s presentation on Japanese Business Etiquette almost twenty minutes late.  I had sprinted over to the Career Services office after an exam ran long, and slid into a back row, bending forward and inclining my head to duck into a seat. I had performed, in essence, a hurried form of the Japanese indication of respect and sincerity, the お辞儀, or formal bow.  I neglected, however, to appear in full Western business attire, dark suit and conservative shoes included.

These gestures – formal bowing, and the observance of appropriate attire—are but two of several important Japanese business customs to be observed in corporate situations. Why are these gestures necessary? And why should we Princetonians familiarize ourselves with their importance? Just as Americans expect foreigners to greet us with a firm handshake and jovial grin, so too do Japanese businessmen and women anticipate compliance with a few basic customs as a show of mutual respect.

In a business setting, junior employees should take their seats closest to the door, and take care to avoid the most comfortable chairs. Women take a relatively subservient role, and customarily serve alcoholic beverages and other drinks to their male counterparts. Resumes intended for use in Japan should include the applicant’s age and passport-sized photo.  If nothing else, however, the following three aspects of Japanese business etiquette should be observed:

  1. Bowing is more than a neck exercise.  Western-style handshakes span the spectrum from wet fish to bone-crusher; bowing, too, requires practice and precision. There are three levels of bows, Yamashima explained: the least pronounced an informal greeting, the mid-level appropriate for business meetings, and the third, deepest bow reserved for apologies. When bowing to an associate, keep it slow and measured, and make sure to maintain eye contact at the beginning and end of the gesture.
  2. Business card presentation is a form of art. In Japan, business cards, like credit cards, are treated as extensions of people themselves. Business cards are typically exchanged between all parties present at a meeting, and are presented and received with two hands. The recipient is expected to briefly inspect the business card, indicate admiration with a brief nod, and provide their own in return. Travelers to Japan should arrive fully stocked with business cards – it is not uncommon to hand out 100 cards in a single week!
  3. Dress for success – conservative, subdued success.  Western business attire is commonplace in most Japanese cities, and both men and women should dress in dark suits with dark ties, socks, pantyhose, and shoes, as appropriate.

Yamashima’s message, while most useful for those anticipating a career in Japan, is applicable to all students seeking future employment: do your research, and pay attention to the customs of your workplace.

Learning About Business Etiquette in Japan

On Friday, Michiko Yamashima gave a presentation on Japanese business etiquette. Around thirty people attended, with many of those being students who planned on working in Japan.

Yamashima began her presentation with an overview of Japanese demographics and government. She then moved on to cultural norms, such as the Japanese emphasis on courtesy and respect.

Bowing was a major topic of discussion, and Yamashima brought up the fact that bows are often seen as a sign of subordination by the United States. To Japan, said Yamashima, a “bow is a gesture…showing respect and sincerity.” There are three levels of bows, with the deepest being for apologies and the least pronounced being a casual gesture. All bows are from the waist; nodding, Yamashima said, “is not a bow; this is neck exercise.” Other etiquette for bows includes the speed (slow is preferable to fast) and eye contact (at the beginning and end but not during a bow).

Yamashima covered other elements of Japanese business etiquette as well, such as the proper attire (dark suits with white shirts, and white socks are too casual) and the handling of business cards, which should be given and received with two hands. Respect for business cards is very important. “The business card is the person himself,” Yamashima said.

Most elements of Japanese business etiquette emphasize humility and respect. A junior employee should seat himself near the door of a tatami room and in the least comfortable position in a car. A junior employee should also use humble expressions when describing himself and his company, but may use honorific expressions when describing his superior or his client.

Miscellaneous items covered were Japanese resumes (should include age, business picture and dates in the Japanese era), compulsive retirement in Japan, and rules for serving alcohol (females should serve males, and junior employees should serve seniors before seniors serve them).

This is Career Services’ third year hosting the Japanese business etiquette seminar, and even for those not considering jobs in Japan, it proved a fascinating topic.