“Decisions made on New Year’s Day are considered the key to a successful year.”
– Japanese proverb
In light of the above, we thought we’d start off January with three cultural tips for successfully doing business in Japan and with your Japanese colleagues this year and beyond:
1. Choose Your Bow Wisely
Bowing in Japan is more than just a way to greet someone. For example, it may be done when saying hello or good-bye, thanking someone, congratulating someone, or even offering an apology. Bows are done from the waist and with a straight body (without curving your head or back). Although there may be a lot of nuance, generally speaking, the degree to which you bow should correlate to the degree of respect being shown:
*Males typically bow with their hands at their sides while females place their hands more toward the front of their bodies.
- 15 degrees – eshaku – among business people one sees everyday
- 30 degrees – keirei – greeting a customer or client
- 45 degrees – saikeirei – thanking a customer or client after a business transaction is completed or offering a sincere apology
In traditional settings, Japanese may greet one another while bowing on their hands and knees. It’s an effort to “get as low as possible” and demonstrate the utmost respect. This custom is sometimes practiced when seeing and greeting someone for the first time after the Japanese New Year.
2. Read the Air
In Japan, a message isn’t just communicated through words. It’s also communicated through “the air”. So what’s in the air, you ask? It’s all those non-verbal cues. For example, body language, tone of voice, social manners, or unwritten rules of etiquette. There’s even an expression for people who can’t properly sense what is going on or who “can’t read the air”. It’s kuuki yomenai, abbreviated KY. Make it a new year’s resolution to not be labeled as KY. Or worse, as SKY (super KY), when interacting with the Japanese!
3. Provide “Thankful Rejection”
Japanese communication is considered among the most indirect in the world. Therefore, it is extremely rare to ever hear the word “no”. Instead, the Japanese will provide “thankful rejection” to decline an invitation, proposal, or offer. Such “thankful rejections” enable the Japanese to maintain the cultural element of avoiding direct confrontation. So what does this sound like? Basically, a signal of gratitude followed by an indirect rejection:
- “Thank you so much, we will think about it.”
- “We appreciate the invitation and will try our best.”
- “Thank you for the presentation, let us study the matter further.”