In the U.S. time is money, so if a small error is made at work, or a minor miscalculation, oftentimes, it’s easier and more cost-effective to move on without investigating what went wrong. If it’s inefficient to struggle through troubleshooting, or if it costs more money than the problem is worth, we typically brush it off.
The same philosophy does not apply in Japan, especially in business. In Japan, if you make a mistake, the mentality is to investigate and learn from the mistake, regardless of its magnitude. The time it takes to figure it out may cost more than the actual mistake itself, but the Japanese place a high value on reducing errors and inefficient processes.
For example, in a retail store, if there is one dollar missing in the cashier’s drawer, many retailers here would say, “Don’t make the same mistake,” and move on. Because it would cost the business more than that missing dollar to figure out what went wrong. This is assuming the mistake won’t likely be repeated. But in Japan, although the cost to figure out a 100 yen (or one dollar) shortfall in the drawer may cost the company way more than 100 yen to figure out, it’s important this mistake is analyzed, learned from, and the process improved.
An improved process eliminates what the Japanese call “muda,” meaning “uselessness, futility, wastefulness,” and many companies, including Toyota’s well-known Total Production System (TPS), have adapted to a management system that eliminates such muda. The idea is for a streamlined process that eliminates any obstacles getting in the way of progress.
In the end, how you view muda is based on your own business values and processes. When working with international business partners, however, it’s best to keep an open mind. After all, my way of doing things is not the only way, and your way will probably be very different. But if we can respect each other’s unique process, observe and learn from each other, we’ll be a lot better off in our business relationships.
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Gift exchanges are very common in Japan. We already discussed the types of gifts you can give in a previous blog
. But let’s go a little bit deeper and discuss how your gift may be received. For example, when you give a gift to an international business partner, it may not be opened in front of you. And that’s okay. It’s not a sign of a disrespect, it’s a cultural difference.
For the recipient of your gift, not opening it in front of you is a way of being polite and respectful. Some people are more Westernized and understand the difference in cultures, so they may ask if it’s okay to open the gift in front of you when they receive it.
You will also notice they won’t rip the wrapping paper. It’s considered rude if you rip it apart. Instead, they carefully open the wrap, unfolding the sides.
If you are the gift recipient, you might be surprised at how much effort went into putting your package together. Presentation is a very important piece of Japanese culture, so your gift box was probably wrapped and then placed into another nicely decorated bag before being carefully handed over to you.
When you consider the fine presentation of food at a Japanese restaurant, it shouldn’t surprise you how much effort goes into wrapping a gift. The presentation in itself sends an important message to the recipient.
Knowing this, here’s a word of advice when receiving a beautifully wrapped gift from your international business partner: don’t rip through the paper! And if you’re giving a gift, don’t toss it across the table. Wrap it up nicely and hand it over delicately. The extra effort will be appreciated!
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Visiting Tokyo requires some patience for navigating through a complex train and subway system, but once you figure it out, it’s actually very orderly. With the upcoming 2020 Olympics, Tokyo has been preparing to host the international crowd with directions and signage printed in English. This should help visitors, but we also want to hand out some advice on how to be a considerate traveler, which is important in Japanese culture.
Here’s what to know before you go to Tokyo:
Don’t block escalator traffic. One side of the escalator should be open for those who wish to rush up or down the stairs. If you’re standing still, keep to the left side in Tokyo, and stand on the right side in Osaka. Don’t ask me why it’s different, but the most important piece to remember is DO NOT block the side where people are walking/running up the steps!
Be patient, not pushy. The locals know to orderly stand in line before the yellow lines as they await their train. Follow their lead. Japanese trains arrive every few minutes, so even if you miss one, you will most likely be able to catch one soon after. Do not get pushy or cut in line.
Follow train etiquette. Don’t block the path for those who are getting off the train. Let them come off first before getting on the train.
Be quiet. Keeping quiet on the train is important etiquette so you should not engage in a loud conversation. Don’t talk on the phone. It’s better yet to sit silent while you’re on the train.
No drinking or eating. You will notice how clean it is in Tokyo. People don’t litter in the streets or the trains, and it’s considered rude to eat on commuter trains and subways. If you’re on the express trains and bullet trains, you will have tables where it’s okay to consume your food and drink.
Be seated properly. Don’t spread your legs, cross your legs, or leave your bag on the seat next to you. Seating space is limited so be sure to share it with others!
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Sometimes going out to dinner can bring us closer in our business relationships. Oftentimes, this social aspect is a critical part of doing business beyond the conference room discussions. But what are the unspoken rules of how to wine and dine with an international business partner?
For example, is it rude to drink the entire sake each time they come and fill it up again? Or is it rude not to finish your sake, taking only sips at a time? More than likely your international business partner won’t tell you their customs, so you’ll be stuck with your own judgement.
Fortunately, we’re here to help with the food and drink etiquette:
In Japan, they make sure your glass is filled with a drink so if you finish it, you will likely get another pour into your glass. To keep your wits, don’t drink the entire glass and keep it somewhat filled. After all, getting drunk is not a smart way to get acquainted with your new business partners. But, when it comes to food, Japanese people would be offended if you left food on the plate, suspecting you didn’t like it. They believe in cleaning their plate, so be conscious not to order more than you can consume! In China, on the other hand, it’s not good to clean your plate. It’s believed you didn’t get enough to eat.
In Korea, they say cheers with words translating to “bottoms up” and they really mean it. If you are the guest and a toast is given in your honor, you’re most likely expected to drink it all. There are underlying social hierarchies where the most senior person is responsible for pouring. Be considerate of respecting the elders and senior business associates, but try to pace yourself. If you don’t want to keep accepting the drinks, you may consider offering to pour for others.
Just because we, Japanese, Korean and Chinese people, are all “Asian,” doesn’t mean we have the same customs. Do your research before dining out with your international business partners.
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Commuter trains are so packed in Tokyo that people are almost on top of each other. In fact, they are so overcapacity that people are pushed into the train by the station itself. It’s a strange but everyday reality in Tokyo for many business people. And even though they are packed in shoulder to shoulder, they don’t acknowledge one another.
What’s interesting is when it comes time to meet another professional, having a good amount of personal space is very important. In Japan, people feel uncomfortable being hugged. They normally don’t shake hands, and prefer to stand at arm’s-length distance. If you take a step closer than that, you might make your business partner feel uncomfortable and you may be seen as unprofessional. So, a good tip is to respect the personal space and watch where you stand, especially for a first meeting.
A great way to connect without getting too personal is by giving a small gift. Gift giving is common way to warm up the relationship in Japan. Consider a small but thoughtful gift like something local to your business or home state. It’s not the price or value of the gift that counts, but rather the thought of choosing the gift that communicates your thoughtfulness.
When gift giving, be sensitive to the business your partner is in. Obviously, don’t give Starbucks coffee beans to a company who sells coffee beans, or golf balls to a golf ball manufacturer. In Japan, people even pay attention to the related companies or business partnerships, so they make sure not to give a gift that would come from a competitor brand.
We previously discussed how language barriers may be challenging for your international business communication, but these unspoken ways of communicating can help make a great first impression.
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Sometimes people speak literally, and other times you have to read between the lines to find the deeper meaning in someone’s communication – even when you speak their native tongue. The “Americanized” English dialect with its slang and hidden connotations in words can be tricky for someone who speaks English as a second language. You have to remember your international business partner is translating your words from their language of origin, so there could be some bumps in communication. The more you understand that, the better off you’ll be in conversation.
For example, here are a couple examples out of Japan:
Don’t take maybe as yes.
In Japan, people try to be polite - too polite even - so they may not want to offend you by saying no straight to your face. Instead, they may say, “We will consider it and get back with you,” or “Maybe, but we would need an internal assessment first.” Even if it feels like it could be a yes, don’t assume it is.
The easy English mistakes.
In English, if you ask, “Isn’t this true?” the answer you’ll get if it’s not true is, “No, it isn’t true.” But a Japanese person would instead answer, “Yes, it isn’t true.” They are accustomed to saying yes or no to the statement itself, implying that “yes” means “correct.” So in their mind, your statement about “it is not true” is correct, and they will respond, “Yes, it isn’t true.”
If you’re not sure you’re understanding your business partner’s English correctly, politely restate it back to them for clarification, or put it in writing to confirm. Communicating in English can be challenging, so let’s work on making things easy for those who speak English as their second language.
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When you walk into a conference room for a meeting, how do you choose where to sit when there isn’t assigned seating?
There is a bit of strategy involved when picking a seat in the conference room. Before you grab just any seat, you might want to think through the purpose of the meeting first. That goes for all meetings, but particularly for meetings with an international business partner.
In Japan, there is an etiquette to where you sit depending on who you are (your position, your involvement in the meeting, etc.). If you are the host, sit closer to the door; let your guests sit at the head of the table, which are the chairs furthest inside the room.
In certain meetings, sitting all the way inside may not be practical and convenient, so you let the most important guest sit in the center of the table.
Questions to consider:
What is the purpose of your meeting?
Are you planning to use the whiteboard or the monitor?
Who are the main players in the meeting?
Try not to scatter people around the table for no reason, but you can break with tradition if there is a good strategy behind it. Where you place yourself at the table and how you present yourself can be a move in your favor, so give it some consideration before your guests arrive.
You might want to study up on your guests before they arrive and understand their roles. The more you know before they enter the room, the better impression you and your business will make. And it’s not a bad idea to have seating assignments prepared ahead of time. After all, a good first impression can set the tone for a successful international business meeting.
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“Hey, how are you doing,” is an acceptable form of greeting often used between American business people alongside a handshake. But, if you think that’s an acceptable greeting for your international partner, think again.
In Japan, we don’t shake hands, but rather bow to greet each other. We bow like Americans shake hands. It’s hard to explain how to bow, but the thing to remember is if you rank lower than the person in front of you, you bow deeper.
Here are some dos and don’ts when it comes to a professional greeting in Japan:
- With feet and legs together, stand up straight.
- Stand up to bow if you’re seated.
- Don’t stand in a higher place when you bow.
- Keep your hands out of pockets.
- Bow at about 45 degrees.
- Men, keep arms and hands to the side. Women, keep hands crossed in front.
Depending on the country, the proximity to each other may be important as well. If you’re unsure of what to do, the best advice I can give is to watch and learn. If you pay attention to the locals, you can pick up their techniques for a proper, professional greeting.
Even though most Japanese business people don’t expect you to know the formalities of their traditional greeting, it’s a wonderful way to show respect and charm your partner with a great first impression and act of respect.
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My background is Japanese, so sometimes I’m astonished at how casual people are in a meeting with new business prospects. Take the business card exchange, for example. The most often-talked about scenario by Japanese people is when Americans sit down in a meeting and throw their business cards across the conference table. I’ve had the experience many times where we all grab a seat and throw our cards to the other side saying, “Here you go!”
In Japan, throwing things to others is a sign of disrespect. You would never throw food or money at someone, so don’t throw your business card either. For Japanese professionals, it’s seen as degrading and demeaning to the other person.
In Japan, you always use both hands to hand yours out, and you also receive someone else’s card with both hands. The name on your card should face toward them when handing it over, so they can read it easily, instead of seeing it upside down.
In Korea, you hand your card over with one hand, but put your other hand on the elbow to be polite. You will see the same thing when Korean people pour a beer.
After you receive a business card, don’t just stuff it in your pocket. Place it nicely on the conference table if you are in a formal meeting. Place them in the order of the people sitting across from your table.
In Japan, we go a step further and place the card of the highest-ranking person on top of our business card holder, as if it is a futon cushion for his/her business card.
These simple gestures differ from casual American interaction, but they are seen as an act of respecting your business peer. So why not make the extra effort if it leaves a lasting, positive impression on a potential business partner or client?
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This month, we’re taking the discussion offline to talk about the importance of international business etiquette. If you do any international business, this is an important topic for you to follow, and every bit as important as your online marketing success.
Since I’m Japanese, I will cover Japan and other parts around the globe, but feel free to do more advanced research specific to a certain country because there’s a lot of info on the internet. I’m going to kick off the discussion with greetings and business cards.
If you are a professional, you should carry your business cards everywhere you go, but be aware of when and how to pass them out. Since the card itself contains your contact information, don’t give it out to just anyone. Treat it like an important piece of paper that goes to important business prospects and you will embed an impression of professionalism upon your peers.
Keep your cards in a spot where they won’t get bent or dirty. An unkempt business card could come off as a negative reflection of who you are, remember that. No coffee stains allowed. Keep them neat and tidy, potentially investing in a card holder.
How you present your business card to someone is also important, particularly across cultures. The American way is very informal and casual, and there aren’t any formalities attached to giving or receiving a business card, but in other countries it’s quite different. I’ll explain in detail in the next article, so stay tuned.