How to cultivate strong business relationships in Japan

Declan Mulkeen, marketing director at Communicaid, culture and communication skills consultancy, discusses the best ways to cultivate business relationships in Japan.

Declan Mulkeen, marketing director at Communicaid, culture and communication skills consultancy, discusses the best ways to cultivate business relationships in Japan.Before the rise of China as an industrial and commercial force on the global economic stage, East Asia was almost singularly represented by Japan among the world’s economic elite. As such, for the latter part of the twentieth century, Japan worked to form strong trade and business relations with the West.High quality export goods have become Japan’s trademark, and Japanese firms continue to be amongst the most successful in the hi-tech and automotive industries. The exchange of knowledge and the establishment of relationships between Japan and the rest of the world remains a constant feature in the global business landscape today. But when conducting business ventures in Japan, what cultural differences must professionals be aware of in order to build successful relationships?Japanese etiquetteDoing business in Japan can be a highly rewarding venture. However, Japanese business is steeped in a staunchly distinct culture. So much so in fact, that understanding business etiquette differences and manners often speaks louder than the language of dollars, yen or sterling. For those unfamiliar with Japanese customs, the language barrier may not be your greatest obstacle to cultivating business relationships. Stringent Japanese business protocol, gestures, manners, and modes of interaction differ considerably from common Western practices. Japan has a resolute cultural identity that has persisted through centuries, refined by Confucianism, Buddhism and the country’s imperial heritage. In order to succeed, Western professionals must understand such historical influences.Adhering to Japanese business practices is the first step towards success. Strong personal relationships built on trust and respect are important in any part of the world, however the manner in which the Japanese conduct business in light of these relationships is quite unique. In many instances, even if a deal makes the most commercial or economic sense, it may not be selected if it involves committing to a poorly-regarded partnership. A good personal rapport may carry much more weight than the temptation of pure profit.While the Japanese may be more tolerant towards foreigners if they fumble codes of etiquette, it should be noted that proper manners amongst the Japanese are very strictly observed. A single significant indiscretion or faux pas may severely damage professional relationships.Being preparedBusiness cards may well be your best friends in Japan. They certainly carry more value and significance in Japan than in the casual Western business environment. The exchange of business cards is an important ceremonial occasion before meetings. One cannot understate the importance of social hierarchy in Japan, and the polite exchange of cards allows involved parties to introduce, evaluate and better remember one another. The levels of seniority, and positions listed then become important factors in determining the level of language and respect to be used, and influence the weight of each individual’s opinions.Presentation and aesthetics also play a prominent role in enhancing relationships. Formality is highly regarded, and a well-tailored conservative business suit is standard. Keen observation of personal grooming and hygiene, as well as dress, is of the utmost importance.On meeting business associates, a customary bow may be expected in place of a handshake, although a handshake may be offered to a foreigner in lieu of the ceremonial bow. Politeness and formal address is expected.Perhaps the most important strategy to employ in a Japanese business meeting is conformity. Imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery in some situations, and can be achieved via attentiveness and observation of Japanese associates. The image one presents to his or her counterparts is often judged in equal or greater favour than his or her business intentions. There is even a Japanese word for this practice, tatemae, which refers to the outward façade that one presents to subtly show one’s true intentions. Acceptance of business deals depends largely upon agreeability with a person’s image and presentation. In fact, actual discussion of business is usually reserved for the very end of meetings after a measure of respect and trust has been built. Deals are generally dependent upon the agreeability of a person’s character, so cultivating cordial and respectful relationships with one’s associates is essential.Gift-giving is also a common practice in Japan. Among business associates, an exchange of gifts may occur – especially between individuals who expect to meet more than once. It is a sign of good faith and a positive gesture towards the continuation of a relationship.The changing landscape in East AsiaThe professional and political dynamics of East Asia are changing. In 2010, China surpassed Japan in sheer economic size – and now sits comfortably as the second-largest national economy in the world. Over the past twenty years, South Korea has also emerged as a player in industries traditionally dominated by Japanese firms. For example Korean automotive firms Hyundai and Kia, as well as technology giants Samsung and LG have all considerably increased their market strength. So while once unquestionably dominant in Pacific Asia, the Japanese economy now faces significant competition close to home.The internet, social media, and globalisation have also had an impact on Japan. As a result many Japanese firms are adopting English in a much greater capacity in marketing and operations. Plus, as new graduates replace Japan’s ageing population, one can expect further cultural changes to alter Japanese society and business environments. Nevertheless, Japanese codes of etiquette remain powerful elements in the country’s ethos.As much as expectation and preparation can help in cultivating Japanese business relationships, successful business people venturing into Japan must possess or develop certain personal qualities. It’s difficult for travelling professionals to pick up all the necessary Japanese cultural cues, however certain character traits may make particular individuals the best candidates to cultivate relationships with. The ideal business ambassador in Japan will exercise patience, respectfulness, politeness, level-headedness, and tolerance. Business dealings in Japan have their own unique and admirable protocols, and building strong relationships in the country relies on a commitment to uphold those conventions. 

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