Etiquette of a Japanese Business Dinner: A Guide for Foreigners

Mar 31, 2019


You’re sitting at a table with people you’re not very familiar with. At the head of the table sits your company’s CEO. Most of the people at the meal are Japanese and you’re the only foreigner. After he’s said his piece, you wait for your order and dig into your meal. But as you’re halfway through your meal you notice that you’re the only person holding your chopsticks the wrong way. Your area is messier than everyone else’s at the table and you can practically feel the odd looks from your coworkers. After the dinner though, you carry on about your day and give little thought to the nights transpiring. However, the next time the crew goes out for dinner with the boss; you notice they haven’t invited you. You’ve most likely broken an unspoken rule or offended one of your superiors. People in the land of the rising sun prefer to keep their opinions to themselves but will definitely remember how you’ve acted in public. This is a situation which occurs in Japan every single day. Foreigners who come to the country often have no idea what is and isn’t acceptable at Japanese business dinners. Even if you have an excellent education and impeccable language skills; social skills are also extremely critical to have. Although work happens at the office; the real connections are made over drinks and good food. After all, Japan is a country built on harmony within society. Dinner with a potential client, business partner, or coworkers, can weigh heavily in whether or not you get that coveted promotion! Here we will discuss some ways to ensure you represent yourself well at the table and avoid embarrassing mistakes common for foreigners.

 

Why are Business Dinners Etiquette so Important in Japan?

 

 

In western culture, it’s not uncommon to meet clients for dinner and in many cases, employees don’t have an opportunity to sit down and speak with their team on a regular basis. However, in Japan; business dinners give people a chance to loosen up from the rigid regimen at work. It is seen as an opportunity for team bonding and often a superior or senpai may pay for the entire night’s festivities in order to show good faith in his subordinates. In a country where people are not so keen to speak out individually; these moments are opportunities for workers who’ve been pushing for years to be proficient at their jobs, to be heard. In other words, business dinners are a chance to speak out under the guise of being drunk, with virtually no repercussions.

 

One of the first impressions you’ll be making at the table during a Japanese business dinner is in how you present yourself at the table. Be sure not to reveal an excessive amount of personal information as it might make others uncomfortable. Using chopsticks is also a seemingly small but important factor. There is a particular way to hold them in certain settings. However, if you’re new to Japan you’ll have a grace period to adjust to the culture. When setting down your chopsticks be sure to lay them neatly on the edge of a plate or you can even fashion a makeshift stand for them by folding the paper sleeve for the chopsticks neatly into a small rectangle. Never under any circumstances jab your chopsticks into your meal pointing upwards. It is a sign of death and is quite rude anywhere other than at a funeral. It’s also a good idea to cover any tattoos you may have as well as remove any excessive piercings or body modifications. In Japan the name of the game is modesty and playing by the rules will help you greatly both at dinner and in the long run should you choose to remain in Japan for a long time. Lastly but certainly not least is timing the speed at which you eat. Though, it is customary to eat your food as soon as you are served, be mindful of your boss. It is considered a faux pas to eat before your superior has taken his first bite. This concept of timing your eating is also important as you finish up. Staying alert and being as graceful as possible can be very valuable tools when taking part in a business dinner in Japan.

 

The Rules on Who Sits Where at a Japanese Business Dinner

Did you know that in Japan, there is also etiquette on where to sit? This also extends to where to stand in elevators with your boss. The primary reason for having a seating/standing chart is again related to showing respect towards an older generation or in this case, your boss. For example, if you happen to have a reservation for four people in a private room, the lowest ranking person sits next to the entrance, while the highest ranking person will sit on the far right. The lowest ranking person sits next to the door because they will be corresponding with the waitstaff and they will also be doing the most work in terms of passing food and empty plates, as well as being in charge of clearing empty glasses from the table. When sitting in a six-person room, the lowest ranking person will still sit next to the entrance, however, the highest ranking person will sit across the table, in the middle between two other high ranking people. The pecking order can be quite difficult to grasp, and if it’s not clear where you should sit, your best bet is to wait until somebody directs you to your seat. If you would like more information on where Japanese people seat themselves in relation to their superiors, please take a look at this link: https://prmrsv.com/contents/manners/seating_chart.html

Note: The webpage is entirely in Japanese, but there are diagrams to show you where to sit or stand in a restaurant, elevator, or even a train!

 

Etiquettes of Drinking at a Japanese Business Dinner

 

 

In American culture business dinners are not as common as they are in Japan. This is because Japan is a country built on respect and harmony within the community in any situation. At most business dinners with coworkers in America, there is no such a clear line in the sand as to what is and isn’t okay while drinking. However, in Japan, there are unspoken rules as to how one should conduct him or herself at a business dinner. One such example is the height of your glass when making a toast. People touch glasses in order of rank within the company first then age. For example, if a superior and a subordinate were having dinner together; the lower ranking person would touch the top of his glass somewhere noticeably below the top of the higher ranking person’s glass. However, if two workers of the same rank within the company make a toast; the younger person would place the top of his glass lower than the older person’s. This makes for quite a debacle when several people from a company are having a large dinner together. Younger, lower-ranking workers, can be seen squabbling over whose glass goes where in the clinking order. Although there are many people who cannot drink in Japan, many co-workers will try and convince you to drink, as this is their way of bonding with you. However, if you cannot drink or handle your alcohol, don’t worry! Often times, tea and water are also served alongside dinner.

 

At the End of a Meal With Co-workers in a Japanese Business Dinner

When you finish your meal there are certain things you can do to impress your co-workers that they’ll also really appreciate. It shows that you’re making an effort to adapt to the culture and that you’re not thinking only of yourself but the team as well. It’s a good idea not to be the last person to finish your meal as it’s frowned upon if the highest ranking member at the table is left waiting for someone to finish their meal and the best way to avoid being side-eyed is by finishing your meal at the same speed as everyone else. I’ve heard on more than one occasion that people in Japan can tell a lot about your upbringing simply by the way you conduct yourself at the dinner table and rehearsing your dinners helps relieve the pressure of showing whether or not you are truly invested in the culture.

 

Important Notes For Women at Japanese Business Dinners

 

 

It’s important to note that even though Japan is highly developed in some respects; cultural differences remain that may not agree with more western views. In Japan, women are viewed in a different light from the rest of the world. Women are expected to behave in a manner that reflects well on their counterparts, be it a company or their love interests. When we think of Japanese women we think dainty, soft-spoken, and demure in their mannerisms. This is by design and is something one must be careful to observe whilst living in Japan. To be on the safe side be sure to tread carefully during conversations so as not to cross any lines drawn in the sand. In addition, those who use tobacco and have tattoos should take care not to make that information public during business dinners. In particular; smoking in front of men is also a no-no. The exact reasons may be shrouded in mystery but smoking is seen as a manly thing and within the bounds of Japanese culture should be treated as such if one wishes to advance within the corporate world. Though it may not exactly be the conventional definition of fair; Japanese culture is exactly that and must be respected like any local tradition. Some views on how a woman should act are skewed but ultimately come down to whether or not you can stomach the culture shock.

 

Identifying When These Etiquettes Qualify in a Japanese Business Dinner

It’s important to note that although you will inevitably encounter situations like those mentioned in the article; not all situations require such a high standard of etiquette. Work friends commonly get together to drink and have dinner on their own. Many of the guidelines mentioned in the article may be a bit more relaxed when it comes to these sort of gatherings but it’s not a bad idea to observe these things just for good practice. If you can get over cultural differences and fall in line, you’ll have no issues. Remember to put your home culture aside and observe the area you are in. People pay attention to your mannerisms and adherence to Japanese culture. Amongst friends or coworkers, both parties will appreciate your efforts to learn the customs.

 

As more and more progressive-minded foreigners enter the Japanese workforce, it is important to remember that the culture in Japan is still undoubtedly male-centric, women are held to a different standard than men, and younger generations are expected to exude respect for the older generation. This can cause some tongue-in-cheek situations or cause offense to those who are used to being in cultures that are not as rigid as Japan. As daunting as it may seem; learning these customs before finding yourself in a business meeting can make or break you. It’s definitely worth the time to practice your table manners with friends or even in your spare time. Even if you make mistakes; acceptance is key to building future business relationships. While at the table; move with grace and purpose even if you might struggle to do so. Remember, these people have lived amongst this sort of atmosphere for their entire life and are able to easily detect an act which stands out from the norm. You are trying to blend in and any genuine effort you make will stand out. Your Japanese coworkers and superiors will definitely be impressed when they see a foreigner observing their traditions since Japan is a country that pays attention to the smallest details. Have you had a business dinner in Japan? Do you have any other tips for getting by during a Japanese dinner? Let us know in the comments!

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