As a foreign national working for a company in Japan, I’ve come across a great deal of cultural do’s and don’ts in the corporate arena. Some of these are explicitly taught to all new employees, others are more of a silent understanding where it’s important, as the Japanese say, to ‘read the air’ or ‘kuuki o yomu’.
So from my own experiences, here are my top five golden rules for the Japanese workplace.
Top Five Golden Rules of Japanese Corporate Culture
1. Group mentality and action – ‘Dantai koudou’
This first one is more of a silent understanding, a cultural norm that is dominant particularly in nikkei or Japanese-owned companies.
The company will usually play a much bigger part of your life than it might in European cultures, and as such a certain degree of extra-curricular or social activities are expected of employees.
This can be anything from going out drinking or to nomikai with your work superiors to formally organized recreational activities and even company trips. Although this cannot technically be forced, it’s an expectation as a member of the company and hence the community. However this also applies to issues of decision-making within your job. The commonly used Japanese phrase is ‘hou-ren-sou’ or ‘(official) report, communicate (to all relevant parties) and consult (with a superior)’.
It’s normal to drop twenty other people in the CC of an email addressed to only one or two people, and to share information broadly as opposed to handling an issue at your own discretion, even if you think you’re capable of doing so.
2. Business Cards
Business cards carried in a special business card wallet or case are a staple for doing business in Japan. The first thing you will do upon meeting a customer or a business associate will be exchanging business cards.
Rule of thumb is to introduce yourself as you hold out your business card to the other person. When they introduce themselves and hand you their card, you should take it and look at it briefly to show you’re making a point of remembering who they are. If you’re in a meeting situation with a desk, custom is to place all of the cards you’ve received face up in front of you, as opposed to putting them straight into the card case.
3. Seating Placements in a Meeting Room
When hosting a meeting with clients, the clients should be seated furthest away from the door. This also applies to colleagues who may be visiting for a meeting from another branch, or if you are attending a meeting with your superiors.
If you are the one visiting another office or company for a meeting, then you will be the one seated furthest from the door. However only sit once you have been invited to do so. Usually before being invited to sit, you will exchange business cards with your host, so be sure to have them readily on hand.
4. Hosting Clients Outside of the Meeting Room – ‘Settai’
Dealing with visiting clients will often go beyond the meeting room. In many cases you will be obliged to plan a ‘kaishoku’ or dinner out at the company’s expense. This will especially be the case if you are dealing with clients visiting from outside of Japan.
The purpose of ‘kaishoku’ is to express hospitality and to strengthen the business relationship. It is not to be mistaken as a place to directly make additional sales. Many companies are sensitive to these dinners out being mistaken for bribery, especially if the client concerned is from the public sector, so regulations and paperwork when you organize can be quite stringent.
But these are meant to be purely social events as part of the Japanese business culture of showing utmost hospitality.
5. Social Rankings Within the Company – ‘Jouge-kankei’
You may already be familiar with the terms ‘sempai’ meaning ‘senior and ‘kouhai’ meaning ‘junior’. These are terms that are used in schools and universities when students refer to each other relative to seniority of grade, but this also carries on into the workplace.
Hence, someone older than you, who may not be your official boss or superior is still referred to as your ‘sempai’ and is to be treated with a certain level of respect. If you’re communicating in Japanese, you should speak in polite or honorific form, and not in plain or conversational form.
Basically you need to know who is senior and who is junior in relation to yourself and address them accordingly. This is one of the fundamentals, and one of the most vital of communication in the Japanese workplace.