Japanese Business Dinner Etiquette: A Guide for International Residents | Guidable Japan

Japanese Business Dinner Etiquette: A Guide for International Residents

By Hannah Packard Oct 25, 2022

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 people at the meal are Japanese, and you’re the only one who’s not. After your CEO has 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 night’s antics. 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 Japanese business dinner etiquette 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.

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 expats in Japan. While it’s important to remember that the following etiquette tips may not be necessary at every business dinner or in every company, they are essential to understand Japanese culture!

Why is Japanese Business Dinner Etiquette so Important?

In western culture, it’s not uncommon to meet clients for dinner, and in many cases, employees don’t need 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 and to be heard. In other words, business dinners are a chance to speak out under the guise of being drunk, with virtually no repercussions.

Business Dinner First Impressions

One of the first impressions you’ll make 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 and 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 pretty difficult to grasp, and if it’s unclear 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 sit in relation to their superiors, please look at this site.

Etiquettes of Drinking at a Japanese Business Dinner

In American culture, business dinners are not as typical 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 clear line in the sand about what is and isn’t okay while drinking. However, in Japan, there are unspoken rules regarding how one should conduct oneself 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 coworkers 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! Oftentimes, tea and water are also served alongside dinner.

At the End of a Meal With Coworkers in a Japanese Business Dinner

When you finish your meal, there are certain things you can do to impress your coworkers 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 tgenuinelyinvested in the culture.

Important Notes For Women at Japanese Business Dinners

japanese business dinner etiquette drinking beer

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 may be expected to behave in a manner that reflects well on their counterparts, be it a company or their love interests.

While this idea maybe is less prominent in recent years, generally, Japanese women are portrayed as 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 Japanese Business Dinner Etiquette is Needed

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 relaxed when it comes to these sorts 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 internationals 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 offence to those who are used to being in different cultures.

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 can easily detect an act that stands out from the norm. You are trying to blend in, and your genuine effort will stand out. Your Japanese coworkers and superiors will definitely be impressed when they see a non-Japanese 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!

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