Skip to main content

Business etiquette in Japan

If you intend to work in Japan, you should be mindful of the various rules, including unspoken ones, about conducting business in the country.

In general, Westerners don’t visit Japan as often as travellersfrom other global regions, meaning that exposure to the country’s unique culture is mainly through films, music and literature. Those from other cultures — for example: sub-Saharan Africa, India or South America — may have even less exposure in their home countries and may also find the culture very alien. A widespread perception of Japan’s culture is of formal, conservative and ritualistic manners and ideas of politeness and respect. This perception is borne out by comments from expats and guides. There are lots of cultural cues and social behavioural norms in Japanese culture, and adoption of them can help to improve your relationships.

When doing business in Japan, it is particularly important to be aware of the role of seniority, which is measured according to age and not necessarily professional status. Show deference and respect to people older than yourself.

Bow when you greet someone if showing gratitude or making an apology. There are three types of bow:

  • The eshaku bow (at a 15-degree angle) is the most casual and can help to show sincerity, for example when saying thank you
  • The keirei bow (30 degrees) is most often used in business, for example when entering and leaving reception or meeting rooms, or when greeting customers
  • The saikeirei bow (45 degrees) is the politest and is used to show deep gratitude or when giving an apology.

If you are eating with your colleagues or clients, it’s customary to place your palms together in front of your chest (gassho) before and after eating. Make this gesture while saying “itadakimasu” to express a feeling of gratitude towards the food and the person who prepared it.

Keep your phone on ‘manner mode’ in quiet places like hotel lobbies, restaurants and public transport and avoid taking calls here too.

While this may seem a lot to remember, Japan has relaxed a lot in recent years and most business dealings — especially with Westerners — do not have the same formality as they did in the 1970s. Japanese businesspeople will not hold expats to the same strict standards expected of their Japanese colleagues. In practice, Japanese business etiquette is not so different from business etiquette anywhere: politeness, sensitivity to others, good manners, and respect and deference go a long way in most cultures.

While most business relationships begin very formally, most will relax and become less formal as the relationship grows. Bear in mind that their ‘relaxed’ may not be yours; many visitors misjudge the amount by which the relationships has ‘relaxed’. We recommend you follow the lead of the most senior Japanese person, as they will set the level of formality. For example, it is usually inappropriate to discuss family in a business context and even with people you have known for some time.

Business cards

Carry up to 100 business cards at a time as the exchange of them is still highly ritualised, not least because it usually happens at the first meeting. Have double-sided business cards printed — Japanese on one side, English or your native language on the other.

  • Never flick, throw, slide, or push a business card
  • Present your card holding it with both hands
  • Accept a card using both hands and say ‘thank you’
  • Treat cards you receive with respect.

Dress code

Unlike business etiquette, attire has changed less over the years. Dark navy, charcoal grey or black suits, with a white shirt — and tie for men — are the norm in winter. Suit colours become lighter in summer and short-sleeved shirts are acceptable. Many companies also allow men to remove their ties in the hottest months.

Most Japanese companies do not allow male employees to grow beards or shave their heads. Women should wear their hair short or tied back and temper glamour but aim to look ‘strong’. Many Japanese companies do not allow female employees to wear jewellery, above-the-knee skirts or high heels.

Business don’ts

Try to avoid:

  • blowing your nose in public
  • trying to shake hands on a first meeting — this extends to most physical contact, including a pat on the back. Just bow. If you do shake hands, don’t squeeze too hard
  • Making small talk about politics, religion, or family
  • Making derogatory remarks about anyone
  • Being sullen or in a bad mood

Working hours

A 2015 survey found that 94% of Americans see the Japanese as ‘hardworking’. And this is a well-deserved reputation. There’s even have a word — karoshi — for death from chronic overwork by way of conditions such as heart attack, stroke and suicide.

Japan's government has been under increasing pressure to act, but the challenge has been to break a decades-old work culture where it's frowned upon to leave before your colleagues or boss. A recent survey found that nearly a quarter of Japanese employees work more than 80 hours’ overtime a month, often unpaid. Some companies are trying to promote a better work-life balance, and the government has made proposals for national measures, but the problem remains widespread.

Annual leave

The minimum annual leave entitlement in Japan is 10 days, with employees earning an extra day for each year in service up to a maximum of 20 days. Some workers do not take their full entitlement so as not to inconvenience or let down their colleagues or employees. There are no legal provisions for pay on public holidays.

If you have yet to find a job in Japan, read our guide to learn what sectors are in need of skilled workers and how to apply for a position.

Aetna® is a trademark of Aetna Inc. and is protected throughout the world by trademark registrations and treaties.

We use cookies to give you the best possible online experience. See our cookie policy for more information on how we use cookies and how you can manage them. If you continue to use this website, you are consenting to our policy and for your web browser to receive cookies from our website.