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Tips for U.S. Business Travelers to Japan

Japan and the United States have a unique history. However, the power of commerce binds these two nations together in ways few could have expected fifty years ago.

The business ties between Japan and the U.S. grow stronger by the year. Since 2002, Japanese businesses have created 840,000 jobs for American workers. The numbers are significant: Japanese companies employ more American workers than any other country (with the exception of the UK). It’s no surprise then Japan is a popular destination among business travelers. What’s more, the Japanese government recently opened up its immigration system to attract more foreign workers.

Traveling to Japan or another foreign destination is not like a trip to Toledo. It requires more preparation to not only learn but begin to understand the cultural norms practiced by Japanese businesses and workers. Learning how to socialize appropriately and getting to grips with how decisions get made will not only help you save face in a country that highly values politeness and honor but will make your trips more productive.

Socialization is as Important as the Boardroom

With today’s technology, long-haul business trips are becoming less necessary. The use of tools like cloud-based digital signatures means two parties can securely sign documents remotely. Although the technology’s use is widely dominated by North American firms, it is growing substantially in the Asia-Pacific region. Even still, the Japanese consider socialization to be an important part of a business transaction. Tech like cloud-based document management has an increasingly important place. However, the Japanese consider socialization outside the office to be as important as the technology used in the boardroom.

When you travel to Japan, you should be ready to put in extra effort to socialize with no regard for your jetlag. In Japan, it’s common for the office to leave work and head to a bar to eat and drink for hours after the official end of the business day. These after-hours chats are important for developing personal relationships with your Japanese counterparts, who value relationships with people they know and trust above all else.

While out on the town, you’ll want to avoid chatting about personal and sensitive matters: you won’t say much more about your family other than you have one and you should avoid politics or other controversial subjects. Instead, come up with other interesting topics that you can talk about confidently or with some curiosity, including those related to the nature of your work or topics related to sports, Japanese culture and history, and local attractions.

Baseball fans do particularly well as it is a popular sport in Japan, but do also ask about Japan’s impressive national rugby team, too!

Learn the Meaning of the Word “No”

There is a common myth that suggests Japanese people in general and business people in particular never say “no.” They do. In fact, there are hundreds of ways to say “no” in Japanese. And you’ll hear them as the Japanese use them to deny compliments or express modesty.

At the same time, it is uncouth to use the word “no” as directly as you might in German or American culture. Instead, Japanese businesspeople will disguise their “no” as an expression of regret or even as a “maybe.”

You are more likely to encounter a direct “no” in an informal situation but almost never in a business meeting. As a result, you need to be able to do as the Japanese do and “read the air.” To read the air is to read a social situation, which means keeping an eye on body language and other social cues to understand when what they’re saying is “no,” even if they don’t say it directly.

Remember that it’s not only important to understand how your Japanese counterparts say no but also to mirror this in your own behavior. A direct “no” is not possible in polite company, even if it’s what you’re used to. You’ll need to learn to express yourself in a circumspect way.

Close Deals by Embracing the Hierarchy

Of course, U.S. businesses have a sense of hierarchy with management levels and structures for decision making. But it differs from the Japanese hierarchical structure, and if you want to walk away from your trip having accomplished your mission, it’s important to understand how the Japanese organize their companies.

The Japanese take a hierarchical approach to authority. It’s based on the social ethics of Confucianism, which places people in a vertical, hierarchical relationship. Because the stability of society depends on maintaining these relationships, there are clear boundaries for each level. Those at the top provide instructions, and they appreciate talking to other (at least perceived) decision-makers without your organization. At the same time, decision making in Japan happens by consensus. The leader seeks buy-in from the rest of the team before proceeding.

It’s important to reciprocate the Japanese approach to hierarchy and decision-making while in their offices. In a meeting, your most senior team member will sit across from their Japanese counterpart and so on. If you are a junior member of a team and you have an idea, your role is to pass it down the line to a senior member of the team to presentation rather than try to negotiate as an equal.

Getting to know these structures will also be important during the social after-work settings outlined above. You won’t discuss business strategy or close deals at the bar or over dinner. These are settings for relationship building only. Your understanding of hierarchy needs to inform your situational behavior.

Are You Ready for Your First Overseas Assignment?

Working with Japanese businesses is a rewarding experience that offers insight into your own ways of thinking and working. However, the key to making the most of your first overseas business assignment is to do plenty of preparation before you leave — not just on the plane.

By getting to grips with how the Japanese build relationships, communicate and make decisions, you’ll be much better prepared to embrace the unique relationship that Japanese and American businesses enjoy.

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