6 Non-Negotiables You Should Know When Doing Business in Japan

Doing business the way locals do will make all the difference to your success in Japan.


Tech blogger and media manager Alexander Leung moved to Hong Kong from Canada and now reports on the start-up scene. Here’s his indispensable advice for doing business in Japan:

Choose a co-working space. There are over 300 co-working spaces available in Tokyo alone, but they are usually tailored to a specific industry and often host events that fit a common theme. The Hub Tokyo, for example, hosts monthly events focused on social sustainability, whereas The Snack, located in the heart of Ginza, is a very hip, alternative space that even has a Bitcoin ATM set up inside. Those looking for a quiet space more focused on artistic or collaborative endeavours would find PAX Co-working great.

Expect recruitment struggles. Finding start-up talent in Japan can be tough, especially in tech, mainly because of the newness of the industries. The traditional viewpoint of Japanese work culture is that you work at the same company until you retire. This is changing, but slowly, so you need to know where to look for new recruits. The website Wantedly (au.wantedly.com) is one of the country’s most focused tech-recruitment platforms but you need basic Japanese to use it. Meanwhile, Justa (justa.io) is a great English-speaking job board and GaijinPot is a news website for people looking to work or study in Japan.

Keep up with innovation. Like any other country, the tech industry moves at a very fast speed here. You can stay on top of Japanese tech news by reading Tech in Asia (which also hosts an annual tech conference in Tokyo) or The Bridge for entrepreneurial news. And if you want to research specific start-ups, Cotobe.net and Entrepedia.jp are online platforms specifically built for Japan that allow you to see start-up metrics and company data.

Learn Japanese if possible. Tokyo is not always English-speaker-friendly. Your first time riding the Japan Rail or ordering food will be an eye-opener as signage is only displayed in Japanese and most Japanese people have a very rudimentary, or no understanding, of English. There are many Japanese schools that offer day or night classes. Not only is it good for business, but key phrases will do wonders in getting locals to open up to you.

Don’t underestimate etiquette. Even in tech start-ups, understanding Japanese culture and doing the right thing can make or break deals. For example, being trusted in Japanese business culture is often more important than getting the best deal, so proving your reliability is more important than undercut-ting your competitor. In a business setting, silence is also valued over a lot of talking. For a useful reference, try reading The Etiquette Guide to Japan: Know the Rules That Make the Difference by Boye Lafayette De Mente.


Bonus tip: don’t forget your business cards! In Japan, it’s an important part of meeting etiquette. For Japanese business professionals, a business card (meishi, pronounced ‘may-shee’) is an extension of their identity. “There are rules to remember,” says Alexander, adding that it’s all about signalling respect for the other person. “The highest-ranking person hands out their cards first and a card should be turned towards the receiver so they can read it. When giving and receiving, using both hands is a sign of respect.” If you’re standing, place it in your business card holder; if you are seated, place it on the table for the duration of the meeting and then place it in your business card holder. Even if you’re sitting far away from the person in a group, don’t toss or push the card across the table. Get up and walk over to them. “Never stuff a card into your pocket,” adds Alexander. It’s considered a big faux pas to place someone’s business card in your back pocket or wallet.

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