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More than Bowing: Etiquette in Doing Business in Japan

"Cultural intelligence is proven to predict your success or failure in today's global marketplace."
--- Dr. David Livermore, President, Cultural Intelligence Center

Emerging markets are fast becoming the source of significant revenue streams of Fortune 500 companies as businesses venture into new regions, and recruit and hire workers in different parts of the global market.

How will you, as a global executive, navigate a global and diverse business environment?

By working on your cultural intelligence or cultural quotient (CQ).

The Cultural Intelligence Center defines CQ as the "capability to relate and work effectively across cultures".

CQ is an important aptitude and skill for the global executive because knowing how to adjust to different cultures and etiquette could help you avoid lost deals and save on resources.

Let’s start learning how to decipher cultural codes by kicking off our new series on business practices and etiquette in different cultures with an article on Japanese business protocol.

More than Bowing: Etiquette in Doing Business in Japan

Bowing is called ojigi in Japanese. You'll see Japanese people bowing to another as a respectful gesture in many instances, especially in doing business. Once you step in Japan, you'll notice this gesture everywhere, from service providers like flight attendants, stores owners, and tourist guides. And you'll notice, too, that they seem to do it naturally.

Why so?

Because for the Japanese, it's a direct way to communicate their appreciation. When they greet each other at any point of the day, they bow cheerfully. It's also a way to express their humility and to recognize each other's presence. Whether they are doing their jobs, before playing sports, serving customers, or even while talking on the phone (without the other party seeing it). It's automatic.

But remember that it's not just bowing after all.

Deep down, there is an underlying culture of deep respect, paying attention, and mostly, this Western buzzword borrowed from the East: mindfulness.

According to psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn, Japanese people have long been doing little practices that "purposefully pay attention to things we ordinarily never give a moment's thought to."

While on the surface, bowing is an act of courtesy, it's more than that. It's this mindfulness and unwavering respect of the people expressed through their actions, and how these actions impact other people.

Aside from bowing

Since this is a globalized world now, Japanese people have done so many businesses around the world. In many ways, they understand that other cultures are not into bowing, so you're not anymore expected to bow to them. This explains why the Western way we shake hands is now a common thing when Japanese executives do business with non-Japanese.

Just avoid the mistake Obama did: combining a bow with a handshake.

As a rule of thumb in doing business, either you shake your hands or you do a bow. However, a few are still not used to shaking hands, so expect a limp hand. It may look a bit uncourteous for most of us, but that's fine. We may look a little limp to them, too, when we try to bow for the first time. And another important thing, when you give a handshake, be sure not to make sharp eye contact, since to do so is being rude.

How to Bow

If you get to learn to bow, again, it is not just to nod your head down. Remember that there are many kinds to it, and they are expressed depending on the degree of formality, which is demonstrated literally on degree of the angle of bending the waist on the actual bowing.

For example, in a not so formal situation, a slight bow, with a 15-degree angle is called eshaku. This is the most casual bow, and often the most common, since you'll see this done by people in the neighborhood greeting konnichiwa or good day.

Doing business, on the other hand, requires a more formal bow, called keirei. It's a formal salute, where your waist must be bent by 30 degrees. When you meet with the company's boss or executive, greet him or her by bowing this way. This is the same bow to do before anyone who is older in age or has a higher status.

In a more formal bowing, you must hold your bow for at least 30 seconds, and as a Japanese etiquette expert says, you must bow from the heart. Also, hands must be on the side, and slightly sliding down a few centimeters as you bow. Traditionally, only men place their hands on the hips, while women place them on the front.

Exchanging meishi, or business cards

Bowing is part of giving your meishi, or business card. It's an important step when introducing yourself and doing business with Japanese people. In Japan, meishi is a serious business. A business card, for them, is not just putting your contact number, but it is an extension of one's identity, character and personality.

They have elevated meishi into a traditional art form. So you don't give a sloppily made, poorly creased, or stained business card. It must look pristine and crisp. For the Japanese, your meishi amounts to their first impression of you. One thing more, if your card is important, it is equally important where you put them. It is indispensable to have a neat and presentable cardholder.

When you hand your meishi, you must carefully place it on top of your holder, card facing up, holding it on each corner with two hands, making it readable for the receiver. Hand it while doing keirei, or the formal bow, followed by a simple introduction of saying your last name and your company.

Note your rank with another person you are exchanging meishi with. If the person is higher in status, like an executive, let them first hand theirs to you. Then when you hand yours, put it a little below the higher person's meishi. These are among the little details that show respect.

It doesn't stop there. You must bear in mind how to keep the meishi given to you. Receive it with both hands and a respectful bow to express your humility and respect to the person. Confirm the name of the other by reading it on the card, then say thank you. Don't shove the other's meishi to your pocket or wallet; doing so is extremely rude. Take care of the other's meishi the way you take care of yours.

It's not just what you say

In dealing business with the Japanese, what you do largely matters more often than what you say. Unlike Filipinos who are more of a gregarious type, Japanese people tend to be more shy and quiet in business settings. Pay attention to their body language, but be sure you avoid direct eye contact. Show your respect and politeness to those who are much older.

In conversation, don't speak or express too much. Let the other speak, and don’t dominate the conversation. Speak politely, and don't impress too much. Otherwise, you may be making a bad impression to them. It's best instead to mirror the pace of the other person in terms of speaking and moving. This one, while common in customer service, can be a good rule of thumb in interviews. You can observe on how Japanese people move and speak in a slower and gentler pace. That's your cue.

Note that Japanese executives communicate subtly through body language. They are always non-confrontational. In between, there would be dead airs and uncomfortable pauses, which feels a bit awkward for most of us who are used to a more lively and intimate exchange of words.

Japanese people also have a hard time saying “no”. So in case they seem to disagree or dislike you, they won't say it outright. You'll get it from their body cues. As Filipinos, we are sort of familiar with pakiramdaman, so it could be handy in those moments.

Three pointers

Doing business with the Japanese boils down into three pointers: being respectful, being mindful, being subtle.

To be respectful is to see the importance of other's presence as well as your own. To be mindful is to act with your impact on others in mind. And to be subtle is to pay attention to the little details of communicating yourself.

It is good to note that these three pointers serve as useful guides, and the specific examples are not rigid rules. Some of the Japanese colleagues you’ll be working with might have already been exposed to other cultures and are familiar with the Philippine business setting. Thus, you can be flexible depending on the context of your interaction with them. However, it is always best to be on the side of caution and keep these three pointers in mind.

Again, it's more than just bowing --- it’s the whole Japanese culture behind it. Trying to understand the way Japanese people do business may not only be good for your business with them, but can also help expand your way of seeing things, doing your business, and living your life.


South Korea’s thriving economy enables them to be more visible in the business sector whether in their home country or overseas. Follow our blog to learn how factors such as relationship building and hierarchy affect business affairs with Koreans in our next article.

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