Understanding Japanese Business Etiquette
Anthropologists and cultural historians have long noted the differences in lifestyles and communication styles between the Japanese and Americans. While the Japanese prefer delicate wording and the opportunity to save face, Americans opt for a more direct communication style. Even in business, Japanese entrepreneurs are more attuned to body language and non-verbal cues, on average, than their American counterparts, who prefer mainly verbal communication.
The US and Japanese Boardrooms
As a rule of thumb US companies prefer decisions that favor pragmatic efficiency; also, the US mode of decision making tends to be highly hierarchical. Japanese moguls tend to favor more conservative and time-tested approaches and will focus on error minimization through following tried-and-true procedures. Often there is a culture clash between the pragmatic approach and the conservative one.
Japanese culture is typically more collectivistic than American culture, which leans towards rugged individualism. This translates to many US corporate jobs being highly specialized and an emphasis on the individual vis-a-vis company benchmarks. Obviously, the flip-side of this individualism is a tendency to scapegoat or congratulate one high-performing team member. The Japanese approach, though, rings foreign to the ears of most Westerners: if the team (company) fails in Japan, the individual contribution is relatively worthless.
Perhaps because the emphasis is on team success in Japan, the likelihood that a company will incentivize a business venture with more risk is far less probable in the East. In a certain sense, US companies may be more risk-taking and adventurous than Eastern companies. US culture in general is more ethnically diverse, which perhaps enables more ideas to enter the boardroom, potentially heightening the chances of a high-payoff yet risky deal.
The Importance of Incorporating New Approaches
US businessman should take a few cues from their Japanese counterparts, especially in regards to networking. The Japanese have a practice called meishi kokan in which Japanese businessmen trade and scrutinize business cards in a ritualized manner. The basic idea behind meishi kokan is for one businessman to hand his card to another and wait for the card to be read aloud and then placed on a nearby table for reference during subsequent conversation. This type of scrutiny will help US businessmen appreciate the importance of outwardly showing potential financial interest.
Also, in Japan there is a tradition of valuing the opinion of one’s elders or corporate superiors. In Japanese boardrooms, the opening comment is usually addressed to the highest-ranking corporate leader at the table. The idea is to defer to one’s superiors and postpone any criticism for a more suitable time. The tendency in Japan is to deemphasize any possible effect cronyism or back-room dealings may have had in a superior’s corporate ascension and to instead focus on the superior skill and negotiating power stapled to a higher position.
Getting back to the networking notion intrinsic to Japanese business, in Japan connections and interpersonal shuffling are often precursors to business negotiations. In other words, being taken seriously in one circle may be one’s foot in the door to other elite groups and deals. The imprimatur of executives is sometimes sought as its own reward or as a means of beautifying one’s resume. In many ways, though, if Americans assimilated these practices, one could tell right from the start whether someone was trustworthy or not based on previous partners and successful dealings.
A Give and Take Between East and West
Japanese business etiquette and culture can teach American businesspeople how to more tactfully network and use one’s past for future good; American business culture, for its part, can teach the Japanese to be more assertive and entrepreneurial.