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Communication within the Business Context

Now that we have approached an era of  "globalization," it is more important than ever for people to be knowledgeable about other cultures.  If we wish to communicate with other cultures, we must learn what that culture considers important.  This means that we must also learn "their" way of doing business if we wish to do business with them. This philosophy is essential when applied to the Japanese way of doing business.  Certain guidelines must be followed to ensure that communication and negotiation are done properly in order to make the deal and build strong relations.  Here is some helpful information and advice in order to have the best business interactions with Japan.

First, it is necessary to mention a few cultural traits of Japanese culture that every businessman should remember.  Japanese culture is collectivistic, which means that they do things for the betterment of the group.  They are hierarchical, meaning that they value status and rank among each other, yet at the same time they work very hard on interdepartmental relations to promote harmony between lower level personnel and superiors.  The Japanese are a formal culture, which means that they are very courteous in dealing with business matters.  They are a culture with lots of social stability or "wa" which means harmony.  They are not accustomed to change and prefer to do things the way they have always been done in order to keep peace and good relations within the group.

       Personal appearance is very important in the Japanese culture.  The Japanese favor conservative attire for business interactions; a dark blue tailored suit is the traditional look for a Japanese corporate businessman, or  "sariman."  They prefer to dress this way because they don't believe that standing out from the crowd is important.  They normally wear a company pin as well to distinguish status.

       In many social interactions in Japan, nonverbal signs are also a customary in the office.  They will shake hands during business interactions so that they can fit in with the global workplace, but still find it honorable to have their visitors bow with them; how low you bow depends on the status of the person with whom you are interacting.  The average businessman may bow approximately 200 - 300 times per day.

      It is also important to exchange business cards directly after bowing or shaking hands.  Business cards are important because they show one's rank and status within their company.  Also, it is essential to read the card before placing it in a memorable place, which is probably not just your nearest pocket.  Business cards are called "meishi" in Japanese.  For more specific information on the importance of name cards, visit http://www.shinnova.com/part/99-japa

       They also place importance on where to sit during a meeting.  The senior executive should sit farthest away from the door and then people should sit around the table according to status. 

       Because the Japanese are an "in-group" culture, they prefer to affiliate with their own culture to outsiders or foreigners.  It is necessary to allot plenty of time to meetings and negotiations with them.  They will not do business with people that they do not find socially credible; therefore, it is vital to not rush business interactions and allow them to get to know you on a more personal level.  They work harder on interdepartmental relations than public relations with other companies.

       Another thing to remember while communicating with Japanese business people is that the Japanese find the concept of "saving face" crucial in all settings, especially while dealing with foreigners.  This means that they do not appreciate being seen as wrong or threatened; therefore, while communicating with them, one should not be too direct, confrontational, or rude.  This also means that sometimes when they say "yes," they are really saying "no"; they will use alternative words such as "difficult" or "maybe" when they mean "no".

       The Japanese make important corporate decisions as a group, just as they do within other contexts.  They do this by a procedure called "bottom-up," which means that the lower level employees will bring up an issue and then as they move up the corporate structure opinions are given along with suggestions or ideas so that they can come to a consensus that will be best for the group.  They prefer to use consensual decision-making.

       When dealing with negotiations, Japanese businessmen approach it with a long-term viewpoint.  Because they are collectivistic, they allow everyone to voice his opinion and ideas and come to a consensus that will benefit everyone.

       When dealing with conflict management, the Japanese culture will many times try to avoid conflict in order to keep harmony and save face.  The Japanese also do not usually have serious competitiveness within an enterprise.  When they do have conflicts, because they take a paternalistic approach to business as well as consensual, they will normally allow superiors to take charge of problems out of respect for status.

*The information summarized here was found in both Samovar and Porter text books. In their Communication between Cultures book, facts were used from pages 202 -203; in the Intercultural Communication: A Reader, see pages 312 - 323. Also, for more information on Japanese business practices and banking, visit http://www.shinnova.com/part/99-japa/ and for information on GDP, currency, and exchange rates, visit our Facts page.

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E-mail questions or comments to mkfinney@depauw.edu
  January 26, 2001