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Doing biz with Japanese? Some social tips
February 22, 2007
In the second of this three-part article, I cover some very simple socio-cultural aspects that can mean a lot when dealing with the Japanese.
Since these seem to be so simple or obvious, chances are that some of the social etiquettes mentioned below often get ignored, but it helps to recognise that these subtleties play an important role in building fruitful business and personal relationships with the Japanese.
Forging long-term relationships
All business and personal dealings in Japan happen only when a strong relationship of trust has been established. Trust is the foundation of any business and a transaction will follow only after the Japanese counterpart has been reasonably assured of this trust. In fact, the first transaction is usually very small and meant as a validation of the business relationship (and its concomitant assumptions).
Regular business follows only after the first transaction has been a resounding success. Hence typically any business in Japan would need at least two to three years to succeed.
Considerable investment in relationship building (and of course, the direct cash investments into the business) is required during this initial phase. Once the relationship of trust is established, business relationships with the Japanese are usually very enduring that may even last lifetimes!
Remember, the Japanese believe in and focus on 'long-term relationships as opposed to short-term gain.'
Answering questions on your age & title
It is not unusual to be asked about one's age or title as the Japanese society has historically been (and remains) highly hierarchical. They want to make sure that the Indian representative/ counterpart gets the due respect that his position and seniority demands and deserves.
That is why a 'Meishi' or business card is such an important piece of paper that is held sacred by the Japanese. It tells them who, what and where you are in the corporate hierarchy! It is therefore quite important to understand the ritual of presenting and receiving credentials between the two business teams.
Saying "No" & "Yes"
The Japanese would never say "No" directly as it does not exist in their vocabulary (the merits of this attribute may be debatable, as one would often prefer to hear a direct "no"). They would say something like "I will consider it" or "That is a bit. . . (left unspoken)."
This is a cue for the Indian party to consider it as a negation of the proposal or a disagreement. The unspoken word conveys deeper meaning in Japanese than probably in any other language!
This is quite different from how we Indians typically say "Yes" without much hesitation with a connotation, "I will do my best to deliver on time but please do not hold me responsible if I don't" or "I'll TRY to do it but maybe (in the end) I can't."
An affirmative "Yes" is considered by the Japanese as 100% commitment. This lack of understanding of the various forms of indirect "No" leads to many heartaches and misunderstandings in a business relationship.
Also, it is important to understand that when the Japanese say, "I think that is a good idea," or "I see" does not mean a "Yes!" or vote of approval to the idea.
Globally a "Yes" is indicated by shaking the head up & down and a "No" is indicated by shaking the head left to right.
However, Indians tend to shake their heads about 270 degrees to indicate a "Yes" as well as a "No". This is a confusing body language sign for people who do not understand the prevalence of this practice in the sub-continent.
Usually most foreigners get baffled with this unique Indian practice (though they all seem to get adjusted to it). This confusion could be easily avoided if we were to adopt the more universally adopted body language.
Food & drink
Whilst the "curry rice" is very famous throughout Japan, it is very different from any "curry rice" in India (or even as the British know, India Curry). For one, the Japanese version is quite sweet; secondly it contains beef or beef stock � something that most people do not know.
Official entertaining is hence a matter of very delicate decision making where one has to balance eating habits of vegetarians (for Indians) with the spice levels in the food (for Japanese)
After hours socialising -- an important element in the relationship building process -- always involves plenty of alcohol consumption, including beer, sake, whiskey, etc. This may be a bit difficult for teetotalers (generally on the Indian side from my experience) to handle!
Part III: The Japanese art of negotiating
The author is President of Nihongo Bashi (www.nihongobashi.com), the leading provider of Japanese language & business education in India.
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