The Insider’s Guide to Doing Business in Japan: Part 1

This is the first of a two part article from guest Author Dean Foster. After writing five books on world cultures and traveling to over 100 countries Dean is an expert on doing business far from home and we’re thrilled for him to share his views.  He starts with Japan a country which can be both fascinating and frustrating for the first time traveler. The second part of this article  will be published tomorrow.

East is east and West is west, and culturally, Tokyo and Topeka couldn’t be more different.  No surprise then that doing business in Japan will also be very different. Knowing the cross-cultural pitfalls ahead of time can help you navigate them; ignoring them will guarantee a hard, long, frustrating and expensive journey at best, or failure at worst.  So why not prepare for success with some important CultureClues for Japan?


Communications in Japan is different; because of ancient traditions of respect, the need to save face, and the focus on building long-term business relationships based on trust over immediate short-term deals.  It is very difficult for your Japanese colleagues to directly express negative, problematic or difficult issues. Instead, if they disagree with something you’ve proposed, they will gently imply what they truly mean, rather than address it directly.  “Perhaps”, “maybe”, “this idea needs further study” – all mean “no” and that there is a serious problem.  The Japanese word for “no” is “ie”, but you will rarely hear it.  To say “ie” means they are rejecting your idea, which would cause you – a trusted business partner in their eyes – to lose face, something very embarrassing for both parties.  On the flip-side, “yes” often does not mean “I agree”. Rather, it is simply a word used to indicate that they acknowledge that you said something, similar to the English “uh-huh”.  Words will not tell you whether the Japanese actually agree (and pressing them only makes the situation worse) – only their actions, or lack of action, will.  Tune up your diplomatic antennae, don’t ask direct questions, and never ask a question that can be answered with a “yes” or “no”.  If you must ask questions, be sure to do so gently, without implying they are doing anything wrong, asking only for open-ended information.  Listen very carefully to what is “really” being said, and if nothing is being said (silence is sometimes a response), that tells you that they are having difficulty formulating a response for any number of reasons, but cannot admit that to you. 


If you really want to know what your Japanese associates are thinking, join them for drinks and a meal in the evening.  What occurs in the meeting in the office during the day is often constrained by formal business meeting protocols.  However, over some sake and yakitori at night, real thoughts and feelings can be exchanged, one on one.  Don’t hide in the hotel just because you have jetlag.  Take your vitamins and expect to be invited out to socialize most of the nights you are in Japan: it is more important than anything said or done during the day in the office.  This focus on socializing is really the serious – and admittedly time-consuming – business of trust and relationship-building.  Open up, show your personality, relax – that’s what drinks and karaoke are for… and yes, learn a song before you go!  Your Japanese associates take their obligation to host you very seriously: the more you drink, the more your glass will be re-filled, and that’s usually okay by everyone.  “Kampai” (bottoms up!) is the toast.  If the party gets raucous, all the better, but take your lead from them. Back in the office the next day, everyone reverts back to formal business behavior, so best not to talk too much about the night before.

Check back for Part Two tomorrow on what you need to know about business culture in Japan.

Dean Foster, author of five books on world cultures, travel and work (, is also host of the podcast, “Oops! Your Culture’s Showing!” ( and the CNN “Doing Business in…” series.  He is on faculty at the Intercultural Management Institute, American University, Washington, DC. His work has taken him to over 100 countries and he still loves getting on the plane.