By Michael Jones (

For many westerners, Japan can seem like one of the most frustrating countries in the world to do business with.  The culture of consensus and harmony is almost directly opposite to the individual-focused west, which leads to conflict as Japanese companies can be seen as insular and unwilling to cooperate with outsiders.  Of course, at the same time, Japan is a world economic power and has an incredibly lucrative consumer base, making it a country that looks extremely desirable for international clients.  These conflicting frustrations and desires pose the question: what’s a western business to do?

Contrary to popular belief, westerners can be successful in the Japanese market: tt all comes down to navigating Japan’s group-focused business culture.  This culture takes the form of numerous spoken and unspoken rules of etiquette that dictate business relationships between members of a group.  These rules can relate to the smallest of things, but still demand respect if you hope to achieve success.  Observant westerners who respect these rules will find doing business with Japan to be a profitable, long-lasting partnership.

One such rule focuses on, oddly enough, business cards.  In the west, business cards are mostly seen as disposable.  However, in Japan, a business card is seen as an extension of the person, and must be treated in a way that respects that person.  Not doing so can be seen as a grave insult, which could lead to the end of your business relationship before it has even started.  Here are some tips:

  • Your own business cards should have a Japanese-language version printed on the back side of the card.
  • There is a whole ceremony surrounding the presentation of the business card.  Begin by offering your own card, with the Japanese-language side facing up, with both hands.  Accompany this with a small bow.  Upon receiving your partner’s business card, take a minute to analyze it and comment on the details (confirm their name, company, etc.).  Once the exchange has been completed, put the card in a business card carrying case (NOT your pocket).
  • Afford the same level of courtesy to any lower ranking employees that you may come into contact with.  Many Japanese companies have lifetime employment, so you will likely have to work with these employees in the future!
  • Never give a Japanese businessperson a bent or damaged business card.
  • Bring lots of business cards with you.  It is considered rude and unprofessional if you do not have enough cards for all of your Japanese partners at a meeting.
  • When in doubt, always treat the business cards of your partners with respect.

If you are interested in doing business with companies in Japan, TSI Global Consulting has the knowledge, experience, and connections to make sure that your operations go smoothly.  Give us a call at 210-757-0618 for a consultation, and check back often at the TSI blog for more international business updates.




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