TOKYO — When clients ask me what to expect when they visit Japanese companies for the first time, I tell them it's very simple: “Act as if you're visiting the White House, and you'll be fine.”
Japanese culture is complex, and human relationships are based on a strict hierarchical order that dictates everything from how low to bow to who gets served coffee first.
Let's say you have an appointment at Company X in Tokyo. Arrive at the reception desk about five minutes before the appointed time. This shows eagerness to meet with the company, but not so early as to be a nuisance.
First-time tip: Many Japanese firms have done away with the formal, uniform-clad greeters at the front reception desk. Replacing them, unfortunately, is usually just a phone and a list of extensions. More often than not, such lists are printed only in Japanese, so always ask your business contact for his extension beforehand so you're not scrambling to figure out how to let him know you've arrived. You will be shown to a meeting room, either by your host or his assistant.
Next comes the formal exchange of business cards. The highest-ranking person from the host company will start by presenting you with his card, held in both hands, presented facing you so that you can read it. You should do the same. Often, Japanese remove one card from a card case and place it on the case, presenting it to you as if on a tray. After taking a card presented in this way, you should slip your card on the case. It is a learned Japanese reflex to bow while giving and receiving cards, and it is nice to respond in the same manner.
Every member of the host company will meet every member of your team in this manner. You will notice that unlike in the US and other countries, business cards at this point do not simply disappear into a pocket, but are studied carefully. This is so that your rank, and your rank relative to others, can be determined. It is also a way of showing respect for you.
I remember attending a meeting in the US with my partners from Japan. Exchanging business cards looked like a card game, with the US side simply “dealing” cards to their guests on the opposite side of the conference table. I do not recommend this style of exchanging cards with Japanese, even when on home turf. It appears disrespectful.
Once business cards have been exchanged, you and your team will be directed to a specific seat. This is where the hierarchical order begins. You are the guest, even if you are the one selling something to your host. You will, therefore, always be given what are considered to be the best seats in the room. All people from the same company should sit on the same side of the table or meeting room.
The highest-ranking individual from Company X will be seated opposite the highest-ranking member of your team. His staff will be seated next to him, by rank, with the lowest-ranking person taking the seat nearest the door.
Now that everyone is seated, a beverage, usually coffee or tea, will be served. The highest-ranking person from the guest side will be served first.
In restaurants, seating hierarchy is identical to meeting rooms. Guests will always be shown the seats opposite the door or entryway. When shown the best seats, it is always nice to give a slight bow to acknowledge the gesture.
Eating in Japan is a very large subject, but I will end this primer with a funny anecdote, though a painful memory for one American business executive.
When I met this executive for dinner, he said in a very insistent manner, “I don't care what we eat, as long as it's not Japanese.” He then began his story. A couple evenings before, he had been taken to a kaiseki dinner. This is the most formal of Japanese meals and consists of many bite-sized morsels served individually, one after another.
In the middle of being served such dishes, he was served a bowl containing liquid with a small leaf or petal floating on top. Since he was the guest, he was served first. He raised the bowl to his mouth, and in a couple gulps, he consumed the liquid. As he placed the bowl down, he could see that his hosts were washing their fingers in their individual bowls.
The next evening, he was taken to another formal dinner. Confident in his newfound knowledge of finger bowls, when a bowl of liquid arrived, he deftly placed his fingers in it. His host leaned over to explain that this bowl contained the sauce they would pour over their fish.
Cynthia Miyashita is president of Hemisphere Marketing Inc., San Francisco, a direct marketing consulting firm. She is based in Tokyo and San Francisco.