Business etiquette in Japan is more formal than in the United States and other Western countries. Respect for authority is essential, so you should address superiors with far more deference than you would someone of equal rank. Even with peers, you’ll be expected to maintain a professional tone, addressing them in ways that demonstrate respect for their standing.
Use the person's last name. Japanese business people almost never address each other by their first names. Using last names is the default address when you don’t know someone, and it is mandatory in business relationships. Add “san” after the person’s last name. The word “san” is a courtesy title similar to "Mr." in English. For example, if the person's last name is Tanaka, you would refer to him as "Tanaka-san." A similar title, “kun,” is used for people younger than you or of equal or lesser rank. It is not as polite as “san” and is never used when addressing superiors or when women address each other.
Follow the person's lead. Reciprocity is an important part of Japanese etiquette, so you’re expected to return any pleasantries or greetings from your host. When greeting a Japanese businessperson, let him set the tone for the interaction. If he bows, bow to him before addressing him. If he reaches to shake your hand, shake hands instead of bowing. If he offers you his business card, take it carefully and then offer him yours. Exchanging business cards is ceremonial and a key component in Japanese introductions. Even if you address a Japanese businessperson properly, you may be considered unprofessional if you are not prepared for the business-card exchange.
Pay attention to hierarchy. Social status is clearly defined and always respected in Japan. When you’re greeting a group of Japanese businesspeople, address the most senior executive first. In a group setting, Japanese businesspeople often stand according to their rank, so the senior official will likely take a prominent position within the group.
Avoid too much contact. Japanese people dislike public displays of affection and rarely touch each other in public. When greeting, they usually bow, though they’ll often shake hands with Westerners. When greeting a Japanese businessperson, don’t initiate physical contact, and don’t maintain eye contact for too long since this is considered a sign of rudeness and disrespect.
Be gender-specific. Unlike English, which uses the same words regardless of gender, Japan uses different words when speaking to or about males and females. Make sure you use the masculine word form when speaking with a businessman. Women are expected to use a more polite style of speaking than men. If you’re a woman addressing a Japanese businessman, you’ll need to be even more formal than your male counterparts.
- Jupiterimages/liquidlibrary/Getty Images