Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Japanese Business Culture - Differences with the West


Japanese Business Culture - Differences with the West 

Carole Goldsmith - Copyright © 2012 - 2013 All Rights Reserved 


One of the major differences between western companies and Asian companies is the individual versus the group culture.

In western countries like America and Australia, individual culture prevails. Western corporate individuals make decisions no matter what management level they are in the company. Individualism is rewarded as many companies will have awards for best employee, staff member who introduced the best environmental initiatives or some other great suggestion. There are some team decisions, but often individual managers may make decisions for the group.

In Asia, the group culture still exists very much and decisions are made in groups. Many companies in Asia originated from family companies like Matsushita and Sony in Japan.
Suggestion schemes are very popular in Japan and team decisions that help the company to succeed are rewarded but not to individuals, but to the team that made the decision.

Also workers in Japan are listened to more by Japanese managers as occurs in the West. Some western manager may think they know it all and do not listen to the suggestions made by their employees, when they should.

Business relationships in Asia are much more formal than those in the West. As an example in Asia (Japan, Korea and China) you will call your work colleagues or business associates,  Mr, Mrs or Miss and by their family name.

In America and Australia, you generally use their first name right from day one when you start the job or when you meet a business contact .

In Germany, however it is quite formal in the work place. When I worked in scientific research at Farbwerke Hoechst, a very large pharmaceutical company, my manager and
Work colleagues always called me Frau (Mrs) and my surname.

Shaking hands when you meet someone in business is common practice in Australia, USA, Germany and France. 

Trust and introductions – long term relationships are vital to doing business in Asia.
This is not so important in Australia and USA.

Business card exchange ritual 

Business card exchange is also very different between the west and the east. When Japanese people exchange business cards, it is a very important part of doing business.
At a meeting, from senior manager first, you exchange business cards one at a time with both hands with the person’s details upwards so you can read the card. Then the cards are placed in front of you in the order that they are sitting.  I really like this system as it gives you the chance to know the person’s title and their name, especially in my case when I am interviewing several people at the one time.

Western businesses doing business in Asia may not know about the Asian business card exchange ritual. I have seen western business people deal out their business card like a pack on cards to the people at the Japanese business meeting. Then when they receive the Japanese person’s business card, they may scribble some notes on the back of the card to remind them where they have met the person. Japanese in particular will regard this with shock as this system of business card exchange will not be acceptable to Japanese business.

If Asian business people are working in the USA or Asia, you will need to adjust to the Western way and not expect everything to be done the Asian way.

Seating with senior people in particular positions like in Japan and China is not as rigid in Australia and the USA. In Australian meetings, (and maybe in USA business meetings) people can sit anywhere in the room, except if they are the chairperson or secretary. Japan, and I think China and Korea have quite a rigid seating arrangement according to their level of seniority in the company.

Even job titles and the companies you work for are of vital importance in Japan and Korea and you generally need to be introduced by someone reputable, before you can do business.

 I recall when I was going to Korea and wanted to arrange interviews, for an environmental article I was writing, with one of Korea’s largest manufacturing companies. Firstly, I had to get a letter of introduction from my magazine’s editor, and then I had to go through the Sydney office of the Korean company for an introduction to the corporate affairs manager at the Seoul head office.

I have written several articles on Toyota Motor Corporation’s (TMC) (Japan) excellent environmental and human resources initiatives and over ten years have developed a great relationship with TMC. When I wanted to write articles on TMC’s Australian operations, TMC’s corporate affairs in Tokyo introduced me to the public relations staff at Toyota Australia.

On another occasion, I was writing for tax, law, business publisher CCH Australia and I wanted to write for their Asian operations. So the Australian editor introduced me to the CCH Singapore editor, who in turn suggested that I contact the CCH Japan editor. So I then wrote freelance for all three operations.

If I wanted to conduct an interview in an American or Australian company, I would just call them to arrange an interview. With larger companies, I would probably go directly through their corporate affairs department.

Although introductions are helpful in Australia and USA, they are not as important as in Asia, where who you know prevails and will help you to get a foot in the door.

Of course with Linked In now operating different global groups, it will be very advantageous to you to have a professional profile on Linked In. This will always help with introductions to people in the east or west.

There are also many small business entrepreneurs in the west, particularly in Australia and the USA.

If you are a Japanese small business owner in Korea, you should call yourself president and not director as this title not regarded as a high level position in Korea.

Asian people are sometimes introverted, humble and a little shy, whereas Americans are sometimes loud and very open in their conversations. They are also very instant, responding within 24 hours.  You can cold call American many times and they will think you are very persistent  In Australia they would think you are a nuisance and a spammer and probably hang up in your ear.  

Many American companies are very philanthropic and donate money to community groups and charities. They also have very big research and development departments as do Japanese companies. As Australia is a much less populated country, only around six percent of companies are large, the remainder are small to medium businesses.  Hence research and development expenditure is probably much lower in Australia than in Japan and USA.

More - Cultural differences – Westerners should learn the symbols for male and female.
I recall staying somewhere in Tokyo when I first went to Japan and they had community baths. I went there one day and it was a female bathroom. The next day I went to the same bathroom and a group of Singapore men came in when I was getting undressed.
They showed me the character on the door for male and I have never forgotten the male and female characters to this day.

Japanese sniff constantly and this is very annoying to westerners, who blow their nose in public and put their dirty tissue in their pocket- this being very annoying to Japanese.

I was in a Japanese language class in Australia and the assistant Japanese teacher was constantly doing deep sniffs and it was making me sick. So eventually I had to tell him that we do not do that in Australia. Deep sniffing and spitting on the street, as I saw in China and Japan is a really quite disgusting for us westerners. 

For Japanese going to work in Australia, do not sniff, or spit in the street, this is a no no. politely excuse yourself and spit in the toilet, if you need to do that, or privately into your tissue and dispose of it in the nearest bin.

Many westerners, including me, find that lack of smoking control in the workplace, restaurants, clubs and pubs in Japan very difficult to cope with.

In Australia, all workplaces, restaurants, pubs and clubs are tobacco smoke free. I get asthma around cigarette smoke, so if I am attending a business meeting in a restaurant in Japan and people are smoking, I cannot stay. Japan is lagging greatly behind Australia, Korea and other parts of the world in smoking control in indoor venues. Staff working in Japanese restaurants, pubs, clubs and even other workplaces is constantly exposed to cigarette smoke.  Western business people are used to smoke free meeting places in workplaces and restaurants. When they come to Japan they are exposed to second hand smoke and find this very difficult.

So for Japanese going to work in Australia, we are mainly a smoke free nation, so it is probably time to give up.

Also you probably will finish work at 5 PM or 6 PM and not being encouraged to work the long hours you do in Japan.  Work life balance is quite important in Australia.

Punctuality is not as rigid in Australia as in Japan and Korea. People may arrive at a meeting five or ten minutes late, unlike Japan where everyone arrives five minutes early.


Corporate Australia and corporate America are similar; the CEO’s earn ridiculously high multimillion dollar salaries. Company directors are mainly males and they also receive high incomes. Shareholders are quite vocal and at times question decisions made by the board.

In comparison, to my knowledge, the financial returns of Japanese company presidents / CEO’s is only about triple what their employees earn, or that may be changing now. Shareholders of Japanese companies are generally a lot quieter than their western counterpart.

Australia is a multi cultural society and all different types of nationalities are employed in Australian workplaces. Equal employment laws are in place that are supposed to protect people of different culture and nationalities. However racism does exist in Australia against different nationalities and even against Australian indigenous people whose ancestors have lived in Australia for millions of years.  Japan also may have its own racism against some western nations.

In Australia, we use British English and not USA English. There are differences and sometimes it becomes very confusing. Like the time I was in Virginia in the USA and I was talking to a young man about the Town Clerk (the head person of a City council in Australia at the time) and he thought I was talking about the town clock.(the pronunciation was the same for both.

If Japanese people come to work in Australia, you may not understand the Australian accent and it may help if you buy an Australian dictionary. Some Australian’s speak with a drawl, slow and unclear,, while others will have polished British English, that you will find easy to understand. 

One of my greatest memories in Japan was when I was lecturing on workplace health and fitness at the sports and fitness faculty of Tokyo University. It was in the early days when I spoke only a little Japanese. I gave the lecture in English and German as there were some German students there. As I spoke my lecture was translated into Japanese for the local students to understand.

This also reminded me of the absolute enthusiasm that they have in the USA for new ideas and concepts. I was invited to speak at Virginia State University on workplace health and fitness in Europe. Then I was invited by about five other American universities to speak on the same topic, so enthusiastic were the Americans.


Very useful site for business etiquette in different countries
http://www.austrade.gov.au/Country/default.aspx
http://www.austrade.gov.au/China-Doing-business/default.aspx
http://www.austrade.gov.au/Republic-of-Korea-Doing-business/default.aspx
http://www.austrade.gov.au/Country/default.aspx

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