Skip to content
Menu
japan cover blog

Navigating Cultural Differences in Japan to Unlock Business Success

Insights from our Program Manager, Jordan Metzger

Japan has always been a fascinating country, known for its unique blend of ancient traditions and modern innovations, making it a popular destination for business students looking to gain first-hand experience of doing business in Asia. From its vibrant cities to its serene countryside, from delicious food to ancient temples and shrines, Japan has much to offer for business students. But did you know that Japan is also one of the most challenging countries for Westerners to do business in? The cultural differences are many and profound, and if you don’t understand them, you may miss out on opportunities or even offend your Japanese counterparts. To be successful in everyday interactions with the Japanese, it is important to understand and respect their cultural norms and values.

That’s why we contacted our program manager, Jordan Metzger, who has been living in Japan and delivering regional programs for us.

jordan

I was born in New Zealand to British Parents, and I always knew I was destined to travel the world. I first moved overseas alone when I was 19 to Australia – Since then, I have lived and worked in the UK, Netherlands, Spain, USA, and Germany before moving to Asia. I have traveled to 30+ countries across every continent – (minus Antarctica).
I come from Auckland, New Zealand, one of the world’s most multicultural cities. Navigating cultural differences – even in my own extended family, which is a mixture of British, European, New Zealand, Australian, Indian, Samoan, Tongan, and more – has always been a normal thing for me.
I started in Austral Group working in Germany, and then eventually started managing programs across Europe, in Italy, Czechia, Austria, and Ireland, to name a few.
So, when the opportunity came about to manage programs in Asia – specifically South Korea and Japan, I, of course jumped at the chance! As a child, I grew up around South Korean and Japanese culture, and we regularly hosted homestay students coming to New Zealand to learn English.

Let’s dive into Jordan’s insights into the cultural differences between Japan and the West and how to navigate them gracefully and respectfully.

As someone who has lived and worked in several countries throughout my career, I was prepared for the cultural differences I would encounter when I moved to Japan. However, even with all my prior experience, I quickly learned that Japan has a unique culture with its own set of norms and customs that can take some getting used to. As the program manager for our organization in Japan, I have worked closely with many professionals from around the world.

Understanding behaviors and communication style

An area where Westerners experience culture shock in Japan is communication. The Japanese tend to be indirect in their communication style, preferring to use non-verbal cues and subtle hints to express their feelings and opinions. This can sometimes be challenging for Westerners who are used to more direct and assertive communication.

First and foremost, it’s crucial to understand the concept of “wa” in Japanese culture. “Wa” means harmony, valued above everything else in Japanese society. Harmony means a lot of things in Japan, such as avoiding conflict, following social rules and etiquette, and showing respect to others. This can be difficult to comprehend for a Westerner because we often prioritize individualism and independence over group cohesion. To be successful in doing business in Japan, however, you must adopt a “wa” mindset, which means being patient, humble, and willing to compromise.

Another essential cultural difference is the “shikata ga nai,” which loosely translates to “it can’t be helped.” This phrase reflects the Japanese belief that some things are beyond anyone’s control, and resisting or complaining is futile. This attitude can be frustrating for Westerners, who are used to being proactive and assertive. Still, respecting this cultural mentality and showing flexibility and adaptability is essential. That means avoiding confrontation, proactively finding creative solutions, and accepting the situation.

Japanese society has very clear hierarchies and protocols, and it’s crucial to understand them to be successful in doing business there. Respect for seniors and positional authority is essential in Japan, and failure to acknowledge such positions could be seen as a lack of respect. The concept of “senpai-kohai” is crucial in Japan, which relates to the mentor-mentee relationship between seniority and juniority in a company. As a foreigner, you must be aware of your position in situations and respect the hierarchy, which means being mindful of titles and speaking respectfully to those more senior than yourself.

For example, it is considered impolite to interrupt someone while speaking, and there is often a pause before responding to allow for thoughtful consideration.

Jordan said this was a new experience for him as someone who is naturally outgoing and assertive. However, he found that he could build stronger relationships with his local Japanese friends by being more mindful of his behavior and adapting to the cultural norms.

“I advise being patient and avoiding interrupting or speaking too loudly, which can be perceived as rude in Japan.”

Understanding communication is crucial when doing business in Japan. The Japanese communication style is indirect, implying messages and understanding the unsaid messages. It’s essential to be able to read between the lines to identify underlying tensions and messages that can help achieve non-verbal communication success. Still, it’s equally important to be aware of the Japanese use of silence, which may be seen as a way to show respect, think through ideas, or avoid saying something explicitly.

Self-expression is another area where Westerners may struggle with cultural differences in Japan. In the West, individuality and self-expression are often highly valued, and people are encouraged to speak their minds and stand out. In Japan, however, conformity and group harmony are prioritized over individualism. Jordan suggests respecting Japanese group-oriented culture by being humble and practicing active listening when working with groups.

“There are so many cultural norms within Japanese culture – so many are unspoken because they are just things you know by growing up in Japan, not necessarily things you are taught.”

Business Etiquette

The Japanese value getting to know someone before doing business and building deep relationships, with meetings extending well beyond the office walls, such as at local bars or restaurants. This part of building business relations may be considered irrelevant to Westerners, but in Japan, it is vital to create trust relationships. Networking is a crucial feature in the Japanese business world.

IMG-20240402-WA0000

Japanese food
and table manners

When Jordan shared his experience of adjusting to the differences in everyday living in Japan, One of the most significant differences he noticed was the food and table manners. In Japan, sharing food is a common practice, and meals are often a social activity.

Food is an essential aspect of Japanese culture, and it can differ from what you might be used to in the United States and Western countries. One thing that stands out is the emphasis on fresh ingredients and the importance of presentation in food preparation. Additionally, many traditional Japanese meals consist of small portions served in multiple courses, so it is important to pace yourself and master your chopstick technique!

Jordan also pointed out a big difference with the West’s custom of not tipping in Japan, which is considered unnecessary and rude. Instead, employees in Japan are paid living wages, so tipping is not expected or encouraged. Jordan recommends researching Japanese food culture and basic table manners before arriving in Japan to avoid misunderstandings.

In addition to these differences, Jordan also shared some tips for adapting to daily life in Japan. For example, he recommends learning some basic Japanese phrases to show respect and appreciation for the culture and to make everyday interactions more pleasant.

Japan article banners

There are many small details of business etiquette in Japan that can make a big difference in how you are perceived. Here are some tips that you should consider if you’re traveling to Japan on your study trip:

It is customary to exchange business cards at the start of a meeting, and it is important to take the time to read the card carefully and show respect to the person presenting it. He suggests keeping business cards handy and presenting them with both hands, as this is a sign of respect in Japan.

Punctuality is highly valued – arriving early to a meeting is better than even a few minutes late. It’s also important to dress conservatively and modestly in most workplaces and to avoid showing too much skin or wearing flashy clothing or accessories.

In addition to the more formal aspects of Japanese culture, there are also many social norms that can take some getting used to. For example, it is customary to remove your shoes when entering a home, temple, or other buildings and wear special slippers the host provides. There is also a strong emphasis on privacy; it is considered impolite to ask personal questions unless you are very close to someone. Finally, there are many festivals and holidays throughout the year, and it’s essential to be aware of these and show respect for them even if you don’t personally celebrate them.

Overall, Jordan emphasizes the importance of being curious, open-minded, and respectful when interacting with Japanese culture and people.

In conclusion, traveling to Japan as a Western business student can be a life-changing experience. Still, it is vital to understand and respect the cultural differences to make the most of it. Jordan Metzger’s insights into daily living differences, from food to communication to self-expression, give valuable tips to prepare for your trip to Japan and blend in with the traditions and customs of Japanese culture. By keeping an open mind, being patient, and showing respect for the customs and traditions of Japan, you’ll be able to build meaningful relationships and gain valuable insights into doing business in Asia during your travel program.

Traveling to a country with a culture vastly different from your own can be both exhilarating and intimidating, but learning about and appreciating other cultures is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have. Understanding the nuances of Japanese culture and learning to adapt to them will go a long way in unlocking business success in Japan.