Expats might find that the degree of culture shock in Japan can be extreme. In addition to the language barrier, which increases the farther from Tokyo one goes, Japanese society has developed a very fixed code of acceptable conduct, especially in the realm of business. Foreigners, or gaijin, very seldom fit into this code without making a considerable effort.
However, the Japanese are very hospitable and friendly toward foreigners, whom they regard as honoured visitors to their country. If wanting to fit in and become part of Japanese society, the onus will be on the individual to learn the language, customs and traditions.
Language barrier in Japan
Learning Japanese can be very challenging if one wants to go beyond the basics of conversation. Besides the difficulty of learning to read and write Japanese characters, there are very intricate systems of formal language which even native Japanese speakers find complex and difficult to master.
In general, the Japanese are quite forgiving of language mistakes made by foreigners. However, it's advisable to be overly polite, humble and cautious, particularly within the context of business interactions.
As the Japanese value maintaining harmony, they are not the most vocal of people. Facial expression, tone of voice and posture are often used to demonstrate one's feelings on an issue.
Frowning while someone is speaking can be interpreted as a sign of disagreement. Expats may find that the Japanese maintain an impassive expression when speaking.
While making eye contact is important, one should avoid staring into another person's eyes for an extended amount of time. This is particularly important when in the presence of someone senior in terms of either age on status.
Work ethic in Japan
The Japanese work ethic is something that foreigners often struggle to get to grips with. The workplace in Japan is competitive and people are willing to go the extra mile to stand out from the competition.
A workweek of 70 to 80 hours isn't unheard of and the Japanese are very reluctant to take sick days. So, it's common to see people still working when they have a severe cold or flu.
Punctuality is also highly valued and the Japanese rarely arrive at meetings or appointments even a minute late. It's considered rude and disrespectful to arrive late or unprepared.
Saving face in Japan
The concept of saving face is crucial in Japanese society. The Japanese try to avoid confrontation or causing a person any form of embarrassment by putting them on the spot.
It's considered rude to reject an invite or request in Japan. Instead of directly saying no, one should instead say they will consider the invitation or propose an alternative.
Cultural etiquette in Japan
Bowing is an important part of Japanese culture – if meeting someone, thanking someone, taking leave of someone, asking for something or just being polite, one should bow. It's important to incline one's head with hands at the sides – the deeper the bow, the greater the respect being shown. It's considered impolite for a Japanese person ever to come out with a direct 'no’. Even a tiny hesitation or any vagueness in the response could actually mean 'no'.
With regards to doing business in Japan, it's particularly important to be aware of the role of seniority, which is measured according to age and not necessarily company status. It's also very important to make sure one has a substantial number of business cards made as soon as arriving in Japan (it might be a good idea to have English on one side and Japanese on the other), as the exchange of business cards is the first thing done in any business (or sometimes even private) interaction.
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