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Intercultural Business Communication in Japan

Executive Summary

This report delves into the extensive differences between the U.S. and Japan and attempts to explain the inherent difficulties most Americans would experience in attempting to setup a new business in Japan. Through this report, readers will be able to develop a better understanding of the strangeness of the culture and the necessary practices they must follow in order to be incorporated into it.

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The purpose of this paper is to introduce readers to Japan, a country steeped in cultural tradition which has influenced the development of its business culture to a considerable degree. Understanding the intricacies, customs and codes of conduct of Japanese business culture is essential for working or conducting business within the country due to the value the Japanese place on traditional business practices even when it comes to company operations and partnerships.

Although Japan is the presently the third largest economy in the world, conducting business within the country is far from easy. The first complication comes in the form of the local language. While English is a prerequisite subject in their high school system, few Japanese understand it and even fewer are fluent in it. As a result, foreign managers often have to contend to either utilizing a translator at all times (which is costly), attempt to learn the language themselves (which takes a considerable period of time) or isolate their company’s hiring practices to fluent English speakers (which severely constrains the kind of talent that the company can hire).

The second complication comes in the form of the general hesitance the Japanese have for foreigners. This is due to the cultural label of “gaijin” or “outsider” which is placed on nearly all foreigners to indicate someone that is outside of their level of understanding or is not welcome. While there are other such complications, it must be noted that despite such problems Japan is a country filled with intelligent hard working individuals and, as such, holds considerable promise to those who learn to properly deal with the local population.

Getting there

Getting to Japan is actually rather simple, most of the major airlines within the U.S. such as UAL and American Airlines have direct flights going to Osaka and Tokyo. Japan’s national carrier, JAL (Japan Airline), also has several direct trips going both to and from Japan. Fortunately, U.S. citizens normally do not have any problems entering into the country wherein all you would need to do is to present your passport at the gateway. However, for those seeking extended trips or employment within Japan it is often necessary for a Japanese citizen or local company to sponsor your extended stay. This can be arranged beforehand prior to your departure to avoid possible future complications.

One technique that some people utilize in order to setup businesses or look for gainful employment without a sponsor is to enroll in a Japanese language school. By enrolling in one, you immediately gain a student visa that allows you to stay several months within the country without having to get a local sponsor. This often enables U.S. citizens to extend their stays for several months at a time while they arrange their employment or businesses within the country. Do note that renting an apartment within Japan often requires a “guarantor” to prevent renters from simply using the apartment for a month and disappearing. This complicates matters considerably given that 1st time visitors to the country have yet to befriend a local that would be willing to be their guarantor.

Adjusting to the New Culture

There are several things to know prior to venturing into the Japanese corporate world; the first revolves around the apparent devotion of the Japanese to work and their companies. It is often the case that employees within a company in Japan often stay with that same company until retirement and put in considerable amounts of overtime, as much as 5 to 6 hours overtime, with many often going home late in the night. However, what must be understood is that this habit of staying overtime is actually based on a cultural nuance of respect for seniority wherein it is often seen as “shameful” if a subordinate were to go home ahead of their superior. As a result, if the manager of a company does not go home, then the one below him does not go home as well and so on and so forth (Bartels, 1982).

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Further contributing to this behavior is the sense of teamwork and camaraderie that is present within Japanese business culture (Stone, 2006). Ordinarily, such aspects are praised within a company, however, when it comes to the Japanese this sense of teamwork is somewhat warped wherein they believe that it is essential for members of the team to go home at the same time as well. If there are members who are not yet done with their respective duties, the other members of the team usually stay behind for “moral support” without really doing anything (Bartels, 1982). As a result, the sheer amount of overtime that the Japanese are famous is not necessarily productive wherein the time spent within the office is not equivalent to the amount of work done. Another interesting facet that should be noted about the Japanese business culture is its focus on respect for seniority. It is often the case that capability is not as valued within the company as compared to age and experience (Stone, 2006).

This means that despite having a great idea or being able to perform better at a certain task as compared to their senior, a junior must give deference to those who have been with the company for a longer period of time. Such a method of operations has lead to a considerable degree of corporate stagnation within Japan wherein antiquated practices are often allowed and preferred as compared to better and more efficient ways of doing things simply because seniors within the company are not used to new operational methods (Willis, 2012). This type of business culture can actually be considered the direct opposite of America’s performance and results oriented culture wherein an individual’s age and experience does not matter so long as they can get the job done.

Hiring Practices

Hiring practices within Japan differ considerably to that of the U.S. due to their focus on education, experience and ability to conform to the company’s policies. First and foremost, it is interesting to note that the standards of education that are required by the Japanese government to gain employment are considerably tougher for non-Japanese residents. For example, Filipino or American nurses who are considered the best in the world cannot gain employment as a nurse within Japan unless they meet the standards of the Japanese government which relate to the necessity of graduating from a local Japanese institution (Getting to know you…Personal links prevent problems in Japanese-Western alliances, 2012). While this is understandable, given the necessity of ensuring that hospitals gain adequately trained personnel; the fact remains that such behavior also happens to encompass other fields of employment as well.

In fact, foreigners that are not part of a company that is expanding into Japan are often relegated to having to incorporate themselves into the education or entertainment sector of the local economy. As such, if you are looking to become part of a Japanese company or create the hiring practices for one, you need to take note of the fact that you may not be immediately hired given their preference for those who have been educated within a Japanese institution. Due to such a situation, it is highly recommended that as a training manager you attempt to hire while in the U.S. to ensure that only employees that are able to understand English can apply initially (Getting to know you…Personal links prevent problems in Japanese-Western alliances, 2012). Once the initial employee infrastructure has been set up, you can then verge into hiring locals.

Going back to the case of experience and conformity, the hiring practices of Japanese companies often focus on employees that are perceived as having the necessary amount of experience, are likely to conform to the company’s brand of business culture and will be loyal to the company (i.e. will stay for a long period of time). These qualifications are somewhat detrimental for a foreigner looking to work for a Japanese company or setup shop in Japan given that they would lack the necessary experience and would undoubtedly find it hard to completely conform to the Japanese business culture (Ralstone et al., 1995). Lastly, given your status as a foreigner, your loyalty to the company would constantly be in question and, as such, your likelihood of being trusted is uncertain. From the examples provided, it can be seen that the hiring practices within Japan are not conducive towards foreigners coming in for employment or setting up businesses.

Pre-employment Testing

It is important to note that Japanese companies require their employees to of course speak Japanese, as such; potential foreign employees are required to show that they are able to communicate adequately in Japanese in order to be able to work within their respective work environments. The reason for this is quite simple; if the company is to grow within Japan, it would need to be able to hire local talent in order to help the company better understand the local culture. If foreign and local workers cannot communicate at all, this would result in a lack of operational efficiency. Aside from this, there is usually a considerable degree of testing and qualifications needed in specialized fields such as nursing, however, for general employment within a company as a “salary man” there is no testing required aside from Japanese fluency.


Interview practices are roughly the same as compared to the U.S., however, in the case of foreigners within Japan it is usually the case that Japanese language proficiency is needed and this is often tested by companies. Such a practice may be necessary when hiring local foreigners to ensure that they are able to help transition the company into the local business culture.

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Job Opening Advertisements

For foreigners looking to get a job in Japan or for companies looking for English speaking Japanese citizens, some of the best places to post an advertisement are, and These sites are in English yet are frequented by foreigners within Japan as well as by the Japanese who are interested in looking at foreign perspectives of their country. Other possible methods of advertisement that are popular consist of the Asahi Shinbun newspaper, the Japanese Post and other local publications that have classified ad sections. Do note that when it comes to initially hiring employees within Japan, it would be best to first hire foreigners within the country that are looking for work that speak Japanese and after that hire locals for the company. The reason behind this is that the foreigners can help to transition the company into developing the necessary business culture, traditions and mannerisms that Japanese employees are used to without the accompanying culture shock that comes about from trying immediately hire locals into a foreign company.

Recruitment Practices

One of the similarities between Japan and the U.S. is that their hiring practices often focus on which school a person is from before they are hired into the company. Japan takes this into the extremes wherein those from well known universities such as Tokyo University, Keo and the University of Japan are often considered prime candidates for the best companies while the resumes of those from “lesser” educational institutions should not even consider applying. It has gotten to a point that universities and companies often have an agreement wherein employees from a certain university are immediately offered positions in top tier companies once they graduate (Ralstone et al., 1995). It is based on this that should the company require excellent employees, the first place to checkout would be the local universities and see if some sort of agreement can be made in order to get the best possible candidates for the company.

Cultural Differences

While differences in culture was touched upon in the section involving adjusting to the Japanese culture, it is important to note that there are other cultural nuances that need to be taken into consideration before entering the country. First and foremost among them is the Japanese cultural focus on respect, this entails acts like bowing when greeting people for the first time, not looking at people directly in the eye when speaking as well as utilizing honorifics when addressing different kinds of people (Goddard, 2007). This is a particularly important cultural difference that needs to be taken into consideration since stating a person’s first or last name without an honorific, if you are not close to them, can be considered one of the rudest practices imaginable.

Examples of honorifics include “-san” plus the last name which is meant to show respect for a colleague or business partner, “-kun” (male) and “-chan” (female) plus the last name which are often used among people that know each other well or are good friends (Goddard, 2007). Lastly, not using honorifics at all and stating a person’s first name is considered a form of close intimacy which is normally reserved for family members, people in a relationship, or someone that you have known for an extended period of time. Once again it is important to remember such distinctions and utilize the honorifics properly since these are one of the cornerstones of Japanese society.

Re-entry into the United States

Re-entry back into the U.S. should not pose a problem so long as you have your passport and did not commit any major crimes while in Japan.


Based on what has been presented in this paper, it can be seen that there are considerable challenges in attempting to penetrate the Japanese market given the differences between the social and business cultures. However, despite such differences, overcoming them has the potential to create great rewards and, as such, entry into the Japanese market must be pursued.

Reference List

Bartels, R. R. (1982). National Culture — Business Relations: United States and Japan Contrasted. Management International Review (MIR), 22(2), 4-12.

Getting to know you…Personal links prevent problems in Japanese-Western alliances. (2012). Strategic Direction, 28(9), 12-14.

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Goddard, G. (2007). Japan: doing business in a unique culture. Journal Of Asia-Pacific Business, 8(2), 119.

Ralston, D. A., Holt, D. H., Terpstra, R. H., & Yu, K. (1995). The impact of culture and ideology on managerial work values: a study of the United States, Russia, Japan and China. Academy Of Management Best Papers Proceedings, 187-191.

Stone, B. (2006). Welcome to Samurai 2.0. Newsweek (Pacific Edition), 148(13), 56.

Willis, S. (2012). WHEN IN ROME (MAKE THAT JAPAN). Gulfshore Business, 17(1), 16.

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