Negotiation Japanese Style

The Japanese are world class negotiators and do business very differently than their American counterparts.

The first thing to note about the Japanese is their focus on the welfare of the group or organization. Although they are very mindful of hierarchy, they recognize the interdependence that each individual has with another. When negotiating, these core differences are demonstrated by the Japanese putting group goals above individual wants and needs. The Japanese pay great homage to status and title, both for their side and the opposing side.

At all times, they are respectful and polite to a fault. Culturally, “saving face” is of utmost importance. One who loses face in front of his or her peers is politically injured or destroyed. It is never proper to criticize or humiliate another in public. Conflict is avoided at all costs. The privacy of an office is the only place for such a discussion.

Relationships are cherished and are required to begin a business relationship. The legends of late nights at the Karaoke bar are all true; if you want to do business with them, you must get to know socially. It is understood that this is just a business relationship, but it is a necessity nonetheless.

Silence at a negotiation is common and appreciated by the Japanese. Silence is a time for thought and reflection. As negotiators, the Japanese speak less than most cultures and especially less than the Americans, who they view has blabbermouths, unpredictable, and selfish. When the Japanese do speak in a negotiation, it is almost always in the form of questions to get the other party to reveal information. This approach is also why it so hard to negotiate with them; it is nearly impossible to get them to disclose their interests or motivations.

Japan is a very bureaucratic society with many procedures, regulations, and rules. Decisions don’t come quickly and deals are almost never completed in the initial meetings. Consensus is paramount and will require the negotiators to seek approval from management, so negotiation will take time. This need for approval is a normal practice, but stalling is also a common negotiation tactic by the Japanese.

A friend of mine tells the story of a negotiation in Japan by his American company which began on Monday morning at 9:00 am. The Americans showed up only to wait for an hour for the Japanese negotiators to show. Little was accomplished that day. The Americans were requested to come back the next day at the same time. The same thing happened with the Japanese showing up two hours late. This went on until Friday when the Americans were so frustrated that they would have done almost anything to get the negotiation finished. Interestingly enough, the Japanese were ready to negotiate on Friday.

A few things to know about doing business with the Japanese:
– Very few Japanese people speak English; I have seen estimates as low as only 3-5% of the population speaks English. It is likely that an interpreter will be needed.
– Seating at dinners and in meetings is very important in Japan. The seating protocol depends on seniority, relationship, the location of the door, and objects in the room. It is best to defer to the local custom.
– No kissing or hugging. This can be very embarrassing to the Japanese recipient.
– Never blow your nose in public; you can sniffle and snort, but never blow.
– Business cards are presented and received with two hands. Always pause and reflect on the business card; look at the back of the card.
– Dress formally dressed with dark blue business suits, white shirts, dark tie, and polished black shoes.
– Don’t bow since you won’t do it right.

John Bradley Jackson
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  1. Hi John,

    Cool blog. I lived in Japan for seven years. Negotiation techniques there are very stylized. Once you get the hang of it, negotiations take familiar patterns. One thing many Westerners don’t realize is the Japanese won’t just say “no” — this can be tough at first because “we’re considering it” usually means “no”. There are many other nuances, but this is the one that trips of non-Japanese the most.

    Cheers, David

  2. David,

    It is easy to fall into the trap of looking at other cultures through a lens of our own design (ie our culture). Japan has a very strict set of rules for doing business; all they ask is that we take the time to learn them.

    I think the Japanese are most frustrated by the diversity of the US business people; we are very unpredicatable and we come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and behaviors.


  3. Grace

    1.what can we learn from japanese international business negotiation? the world which nationality is the first place in the international business negotiation?

    THx for your reply

  4. Anonymous


    What I have learned from Japanese negotiators is the value of preparation and value of team play.

    It is not a question of nationality but of culture.

    The challenge is how to adapt or accommodate this style of negotiation and how to learn from it.


  5. The preparation part is 95% of the successful negotiation. And guys from Japan understood it quite good.

  6. Anonymous

    Yes and Americans look unprepared when they meet. I admire the Japanese negotiator very much.


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