A Polite and Respectful Society: Adopting Japanese Norms to Business

I love to travel, and no matter where I go-beach or bustling metropolis- I enjoy learning from the areas I visit and identifying customs that may be applicable to business. My two week trip this spring to Japan offered many practices to consider adopting to enhance your business culture. Here are some highlights.


On this my first trip to Japan, I was instantly struck by how quiet permeated the environment. We began our itinerary in Tokyo. For a city with a population of 13 million, with nearly 40 million in the Greater Tokyo area, I observed relatively few people and cars on the streets-far from the pandemonium on the streets of New York City, where noise reigns with shrieking decibels. In fact, upon leaving the world's largest city, I realized I had never once even heard a car horn- an annoying habit of American drivers who believe that there is a direct correlation between horn honking and traffic moving.

Takeaway: Find time for meditation, a walk in the park, tech free Fridays. Relish the peace and quiet. You may be inspired at what being alone with your own thoughts will reveal.



Upon entering any Japanese setting, one is immediately acknowledged with a polite bow, making a guest feel both welcomed and respected. I compare this to business meetings I have attended in the states when I have been greeted from the chair, the person never even standing up.

Japanese business card exchange, meishi, is a ritual in and of itself and an essential part of business etiquette. After a person has introduced him/herself and bowed, the business card ceremony begins.

This is the protocol. Offer the card with both hands, with the typography reading toward the recipient. The Japanese expect you to take the time to carefully read and memorize all pertinent information before carefully placing it on the table during the meeting, later transferring meishi to a distinctive business card holder-never tucked in a pocket. Business cards are considered an extension of the individual - not just a business tool. And there is no excuse for running out of business cards on a trip to Japan.

I think back to our business card exchanges, whether at meetings or at networking events. There seems to be a competition to collect business cards, as if this were a game of "Go Fish." Our practice often resembles a sporadic dance, quick and haphazard gestures with no one really taking the time to study the card or to even recollect the name and position on the card after the initial greeting. And what happens to the cards? Likely they are slipped into a pocket or tossed into a purse, never seeing the light of day until the pocket or purse is cleaned out. The resurfaced card is then either binned or added to a collection of cards that you intend to do something with one day.

Takeaway: Attend to each person you meet. Whether for a social or business introduction, a firm handshake, calling the person by name while looking her in the eye and even following up with a polite email casts you in a respectful demeanor.


Symbolism is another tenet of Japanese culture. Our group was in Japan the day after the Kumamoto earthquake and, as such, we were moved to collect donations to be presented to the mayor of Matsue, the friendship city to my home town of New Orleans. The mayor's attaché had prepared an envelope for our donation tied carefully with a red and white cord, a symbol of tragedy. The cord was intertwined in two circles representing En-musubi or binding fate, often indirectly associated with future marriages. Tragedies, whether natural or manmade, forge people inextricably forever. Think back to Hurricane Katrina, Sandy Hook or the World Trade Center. These tragedies forever entwine us. How beautiful that reverence to these tragedies is portrayed in tangible ways, much like art being the window to the soul.

Takeaway: Acknowledging others' beliefs, especially religious and cultural, furthers insight into those you meet. Learn more about the ways of your colleagues and friends, and in so doing, you may learn more about yourself.


We are all taught basic table manners so as to make social interactions smoother. To that end, the tea service is the most revered tradition in Japanese culture. Each movement, from how the tea is steeped to the position the tea cup is accepted to how it is sipped, depicts meaning. It is an integral part of the culture of the country, and visitors are encouraged to emulate the protocol. Tea often follows a small confectionery and is usually served on a tray with the cup, or chawan. With both hands, the host presents the cup to the guest with the design on the cup facing the guest. Once everyone has been served, the first thing is to bow slightly and say "itadakimasu," which means "I will eat/drink" in a sense of gratitude. The guest holds the chawan with her one hand while supporting it from below with the other hand and sips the tea.

While such attention to detail and investment in time is certainly not going to happen in a neighborhood Starbucks, the ritual points to the importance of hospitality through ceremony. Certainly, though our coffee rituals of sugar, creamer and a shot of vanilla are done with far less fanfare, our morning Joe also represents hospitality of sorts-a gathering of people taking a break to enjoy a favorite beverage.

Takeaway: Value quality time with clients, customers and colleagues. Whether a coffee break, lunch or cocktails, social time, no matter how brief, strengthens your relationships.


One of my favorite Japanese customs is that there is no tipping; in fact, the Japanese may feel insulted if you try to tip. No tipping is rooted in their work ethic, pride in a job well done and the honor associated with expectations. Japanese believe that they are paid fair wages with the expectation that they will perform their job to the highest standards. Whether waiting tables, driving a taxi or being an engaging tour guide, the workforce, especially in the hospitality industry, are there to serve, and they do so with honor. Honor mirrors integrity. Their word is to be trusted without question, and the highest ethics are their social mores.

Takeaway: While it is highly unlikely that western society will abandon tipping, take pride in what you do, exceeding expectations rather than settling for mediocrity.

I could write volumes about the lessons I learned in Japan. I encourage you to explore this ancient Eastern civilization to identify how some of their customs could effect your business, possibly leading you to a more harmonious corporate culture.

This blogger graduated from Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses program. Goldman Sachs is a partner of the What Is Working: Small Businesses section.