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Japan – Cultural Challenges

Here are some examples of cultural challenges that foreigners may encounter upon relocating to Japan.

Language barrier

Japan is not an English speaking country. Sometimes, it can be even difficult to tell whether the Japanese locals are trying to say YES or NO, as their way of using the words for YES / NO is different from that of English speakers. You might have learned that the corresponding words for YES / NO in Japanese are “HAI”(はい) / ”IIE”(いいえ).

However, that’s not how they are always used in Japan. The fact is that “HAI” means “TRUE” and “IIE” means “FALSE”. So, a question like “You are not going?” in English, would be replied with “No” if you would NOT want to go. But most Japanese people would say “YES (Meaning “Correct”), I wouldn’t go”. It confuses Japanese people if you cast a negative question like that. And you will end up being puzzled with their misleading answer yourself.

Another example of Japanese expression which may sound strange to a foreigner is  “Tsumaranai monodesuga (つまらないものですが)” which is very commonly used before giving a gift to someone, literally meaning “This is nothing but a trivial gift but please accept it”. This is a very typical way of showing their humbleness by lowering the speaker’s position and raising the status of the person they are giving the gift to. And in fact, this is used no matter how expensive your gift is. So, if you hear Japanese people using this kind of expression either in Japanese or in English, don’t hastily think you are neglected or made fun of.

Along with language miscommunication, one may also encounter difficulties understanding Japanese behavior at times as they prefer hiding their true feelings rather than standing out among others. You may gradually learn that they are just trying to be humble and polite. If it happened that your Japanese counterpart was somehow not clear enough before making a business agreement, you should double check to make sure that everything is clear.

Business Etiquette

Rather than grabbing one’s hand to give it a hearty shake at a first meeting, Japanese businesspeople politely exchange their business cards followed by gentle bowing. To do business in Japan, double-sided business cards, ideally printed in Japanese and English would be the must-have items. If your name is somehow difficult to pronounce for Japanese people, perhaps you can insert a pronuciation in Katakana on top of your alphabet name for easier self-introduction. When you actually exchange business cards, you should receive it with both hands. Pushing a business card across the table is rude and it implies you have no pride in the company you represent. As such, business cards should always be treated with utmost respect. Also, before you meet someone important, you would need to be fully prepared with a proper card-carrying case. Without it, your counterpart would think you are a sloppy type of person.

Attitudes towards punctuality are quite strict in Japan. Being early or on time for all appointments, regardless of their formality, is a show of respect and therefore any time one is late requires forewarning and an apology.

There is a Japanese custom about which party sits on which physical side of the table depending on where the door is. (Typically, the far end seat from the door would need to be secured for the guest and the host party should take the seats on the other side, closer to the door.)

There are plenty of minor rules to be aware of and thus, at first, you might need some patience in observing the local etiquette.