7 Tips for Successful Cooperation with Japanese Clients

What are the odds of you working with a client from Japan? Rather slim, right? We thought so too, until we signed in a project that included organising an expo in Warsaw for Japanese companies.

While living in what has come to be known as a ‘global village’, you may feel you know everything and you’ve done everything and there’s nothing that could come as a surprise to you. After all, you work in diverse, international environment. You join conference calls with your clients’ global headquarters in London or San Francisco, you attend CES, MWC and other global events. And you can even follow in our footsteps and read tons of articles on Japan and listen to every audiobook on business etiquette available on board of your Emirates flight. Still, it may well turn out you’ve just scratched the surface.

Here’s a handful of tips that you might want to explore before embarking on a project with Japanese clients.

1. Being the youngest can be tough

As PR pros working in communications agencies we are used to a fast-paced start-up environment and flat organisational structure. In Japan, however, hierarchy is deeply ingrained in all aspects of social and professional life. People who are older and more experienced are highly respected. Let’s take a business dinner for example. When a waiter comes to the table, everybody orders some food, the waiter takes everything down and we wait patiently for the meals to arrive. Slightly different rules apply in Japan. Here the most important people order first and the youngest person has a special task – they have to memorise what other people said and repeat to the waiter in the correct order.

2. Making a good impression

Your business card is your face, so be careful how you treat it if you don’t want to ruin your relationship with the client from the get go. The rules on exchanging business cards differ greatly from Western standards. First of all, always pass it to the other person using both hands. Secondly, when you receive it, read carefully your partner’s name, surname and position. Finally, put it in your business card holder or on the table if you are about to start a meeting. Oh, one more thing – mind the way you place business cards. If you put them vertically on the table, the most important person should be on top, if you prefer a horizontal set-up just reflect the way all attendees are seated. And the seat a given person takes is not accidental at all – the highest person in the hierarchy sits the furthest from the door. It’s always better to wait to be seated in order to avoid any potential faux pas. Also, try not to eat apples or blow your nose in public, especially if you’re a woman.

3. Everybody has their say

Decision making is a process – this statement takes on a whole new meaning in Japan. Due to complex hierarchical interdependencies one person is rarely able to have the last word. Best advice is to be patient and wait for internal discussions to be finished. Breaks and silence are absolutely normal things in Japanese culture so don’t push or try to fill in the silence at all costs.

4. The Devil is in the details

What can make a great project turn into a flop is overlooking some vital details. Even seasoned professionals leave their adapters or remote controls on their desk only to realise it just before the presentation. These things just don’t happen in Japan. During our project everything was governed by familiar Excel. Project categories were divided into tasks and tasks into subtasks. Japanese are masters when it comes to attention to detail: they think of all possible scenarios and everything is done in order. The same applies to teleconferences because every point on the agenda has to be discussed even if it means staying on the call for 3 hours. But here’s a tip: remember about your priorities. Something vital may sometimes go unnoticed if you’ve been debating on the chair set-up for an hour. Paradoxically, over-attention to details can sometimes adversely affect your project.

5. Relations and even more relations

If you expect a visit of your Japanese client, prepare for some busy time. It’s difficult not to get an impression that this resembles more a visit of your best mates than your business partners. Building long lasting relationships is pivotal to doing business in Japan so make sure you book some afternoons and evenings out of the office. We were surprised one day when our client asked us how long our corporate outings last. While answering “around 3 hours” we had no idea that in Japan the longer you enjoy drinks with someone the closer you are. With hindsight, we should have said 7 or even 8 hours. If you fail to build a relationship with your Japanese client, there is no way you can cooperate. It’s that simple.

6. Ceremonies and rules

If there’s no specified method how you should do a given thing, then you must have confused the countries and you’re not in Japan. Because in Japan everything matters: who sits where, who raises their glass higher, who holds their business card lower. Japanese are attached to their traditions, so it’s advisable to get in the role of an observer and follow the rules as best you can rather than stand out and push European standards.

7. Ewa, put on the slippers!

Before we started our Japanese project we had never heard this instruction from a client. Some of you might have heard that in Japan when you go to the bathroom you are supposed to take off your ‘regular’ slippers and put on special bathroom ones. You also change your shoes in traditional Japanese restaurants. Customs – we get it. Much to our surprise, however, it turned out that even during business meetings in some companies you have to take off your chic heels and slip into equally elegant slippers. And you’d better stop whining that they don’t match your business outfit.

While we dwell on slippers and business cards LOT Polish airlines has launched a direct flight Warsaw – Tokyo, which means there’s even greater likelihood that you’ll be cooperating with a client from Japan. A quick glimpse at recent figures on the value of Japanese investments in Poland and you’ll see it’s a realistic ‘threat’. In fact, Japan is the biggest Asian investor in the country. Experience shows that good preparation is the key to success, especially if even the smallest gestures matter. A project with Japanese partners is like a rollercoaster ride – follow the rules and you won’t fall off track.


Joanna Berger, Senior Account Manager, LEWIS & Ewa Geresz, PR Consultant, LEWIS