Expat's essentials - making it big in Japan
When my boss told me that our company is opening a new office in Japan and that I’ll be moving there as a Chief Account Manager, I knew there would be a lot of new stuff I’ll have to get used to. You always hear how Japanese culture has tons of different rules you have to obey to avoid being disrespectful to your hosts, but the sheer amount of it left me in shock. It’s been 5 months since I moved here from Germany and I’m still learning the ropes. Here are some of the things I learned as soon as I moved to Japan.
1. JAPANESE ORGANIZATION IS PERFECT
In Europe, when you think about people who excel in organization, you think about us Germans. It’s a well-known stereotype, but one that proved to be quite true. In the rest of the world, that title should definitely go to the Japanese. From the things I experienced in these five months, we’re nowhere near their level of organization. I feel like they organize every minute of their day. It’s great, but it can also be very unusual for foreigners.
When I arrived, my company hired a driver to pick me up at the airport and take me to the office. This driver didn’t come a couple of minutes late or early. He arrived precisely as we landed in Osaka, and what’s even better, he knew exactly who I was, where he needs to take me and that I need to arrive there in 45 minutes because I had a meeting. It was like a scene from the movies.
At first I thought all this was a coincidence, but I was quickly proven wrong. They have plans and timetables for everything. Deviations are not acceptable, especially during the meetings where even the seating positions are predetermined. I had quite a bit of trouble adjusting to that system, but in their fast-paced world you have to embrace or you’ll start falling behind. Now I too have a plan and a timetable for all my daily activities, even for calling my wife!
2. BUSINESS CARDS ARE LIKE GIFTS
While we’re talking about meetings, one of the most important aspects of it is exchanging business cards. In Europe, that’s pretty straight-forward – someone gives you a card, you take it, check it out and put it away in your pocket or a wallet or wherever. In Japan, business cards are given and accepted like gifts because it’s an honour to receive one. Knowing the proper business card protocol is a way to make a strong impression from the beginning.
If you’re giving a card and you’re from a foreign country, it should be bilingual as a way of showing respect. And when you’re giving it, always do it with both hands, and slightly bow as you extend it. The same goes for receiving a card. When you receive a business card, don’t just put it away. Instead, carefully examine the card, and place it in front of yourself for the duration of the meeting. When the meeting is over, do not put the card in your pocket or wallet, that’s considered extremely disrespectful. Put it carefully in your card case or a briefcase.
3. SILENCE IS NEVER UNCOMFORTABLE
Japanese people are really calm and quiet in all situations, and they expect the same from everyone else. They never raise their voice, not even when discussing things that would elsewhere turn into a shout-fest. They always appear like everything is under control, and there’s no need to be excited about things that can be easily resolved.
It’s not uncommon that during a meeting, everyone suddenly stops talking. It happened to me a couple of times and, at first, it was really weird, I didn’t know what to do. I later found out that being quiet in a meeting is quite normal, it’s like their way of calming down before making an important decision. Japanese are thinkers, and they actually have more respect for people who know when they should talk. That’s totally different from the European style I’ve gotten used to.
I have to admit, I’m still getting used to these customs, but the people I work with are very considerate and always explain what I did and how to do it according to their etiquette. They’re quite modern, so they understand foreigners can have a tough time adjusting to their culture. To them, the most important thing is respect, so as long as you show it to everyone you meet, you’ll have no problem grasping the ins and outs of living in Japan.