Business etiquette in Japan: Are you being rude and not know it? - Waku Waku

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Business etiquette in Japan: Are you being rude and not know it?


Business etiquette in Japan: Are you being rude and not know it?

There are many words used to describe working in Japan - orderly, controlled, rigid - but one that particularly pops up is "polite".

Kevin Chan

Kevin Chan

Published on 31 May, 12:00

No matter who you ask, whether long-term resident or tourist, "polite" seems to be a common adjective used to describe the business culture in Japan.

Although I think it's a challenging task to grasp every and all of the countless cultural subtleties that make up the fabric of Japanese social etiquette, there are a few things to remember about how to speak politely in Japan.

Business etiquette in Japan: Are you being rude and not know it?

Phrases of hierarchy

When in doubt, always be respectful. This is an easy one to learn but equally an easy one to mess up. There are 2 basic categories within Japanese phrases of hierarchy that you should keep in mind: pronouns and suffixes.

(1) Pronouns

I've had the opportunity of moving around quite a bit during my time in Japan. When I first arrived here, the first thing I was taught was that I should refer to myself using the pronoun "Boku" (a masculine pronoun used by boys, or males under the legal age).

My well-intentioned coworker felt that I should sound polite and defer to whoever I was speaking to, and to be fair, the use of "Boku" does exactly that.

However, upon changing jobs to my second company in Japan, I was met by a round of laughter when I used "Boku" in a conversation.

It was explained that, while it was a very polite way to speak, it was unusual to hear an adult male use the phrase in a business situation. It was recommended that I switch to the pronoun that I still use today, "Watashi".

What you'll notice in Japan is that Japanese people don't often use pronouns.

There are grammatical structures that exist - "anata" for you, and "kare" for he, etc - but more often than not, Japanese business people will use the actual names of people when speaking. The golden rule here, as with many challenging situations related to language choice, is to do as the natives do: observe and copy.

Business etiquette in Japan: Are you being rude and not know it?

(2) Suffixes

In my opinion, I think this is often the greater challenge. When speaking in English, I might begin by referring to my boss as "Mr. Jones", using his family name with a respectful suffix but end the week calling him "Greg", by his first name.

In Japan, however, you'll notice that that respectful suffix, sometimes known as an honorific, sticks to the name for a much longer period of time.

Personally, I have taught English to a business student for about 4 years - years! - and he's never called me anything besides "Kevin-sensei", despite my continued insistence that he can feel free to refer to me simply by my first name.

I've adopted a similar approach in my own working life, sticking to a formal way of addressing an individual, regardless of how casual the subsequent conversation becomes.

Business etiquette in Japan: Are you being rude and not know it?

Phrases of etiquette

I'm originally from Canada, and while I remember most of my coworkers being fairly polite individuals, they were also quite relaxed in the workplace.

That is to say that, there was no need to announce your departure from the office or make a point to invite everyone to an office party. Being deliberate about considering other's feelings was something that I had to get used to in a Japanese office.

For me, it certainly felt forced and sometimes unnatural, but I could see that my Japanese coworkers appreciated it when, instead of quickly jumping into the elevator and going home, I spent the time walking around the office saying goodbye to everyone.

Business etiquette in Japan: Are you being rude and not know it?
Simple things like goodbyes and hellos go a long way in a country that respects respect as Japan does.

You may not know it, but you might be coming across as rude in your office, for innocently forgetting to do things that your Japanese coworkers would consider "obvious". Unfortunately, they might be too shy to tell you - or not even realize that non-Japanese have different cultures!

So hopefully this article will serve as a quick reminder of some things to try to do or avoid the next time you're in the office.

Kevin Chan

Kevin Chan

Kevin is a professional writer with experience in music, education, news media and entertainment. He graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in English before moving to Japan for work. He's lived all over Japan, spending time in Kanto, Chubu, Kinki and Okinawa.

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