As the third largest economy in the world, Japan is naturally a major destination for international business travellers. However, Japanese companies and executives have specific ways of handling social interactions in business settings, presenting potential issues when it comes to communication and culture.

But with a bit of preparation, concepts like a zeal for being on time and the intricacies of business card exchanges will be easy to wrap your head around in no time. To ensure a successful trip, below are a few things you should know to prepare for a business trip to Japan.

🛂 Visa requirements

It’s a given that visa requirements vary by country.

For example, Malaysian and Singaporean citizens can enter and stay in Japan for a period of up to 90 days without a visa. Indonesian citizens can also enter the country without a visa, but only for 30 days. Meanwhile, Bruneian and Thai passport holders can enter Japan visa-free for up to 15 days.

However, Chinese and Philippine passport holders are subject to special visa policies, requiring them to apply for tourist visas through accredited travel agencies or be invited by a Japanese citizen or resident. Nationals from both countries may also be required to have return tickets and hotel bookings even before being granted a visa.

When in doubt, check your country’s foreign affairs website or Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs portal for the complete details on visa requirements.

🤝 Order custom business cards for the trip

For a country that’s often on the bleeding edge of technology, Japan still observes many old-school business traditions.

You’ve probably heard that exchanging business cards, along with the etiquette surrounding this practice, is taken seriously in the country, so much so that failing to take time to read the card after receiving it or unceremoniously stuffing it in your pocket is a major business faux pas.

This tradition, known as meishi koukan, is a formal introduction between two people. Like the Chinese, Japanese associates only engage in business after the ritual exchange of business cards as this marks the beginning of the meeting or discussion.

If this business trip is particularly important (e.g. you’re closing a client or deal), it’s a good idea to order custom, professionally designed business cards for this trip alone. Have a native speaker provide a Japanese translation of your credentials and contact information, which you can place on the opposite side of each card.

The way you exchange business cards with your Japanese associates also matters.

Key points to remember when exchanging business cards in Japan:

  • Keep your business cards in a cardholder to keep them in mint condition.
  • Follow the order of seniority (highest ranking people exchange their cards first).
  • Present your card with both hands, holding the top corners of the card with your thumb and index finger.
  • Make sure your information is facing the person you’re giving it to so it’s easy to read
  • Bow as you present your card.
  • During the exchange, use your left hand to give your card and the right to receive your counterpart’s card.
  • Take a moment to read the content of your associate’s business card. A compliment at this point is a good gesture.
  • Keep all the cards you receive at the top of your cardholder.

🚅 Reserve a JR Pass if you’re travelling outside Tokyo

For business travellers visiting multiple sites across Japan, be sure to order a Japan Rail (JR) Pass online to save money on your trips outside of Tokyo. For around US$260 (prices can change, though), the pass will give you unlimited access to all JR trains in Japan, including the Shinkansen (bullet trains) and Narita Express, for seven days.

It’s a great deal considering it’s roughly the same cost of a round-trip ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto. However, if you’re only staying in Tokyo throughout your trip, you can use the Tokyo subway, where fares are usually in the US$2.00 range.

📱 Book a Wi-Fi router in advance

If you’re travelling with multiple devices, renting a pocket Wi-Fi router in Japan is a more convenient way to stay connected than popping in a local SIM card. A router is also a better option for groups, eliminating the need for each person in the team to buy a local SIM.

All you have to do is go online and fill out a form with a local provider to book your device, and the portable router will be ready for pick up at the airport or delivered to your hotel at an agreed time for a fee in the US$5.00 to US$10.00 range. Narita Airport has a list of providers on its website.

Before you leave Japan, you can simply mail the device back to the provider or drop it off at the provider’s kiosk at the airport.

⌚️ Being on time means being early

The Japanese are famous for their punctuality. In fact, late trains are so unusual that on the rare occasion that one is delayed, commuters will immediately assume there has been an accident or earthquake.

In business, the principle of being on time also applies. And just because a meeting is scheduled at 9:00 AM doesn’t mean you should arrive on the dot. At the same time, however, being too early may be seen as impolite by your host, especially when it's a business lunch or dinner. Showing up 10 minutes before a scheduled meeting should be safe.

💬 Understand the suffixes

Japanese salarymen refer to each other using a variety of suffixes, depending on rank and familiarity. As a visitor, you’ll want to refer to others by their surname and an appropriate suffix.

For example, you can refer to someone of equal rank by using their surname followed by san—as in Ikemoto-san or Akamichi-san.

There’s also the honorific suffixes sama and dono, which are reserved for bosses and nobility, respectively. If you’re unsure of the rules, pay attention to how your Japanese associates refer to each other.

It’s also important to note that the order of Japanese names is in reverse compared to western names—surnames come first followed by given names. So, Akira Kurosawa in the west is technically Kurosawa Akira to the Japanese. Unless told otherwise, refer to someone with their last name and a suffix.

Do your homework for a successful trip to Japan

Japanese culture can be intimidating at first, but if you do your research and take the time to understand the intricacies of business interactions in the country, you should be able to increase your chances of having a successful trip.

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