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Working in Japan

Business Etiquette

Business Etiquette

In addition to typical greetings, there are some unique points to Japanese business etiquette. There are whole books on the topic. Here, we’ll introduce you to the basics.

Common Business Greetings and Phrases

First, let’s start by looking at some common greetings and phrases that you’ll use every day at the Japanese office.

Japanese companies tend to put a big emphasis on proper greetings (挨拶, aisatsu). They’re thought of as the fundament for all other etiquette and a basic requirement for creating a harmonious work environment. Even if you don’t know any other Japanese, you should memorize these!


Reading: Ohayou gozaimasu
Meaning: Good morning

This is the universal morning greeting. You use it to address people you see for the first time that day, either before work starts and until about 1 hour after the start of work. For the rest of the day, “otukaresama desu” is used (see below).


Reading: Otsukaresama desu
Meaning: General-purpose greeting; goodbye, have a nice evening (after work)

Literally, this phrase means “you’re tired (from having worked hard).” Sometimes translated as “thank you for your hard work,” it’s used much more liberally than this English equivalent.

In most cases, “otsukaresama desu” is a general-purpose greeting exchanged between colleagues at work. It’s used where phrases like “hi,” “hello,” “good afternoon”, or “good evening” or gestures like a head nod would be used in other languages. It’s the standard phrase to fall back on whenever you bump into someone or want to start a conversation.


Reading: Arigatou gozaimasu
Meaning: Thank you

One of the staples of communication in Japanese, regardless of where you are. Japanese people tend to express gratitude more often some other countries. It’s hard to overuse this phrase – deploy it whenever someone does something for you, no matter how minor it may be.


Reading: Shitsurei shimasu
Meaning: Excuse me

This phrase is used when entering a superior’s or client’s office. It sounds more formal than the widely used すみません (sumimasen), which can sometimes be considered rude in business settings.

A variation of this phrase is お先に失礼します (o-saki ni shitsurei shimasu), which is used when leaving work for the day. Literally, it means “excuse me for leaving ahead of you.” It has its origins in the time when it was considered poor etiquette to leave work before your superiors did. Nowadays, it’s mostly used as a stock phrase when leaving work, often combines with “otsukaresama desu.”


Reading: ima, sukoshi o-jikan wo itadaite mo yoroshii deshou ka
Meaning: Excuse me, do you have some time right now

Use this phrase whenever you want talk to someone and have to interrupt them at their current task. It is mostly used when talking to superiors, but can be used for coworkers on the “same level” as well. This phrase is a polite, unintrusive way to check whether someone can talk to you immediately or has to concentrate at work in the moment. Just starting to blurt out your message is often perceived as rude.

Addressing Colleagues and Superiors

You’ve probably heard of the Japanese equivalent for the English “Mr/Mrs,” -san (さん). While this honorific is fine in most situations, some companies require their employees to use job titles when referring to superiors instead. In this case, -san is only used between regular employees with no executive position.

Below, you can find a list of common executive positions and their translations, in ascending order.






Senior staff



Assistant manager, subsection chief



Section chief



Vice-chief, deputy director



Department chief



Board member, company director



President, CEO



President, chairman

For example, when addressing department chief Suzuki at work, you wouldn’t call him “Suzuki-san,” but “Suzuki-buchou.” However, this rule doesn’t apply to all companies in Japan. Some have flatter hierarchies where almost everyone refers to each other with “-san” or sometimes even no honorifics at all.

Uchi and Soto

A central tenet of Japanese business etiquette is always being aware of who belongs to “your group” and who is the “other.” This is important because in formal situations, you treat the “other” with higher respect than those belonging to your own group.

In Japanese, your own group is called uchi (“inside”) and the other is called soto (“outside”).

This may sound complicated at first, but in most cases, figuring out uchi and soto is very straightforward. In business situations, uchi is your company and the people working there while soto is the client, customer or visitor.

When communicating with a client or someone else from outside the company, you drop all honorifics when referring to someone inside of your company – even if that someone is the CEO. This is true for all forms of communication from e-mails to phone calls and direct meetings.

For example, instead of using “Suzuki-buchou” (Department Chief Suzuki), you simply say or write “uchi no Suzuki” (Suzuki [from our/my company]). However, as soon as the client leaves, don’t forget to add the honorific again!


Bowing is one of the classic touchstones of Japanese etiquette. It’s mostly used in situations where handshakes would be used in American-style, international business culture.

To bow correctly, bend your upper body forward at the hips while keeping your back straight and your feet together. While bowing, it’s customary for men to put their hands and arms straight at their sides, while women put their hands on top of each other in front of their waist.

There are different bows for different occasions. Bows mostly vary in the angle of the upper body is held at. As a rule of thumb, the amount of appreciation shown increases with the depth the bow and the length of time it is held.

In practice, bows fall into three categories:

Type of Bow


Angle and time held

Used for/when




0.5~1 second

  • Running into colleagues
  • Thanking staff

(Equivalent to a head nod)




~1 second

  • Introducing yourself
  • Greeting customers
  • Thanking someone for a favor
  • Apologizing for minor mistakes

(Default bow) 




2+ seconds

  • Greeting or sending off important/high-ranking people
  • Apologizing for major mistakes

Remember that these are only guidelines. In reality, no one will measure the exact angle of your bow. However, keep in mind that choosing the wrong type of bow may come off as rude, especially in very formal or tense situations.

Exchanging Business Cards

Exchanging business cards is another classic Japanese business ritual.

Business cards are always exchanged while standing and with no objects between the two people involved. You shouldn’t exchange cards while sitting or across tables, for example.

When handing out or taking cards, be careful not to cover the print with your fingers. Doing so shows a lack of care and attentiveness and is considered rude.

If you’re exchanging cards at the beginning of a meeting, for example, make sure to not put the other person’s card away immediately. Leave it on top of your card case and place it on the table in your vicinity.

Simple Exchange

In this exchange, you give out your business card first, and take theirs afterwards. The steps are as follows:

Step 1: Handing out your card

Take one of your own business cards out of your card case. Place it on your case so that the other person can read the card right side up and hold the card (and case) with both hands.

Introduce yourself by stating your name, the company you’re working for, and close with a customary “yoroshiku onegai shimasu” and a short bow. Then hand over your card and wait for them to take it.

Step 2: Taking their card

After they take your card, they will go through the same process as you. Listen to their introduction and take their card with both hands. Be careful to not cover the print on it with your fingers.

After taking the card, say “choudai itashimasu” and look at it for a few seconds.

Simultaneous Exchange

This exchange method is a bit more complicated. If you’re not used to the procedure, it’s easy to drop cards or talk over one another. Here are the correct steps:

Step 1: Preparing the Exchange

Take one of your own business cards out of your card case. Place it on your case so that the other person can read the card right side up and hold the card (and case) with both hands.

If you’re in a lower position than them (e.g. when meeting a client), hold your card a bit lower than they do. Sometimes, they will lower their card in response. If you want to show your respect, you can lower yours one more time (in some situations, this can repeat a few times).

The person in the lower position introduces themselves first. State the same that you would in the simple exchange, and close with a short bow. If you spoke first, wait for their introduction to finish.

Step 2: Exchanging Cards

Hand the other person your card with your right hand. They will do the same. Take their card with your left hand (that’s still holding your card case) and place it on top of the case. As soon as they take your card, hold the case with both hands again.

Step 3: Finishing the Exchange

After accepting their card, say “choudai itashimasu” and look at it for a few seconds. The exchange is now finished – you can move on to regular talk.

Seating Order

In everyday life, you will never see numbers placed on meeting room seats. But even if you can’t tell right away, some seats are considered “better positions” to be occupied by people in higher positions.

The seat with the highest position is called kami-za (“high seat”) and the one with the lowest position the shimo-za (“low seat”).

In a typical room with a table and 4-6 seats, the seats facing the door are the considered to be the better ones – because they don’t expose the backs of the people sitting there to the people entering the room.

Out of all the seats facing the door, the seat furthest away from it (diagonally across) is the kami-za. Conversely, the seat closest to the door and turned away from it is the shimo-za.

Here, we only had a look at the seating order in a standard meeting room. The same rules apply to seats in restaurants, bars, taxis, and many other locations used in business situations.

Some room arrangements have their own, special seating orders. For example, if a room has a table with a sofa on one side and chairs on the other, the sofa is the “high seat”.

However, you don’t have to study and memorize the rules for every single room arrangement. In most cases, you will be fine if you remember these two points:

The seat that is farthest away from the door/entryway and is also facing it is the kami-za.