A Guide To Japanese Business Etiquette And Impressing Your Interviewer

by Nicola Spendlove
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For many foreigners, spending some time living and working in Japan is a bucket list dream. The unique culture, breath-taking nature, and incredible food are just some of the draws of putting down roots here, at least for a couple of years. Securing gainful employment is a key piece to realizing this dream, and many begin the job search long before they actually step on the flight.

So let’s just say you’ve secured an interview for the dream job in Japan, bringing you one step closer to an extended stay in this incredible country. However confident you might be in your professional field, preparation for a Japanese interview stretches far beyond knowing your industry. You must familiarise yourself with Japanese business etiquette in order to put on a display that truly impresses your Japanese interviewer, and gives them confidence that you are a good fit for the company.

In this article, we will explore some simple ways that you can demonstrate your understanding of Japanese business etiquette at your interview.

Timeliness

The Japanese are sticklers for punctuality – showing up even a minute late to your interview will more than likely render you completely out of the running. In fact, even being bang on time for an interview in Japan is considered poor timekeeping.

Aim to arrive approximately ten minutes before your interview begins. If you are interviewing online, log in to your Skype account ahead of time and wait, because you will receive your call exactly on time and will be expected to answer promptly.

Basic greetings

If you are interviewing in person, there is a bit of a ritual to entering the interview room in Japan. First, you must knock three times on the door and say excuse me (preferably in Japanese – shitsurei shimasu). You must wait until your interviewer replies, saying that you can enter the room.

You should then shut the door behind you, excuse yourself again, and bow. Before sitting, you should introduce yourself by name (again, preferably in Japanese). Give another bow, and wait to be invited to sit down. Your interview will now commence. Note – at no point should you extend your hand for the interviewers to shake.

If you are completing your interview via Skype from your home country, obviously you won’t be knocking three times on the screen and saying excuse me, nor will the interviewer be the one to tell you when to sit down at your own desk. However, retaining the ritual of the bow and introducing yourself in Japanese will go a long way towards demonstrating to your interviewer that you understand how things are done in Japanese business.

Formal tone

In many Western interviews, it can be appropriate (and even encouraged) to adopt a relaxed posture, and to joke with your interviewers – this demonstrates confidence and can increase your likeability. This technique is not appropriate or appreciated by interviewers in Japan.

You should sit up straight throughout the interview with your hands on your lap, and minimalize the amount of gesticulation you do while talking – it can be seen as fidgeting. Don’t cross your legs – however tempting it might be! You should keep your expression neutral and professional. Do not attempt to bring humour or jokes into your answers – keep your responses clear and concise, never cut across your interviewer, and don’t feel the need to fill silences with small talk.

When handing over documents, such as your CV, do so with two hands as an indication of how important the documents are. If you are offered a coffee or other refreshment, accept.

If you are interviewing in the Japanese language, always address your interviewers using the polite form. If interviewing in English, use formal language at all times.

Conservative dress

In a Western interview, throwing on a statement blazer or funky accessory can really make you stand out – and so too can it in Japan, but unfortunately it will be for the wrong reasons. A conservative style of dress is most appropriate for a Japanese interview – a black suit, white shirt, and black shoes are your safest options.

Keep any tattoos completely covered, and keep make-up minimal and natural-looking. Hair should be neatly groomed and styled simply. In terms of outerwear, make sure you remove your coat, hat, scarf, and gloves before you enter the company’s building – wearing these indoors is considered rude.

The same dress code applies for Skype interviews.

Demonstrate your understanding of Wa

Throughout the interview, you’ll want to demonstrate that you have an understanding of workplace harmony, or wa. Working in plenty of examples of your teamwork and respect for others into your answers is a great way of demonstrating to your interviewer that you understand the importance of collaborating with colleagues, rather than striving for individual successes.

Saying anything negative about your previous employers or positions is a major red flag in this area – it will highlight you as a potential disruptor of wa, and is definitely a habit you want to steer clear of. Keep your discussion positive and respectful at all times – even if it means biting your tongue.

Don’t try to lead the interviewer

In Western interviews, it is often possible to use your answers to questions to lead the interviewer into topics that you are confident discussing. Japanese interviews tend to follow a set list of questions, and this will be followed regardless of what direction you try to take the conversation. When asked a question, answer it clearly and directly and then wait for the interviewer to bring up the next topic.

Don’t talk money

While it is appropriate to ask questions during the interview, bringing up salary expectations at the interview stage is not part of Japanese culture. It is considered rude to discuss money so explicitly, and overly confident to assume that you will be offered the role.

Many Japanese companies do not enter into salary negotiations at all – there is a set salary paid to everyone at entry-level, and it is your choice whether or not you accept it. The larger multi-national companies may be open to discussion around payment, but again this is not to be brought up during your interview.

Leaving the room

Again, there are a set of rituals that should be followed when finishing a Japanese interview. You should thank your interviewer (preferably in Japanese) and give a seated bow. You should then stand, and bow again at a 45-degree angle. Return your chair to its original position.

You then walk to the door, open it and bow in the doorway, before exiting and closing the door behind you. For a Skype interview, the thank you and bow will suffice.

Note – if you’re in a situation where many people are leaving a room (for example, if you are being shown out of the building) be aware that there is likely an order of seniority for exiting. To play it safe, wait until last to exit – unless you are prompted otherwise.

You’re being watched (maybe)

It’s not unusual for an interviewee to be watched and reported back on while waiting for the interview, or while exiting the building. You don’t want to give the impression that you are lazy or unprofessional, so to err on the side of caution it’s best to maintain formality at all stages.

Use your formal posture while waiting for the interview, keep your phone (on silent) in your bag, and use the polite language form to everyone you come across.

Ganbatte kudasai!

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