Speaking proper Japanese in a business setting opens a whole can of worms on the language learning experience.
It’s not enough to know the right words—you have to know when to use them, how to conjugate them, how to understand the ever-present sub-text, and, finally, how to use your body appropriately.
That’s right, learning business Japanese requires a full body-mind suite of skills.
Business Japanese (Vocabulary)
To speak good business Japanese, you need to nail down good customs (like bowing, business card procedure, etc), keigo (including teineigo, sonkeigo, and kenjogo), and some basic vocabulary.
Business Japanese: The lay of the land
So, how are we going to tackle this? This article is going to break things down into three categories, what I’ll call the three K’s. “Kustoms, keigo, and keywords.”
In the first category, we’ll go over things like bowing, business cards, and handshakes.
They may not seem like a part of the language at first, but I assure you that in every important way they are.
If you need help knowing how to behave in a Japanese business setting, head on down to this section.
The second category will deal with the multitude of layers of speech patterns necessary to communicate in a proper way.
This will include three layers of conjugation, as well as some straightforward affixes.
If your issue is with grammar and/or how to differentiate the different types of polite speech, head down here.
The last category is basically just going to be a big ‘ol vocab list that I hope will be helpful and get you started.
English: a quick comparison
Sure, you say, Japanese has special ways of speaking for business, but so does every language—what gives?
Absolutely. I’m one of the first evangelists of the church of “Japan isn’t that special.”
But even so, it has some pretty distinct idiosyncrasies that will be easy to trip over if you’re not from Japan, and especially if you’re not from an east Asian culture from a similar historical and philosophical background.
English, no doubt, has lots of rules for politeness. When I teach English to Japanese people, I refer to it as “eigo-no-keigo,” or “English polite language.”
You’d never go up to your stodgy boss and say, “Yo, gimmie that pen.” Well, not unless you were trying to get fired. You’d say, “Hey, sorry, would you mind if I borrowed a pen for a second?”
In there we have the nature of becoming obsequious (sorry), polite conjugation (would), indistinction (a), and a shortening of time (a second).
What we really want to say is, “Hey, can I have your pen?” But we can’t say that without being considered rude. It’s very similar in Japanese.
However, while in English, that sentence could be manipulated in many ways to achieve the same effect, there is less room for wiggling in Japanese.
And, as long as you’re behaving in congruity with the overall office environment, there’s no need to pay attention to how you physically come across in the interaction.
Furthermore, there is no special word for “have,” here.
The verbs remain as they would be in casual English. This will not be so certain in Japanese.
And, finally, there are the concepts which are missing entirely.
While in English you would refer to your boss either as “you,” or with “Mr/Mrs/Ms,” or by their first name (all with their own rather interesting rules), in Japanese, you would be somewhat bound by social form to use very specific name-ender honorifics along with their last name in order to be polite.
And the consequences for crossing boundaries would be more severe in Japan than in English.
Japanese Business Customs: Bowing
Let’s start with the granddaddy of a Japanese customs, and one which will serve you well in all situations, not just business.
Let’s dive into the o-ji-gi. In Japanese, you write this as お辞儀.
That breaks down into an honorific prefix, the character for “expression,” and the character for “ceremony.” It’s a ceremonial expression.
In some sense, it’s no different than a handshake in the Western world.
Even if you’ve never been explicitly taught how to shake hands, there are certain things you feel about someone if you shake their hand (or watch them do so).
A handshake offered at shoulder height will make you seem strange and off-putting. A flimsy handshake will make you seem weak.
The inability to “read the room” and move from a handshake into a fist-pump will show you as a member of an out-group.
In a very similar way, inappropriately bowing will make you come off wrong. In a business situation, this can be a serious situation.
So, what are the features of all bows in Japan?
First, you want to have a straight back and also keep your eyes forward. That means no eye-contact (in most situations). Also, ensure that you’re not rushing the process.
You’ll also want to keep your hands on your legs, allowing them to move down your legs as you bend forward.
While there’s a time an a place for a quick bow, most situations call for an unhurried movement, the whole bow taking place of the span of roughly two breaths.
Let’s start from the least intense of these bows.
First, there is 目礼, aka the moku-rei. That’s the kanji for “eye” followed by the kanji for “bow.”
This particular bit of body language should be reasonably familiar to Westerners as we have a fairly similar way of communicating silent with each other.
Indeed, this bow would never be used for higher-ups, or those you’re unfamiliar with (regardless of their position relative to you), but rather it’s used between friends as a very casual show of friendly respect.
In English, we’d usually call this the head nod. It’s not 100% the same thing (in fact, it’s probably more pronounced in a Western context), but it’s close.
This one uses the kanji for “meeting” and “explanation.” It gives a sense of being a sort of elaboration on meeting someone.
This bow is mostly for your co-workers, acquaintances, and people you’re friendly with. This process asks you to bend forward at the waist so that you are fifteen degrees forward.
Again, eyes move with your body, so you would be looking at the ground, not at the person you’re bowing to.
This one’s pretty casual. A good all-around bow for anyone you wouldn’t be attaching a “-sama” to.
This word uses the kanji for “respect” and “bow.” Pretty self-explanitory.
This is going to be the most useful bow for business. This particular set of motions will find everything almost the same, except now you move to a thirty degree position.
You’ll use this with anyone sort of power over or ranking above you. That means bosses, visiting business partners, and customers, just to name a few.
This word takes the previous and adds the kanji for “most” to the front. So, basically, “most respectful bow.”
You’ll be breaking this one out to meet extremely important people, or to apologize for serious screw ups.
This bow will find you folding yourself over to anywhere from a forty-five degree to a seventy degree angle.
How deep you bow will depend on how important the person is, or how much you need to express your regret.
You’ll also need to hold yourself here for significantly longer than usual, sometimes until you are verbally told to stand, or until the person leaves the area.
Seiza and (正座) & Za-rei (座礼)
All of these bows can be adapted to the sitting position with little change at all. Any bow performed while sitting will fall into the category of “zarei.”
Usually you’ll be in the seiza (正座) position when you perform zarei.
Seiza is where your legs are folded together underneath you and you sit back on your heels.
Take note! The seiza position can be uncomfortable—even excruciatingly so—for people not used to it.
Yes, that includes Japanese people themselves, if they don’t do it often.
If you want to go the extra mile and be able to sit in seiza in a Japanese business setting, it’s best to start “practicing” early.
Sit in seiza every day, each day trying to last a little bit longer.
If you can train yourself to sit for at least thirty minutes, you’ll be set for most business situations (usually it’s okay to switch from seiza to another position after the formalities are over).
Careful standing up! Even well-practiced seiza-sitters will have stiff/asleep legs after sitting for a long time!
This word uses the characters for “grip” and “hand.” You pronounce it aku-shu.
So what happens when you do need to shake hands in Japan?
This is going to require a delicate touch and the willingness to respond naturally to the person you’re engaging with.
Don’t offer your hand if they don’t offer theirs. Follow their lead. If they offer, shake.
If they give a strong grip, grip strongly. If they grip weakly, go weak. If they bow while shaking, then you should do likewise.
This part can be tricky, but the sense of uncertainty is probably mirrored on both sides.
It’s two cultural practices coming together and everyone trying to accommodate the other. Go with the flow!
Business Cards (名刺)
In Japan, business cards are called meishi, using the characters for “name” and “card,” respectively.
While they may look like Western business cards, the whole practice is completely foreign, as far as I’m concerned at least.
In fact, this is the one I struggle with the most, even more than handshakes or bowing.
There are many rules, and to a non-Japanese person they may seem unintuitive at first.
First off, business cards get exchanged at the start of the interaction. You will want to offer your card with both hands and accept the other person’s with both hands as well.
Do not just put the card away! Examine it a bit. Make a comment, or ask questions.
If, perhaps, you can’t read or pronounce the person’s name, now’s a great time to ask. Do not write on the card!
When you’ve finished the pleasantries, refrain from putting the card into your pocket, or your wallet.
Have a business card holder at hand to store them.
Okay, those are the “official” rules. That said, of all the Japanese practices I’ve encountered, my anecdotal experience is that this is the one they’re most likely to bend on themselves, and certainly the one they’re most likely to let you slide with.
In fact, several Japanese people I’ve spoken to have expressed their own bafflement at the business card culture.
I, for one, have never owned a card holder, so, usually, the person presenting the card will simply tell me it’s alright to put it in my pocket.
As always, feel out the situation and act accordingly.
Money Money Money Monaaaaayyy & Me me me!
Here’s quick one! In Japan, the “OK” hand gesture means “money.”
And in Japan they point to their own face to indicate themselves (in the West we usually point to our.
These aren’t “business” rules, per se, but they’re very common and easy to get confused on and could cause friction if misunderstood in a business setting.
Symbols of Death
In the West, we tend to think of 13 as the big bad number. It’s different in Japan, where 13 is just another number.
In Japan, the numbers to watch out for are 4 and 9. Why’s that? Well, it’s a little more explicit than the explanation for 13 in English. In Japan, 4 (四) can be pronounced shi.
That same pronunciation can be used for the word for death, 死.
Because of this, gifts that come in fours, the fourth floor of a building, and anything else can be considered bad luck (side note: we focus on positivity here on Linguaholic, though.
So, if you would learn how to say good luck in Japanese, here’s a nice little article for you!)
In fact, when you need to count, you’ll use the pronunciation yon for four.
Similarly, one pronunciation of 9 (九) is ku, which in other circumstances can mean something like “suffering.”
For that reason, you’ll avoid 9 in the same way. And if you need to say the number 9, you’ll want to use the slightly different pronunciation kyu.
A few last “Kustoms”
Personal questions, sarcasm, plain suit, state business affiliation,
First, get comfortable with questions that you might find personal.
Age, race, weight, etc—these are all possibly in play during conversation. Don’t get shaken!
Avoid sarcasm. It’s a myth that Japanese doesn’t have sarcasm, but it’s culturally specific and not worth making a faux pas over. Stay literal!
Wear a plain dark grey or blue suit with a conservative tie.
State your business affiliation when introducing yourself.
Be wary of anything that sounds “affirmative.” Whether expressed in Japanese or English, a “Yes,” “I understand,” or “We’ll think it over,” needs to be evaluated in context, and clarified if possible.
“We’ll think about it,” can simply be a “no.”
“I understand” or “yes,” can often simply be a way to confirm they are merely listening. Ensure the situation before moving on.
Getting Into the Language: Keigo
Keigo is a foundational part of the Japanese language no matter what situation or social strata you’re in.
That said, nowhere is it going to be more important than in business (well, except if you meet the emperor… or your partner’s parents!).
We’re going to keep things relatively simple and break keigo down into three somewhat simple categories. There’s teineigo, sonkeigo, and kenjougo.
Teineigo: polite speech
Teineigo is written 丁寧語 and is basically “polite speech.” This is your go-to for any general situation where you need/want to be polite.
This form basically shows respect to your listeners.
It’s also probably the most straightforward of the bunch. You don’t have to switch out words, just mind your conjugations.
For Teineigo, you’ll need to remember three rules: conjugate your verbs into the -masu form, make sure you have your desu/deshita on nouns, and toss an o- or go- at the beginning of nouns.
There’s no perfect rule for which words get o- and which get go-, but a safe rule of thumb is Japanese-origin words get o-, and Chinese-origin words get go-.
Oh, and some words cannot receive either. You’ll need to become aware of these rules as you go.
Sonkeigo: honorific speech
Things start to get more tricky here with sonkeigo, written 尊敬語, the Japanese honorific speech form.
This way of speaking shows direct respect to the listener, usually referring to their actions, elevating their position.
With sonkeigo we start to see verb replacements.
That is to say that in order to show honor or humility, you will need to use entirely different words in many cases to be proper. Here’s a list to get you started:
Now, for verbs that don’t fall into this category, we have some other conjugation rules.
You will start with o- then use the polite form stem and end with ninarimasu.
Note: The polite form stem is going to be the polite form verb with the “masu” cut off. For example, tabemasu becomes tabe-; nomimasu becomes nomi-.
You can also choose to use the passive conjugation of the verb.
This works by turning the last vowel into an “a” sound, then adding -reru to the end. For example:
Taberu > taberareru
Nomu > nomareru
Suru > sareru
Why would you want to use the passive form? For one, it sounds a little less formal, so that can be useful.
Note that you can’t use this for the potential conjugation, as it’s the same form, so you’ll need to use one of the above conjugations.
This form is fairly similar in its complexity to sonkeigo.
Kanjougo is written 謙譲語 and is used to convey humility and shows respect for those you’re speaking to who are the recipients of your actions.
To start with, this form also includes some verb substitutions.
For all others, you’ll either attach an o- or a go- (based on the same rules as for nouns discussed above), then use the polite stem, then shimasu (or shimashita, as necessary).
Honorifics & Family Names
We’ve got a whole ‘nother article about this topic, but I’ll cover just the essential basics here.
You’ll be referring to each person by their family name, aka their last name (which actually comes first in Japan).
You will then follow that name with san.
That’s your safest bet. No need to get fancy. But, if you do want to get a little fancy…
You can use job titles in place of san. Let’s say they’re Section Chief Tanaka. You can call them Tanka-kacho.
Some good job titles to know:
|Senior managing director||senmu|
There’s many more, but those are perhaps the most important to start with.
Another good set to know is senpai/kohai. Senpai is a co-worker that has been in the position longer than you. It can also be someone that you look up to for guidance.
Also, we have an interesting article on how your boss should be called in Japanese. Give it a go!
Finally, if someone is or was a teacher or doctor, you can call him by his name and add “sensei.”
Going above and beyond in language: Don’t
Similar to English, over-doing the politeness thing can easily come across as sarcastic and rude. Make sure to keep and even keel when talking to people in Japanese business situations.
Overall, it’s probably best to stay at the mid-range of things than to try to be overly respectful. A misplaced “-sama” could do more damage in the long run than forgetting to state an honorific at all.
Keywords: The Last Piece of Business Japanese
|カスタマー||kasutama||“customer”; good for anyone who migh tneed your company’s services
|公約||kayaku||a public or official pledge or vow
|欠勤||kekin||absence from work
|アセット||asetto||almost the same as English “asset”
an “official” way to say to check or correct something
|リバイス||ribaisu||an “official” way to say to check or correct something
|ソリューション||soryushon||answer to your problems
|リソース||risosu||Any resource required for a business goal
|ビジネス||bijinesu||business (a good, all around word)
|取引先||torihikisaki||business connection; trade partner
|企業||Kigyo||Companies — Enterprise company
|有限会社||Yugen-gaisha||Companies — limited company
|株式会社||Kabushiki-gaisha||Companies — public company
|中小企業||Chusho-kigyo||Companies — Small-to-medium company
|大手企業||Ote-kigyo||Companies — Well-established company
|お客様||O-kyakusama||customer; guest; client—get comfortable with this one, since you’ll hear it all the time
|関税||kanzei||customs duty; tariff
|開発部||Kaihatsu-bu||Departments — development dept.
|総務部||Somu-bu||Departments — general affairs dept.
|人事部||Jinji-bu||Departments — human resources dept.
|営業部||Eigyo-bu||Departments — sales dept.
|タスク||tasuku||duty; assignment; project; etc
|追い風||Aoi-kaze||economically favorable wind
|エビデンス||ebidensu||hard facts (very office-environment based)
|エンゲージメント||engejimento||IT terms for user engagement on sites
|仕事||shigoto||job (can reference your employment or just a specific task, based on the context)
|知識||chishiki||knowledge or information
|辞表||jihyo||letter of resignation
|欠勤届||kekin todoke||notice of absence
|能力||noryoku||quality of one’s ability
|改正する||Kaisei-suru||revision or amendment
|体積||taiseki||same as above
|容積||yoseki||same as both above
|クリティカル||kuriteikaru||serious problems (ex: software bugs, aka critical bugs)
|シェア||shea||sharing something in the digital realm
|敬具||keigu||sincerely yours (in letters)
|国債||kokusai||Stocks & bonds — government bond
|投資||doshi||Stocks & bonds — investment
|投資信託||toshishintaku||Stocks & bonds — mutual fund
|株主||kabunushi||Stocks & bonds — shareholder
|株||kabu||Stocks & bonds — stock
|証券取引所||shokentorihikijo||Stocks & bonds — stock exchange
|株価||kabuka||Stocks & bonds — stock price
|パートナシップ||patonashippu||strictly a business partnership
|課題||kadai||subject; matter; problem
|高齢化社会||koreikashakai||the aging society
|メリット||meritto||the benefits of a strat or new project
|携わる||tazusawaru||to engage in
|フィードバックする||Fidobaku-suru||to give feedback
|形跡||keiseki||traces of evidence
|ユーザー||yuza||user (particularly in IT)
|使い手||tsukaite||using side (of things)
|リスク||risuku||usu. Combined with other words to discuss “risk”
|良さ||yosa||virtue; good quality
|ビジョン||bijyon||visions for the future
|業務||gyomu||work procedure; task
|派遣社員||Haken-shain||Worker — agency temp
|同僚||doryo||Worker — colleague
|会社員||Kai-shain||Worker — company employee
|従業員||Jugyo-in||Worker — employee
|事務員||Jimu-in||Worker — office clerk
|契約社員||Keiyaku-shain||Worker — permatemp
|正社員||Sei-shain||Worker — regular employee
Jikoshokai is written 自己紹介 and is how you’re going to introduce yourself in Japan. There isn’t exactly a formula to introductions in Japan, but there is definitely a general structure, a form that you’ll need to follow.
A good place to start is with hajimemashite which roughly translates to “Nice to meet you.” Then, introduce your name, last name first. For me that would sound like, “Watashi wa arushi edouin tomoshimasu.”
After this is a bit of freestyle. You’ll want to inject a touch of personality here. And by personality, I mean state your job title and age (yes, your age—it’s not explicitly necessary, but very common).
Finally—and this you must perform—you hit them with a solid “yoroshiku onegaishimasu.”
What does that mean? Nothing translatable! It’s probably the one most untranslatable phrase in Japanese (seriously—if you think you’ve cracked it, wait until you hear it in yet another context).
In a very rough sense, “yoroshiku onegaishimasu” is a way of saying that you hope you’ll engage well with the party(ies) you’re speaking with.
Throw down a nice 45 degree bow and you’re solid.
Some situations may call for a bit of something else in the middle (like relevant experience or something, or perhaps nothing at all), but you can feel that out, or ignore it without any risk.
As long as you hit your name and the “yoroshiku onegaishimasu,” you’re golden.
Aisatsu, written あいさつ, is a greeting and is an important and peculiarly structured thing in Japan. Let’s go through them.
If it’s before 11 A.M. you’ll want your greeting to be a hearty “Ohayo-gozaimasu!”
If it’s after, you’ll use the familiar “Konnichiwa.” Note the elongated “n” sound, please.
Later in the evening, when it’s getting dark, you can switch to, “Konbanwa!”
If you’re leaving work while others are still going at it, you’ll need to dish out a serious, “O-saki ni shitsureishimasu.”
To play off that, if you’re leaving any space and want to show respect, you’ll want to bow and say, “Shitsureishimasu.”
When passing someone at work, you can give them a hearty “O-tsukare-sama!” (Fun fact, this is also good for hiking when you pass strangers!)
If it’s the end of the day, change that slightly to the past tense, “O-tsukare-samadeshita!”
Those phrases are good for anyone who’s done work. The first means “Good work!” and the second means “You did good work!” Use them liberally!
If you really want to congratulate someone on some really hard work, you can hit them with gokurosamadesu. This is really only used by superiors towards subordinates. Use carefully.
Let’s also cover one more for leaving the office. When you leave, you say, “Ittekimasu!” That’s like saying, “I’m heading out!”
Technically there are other expressions that go along with this, however I’ll preface by saying that I’ve only heard them in a household setting, and I didn’t hear them in my office.
When someone says “ittekimasu,” the reply is usually “iterasshai!” When the person returns, they say, “Tadaima!” and the response is, “Okaerinasai!”
These may be appropriate in some offices and not others. I can’t speak for all Japanese work settings. It’s definitely a good thing to know though!
One last good one to know is “o-sewa-ni-narimasu,” which is like, “I’m in your care,” or less literally, “Thank you for your cooperation.”
You can also thank someone in this way for something that’s already passed by changing the end to the past tense, hence, “o-sewa-ni-narimashita.”
Some useful keywords
Note that many of these words have the same meaning. You’ll need to “read the room” and figure out what is best for your circumstance.
Highly conservative space? Stick to more Japanese words. Modern company? Use the katakana equivalents offered.
For what it’s worth, the katakana words are no less than their Japanese versions, you’ll just find them more appropriate in certain situations. So stay sharp!
You’ll also notice that the “katakana words” look/sound a lot like English words. This is both a bit of a blessing and a curse.
It’s a blessing in that you’ll have lots of familiar words to lean on. It’s a curse in that they’re pronounced different, not necessarily ubiquitous, and have specialized meanings that don’t translate perfectly.
Keep these special words in mind, and also keep your ears alert for secrets you can use in the workplace.
Some suggestions to acclimatize (TV & Movies!)
A fantastic way to acclimatize yourself to business Japanese is to watch some dramas.
Certainly, you will need to go into them with your pinch of salt at the ready—they are often stylized depictions of the workplace and shouldn’t be taken at 100% face value.
That said, some shows are decent interpretations of a real world Japanese working environment.
Moreover, the characters themselves, through their performances, will make it clear if they are speaking in an exaggerated way, or if they’re more down-to-earth.
A great show to begin with is Hanzawa Naoki. Not only is this show truly fantastic, it was also massively popular in Japan.
So, you get a twofer—you get a show that will give you some pretty realistic business Japanese and a show that gives you something to talk about with your new Japanese friends/colleagues/clients.
For some context, Hanzawa Naoki followers the incorrigible titular character as he faces down corruption and crime while working as a bank clerk.
Coming out of a somewhat similar setting is Shudan Sasen, a drama centering around a bank employee and his efforts to be as ethically responsible as possible… in a giant corporate bank.
The main character speaks in a somewhat stylized way, but everyone else seems (to me) to be pretty much realistic.
One more recommendation is a film called Nanatsu no Kaigi.
This one is not about a bank, but rather about electronics salespeople and how they deal with corruption inside their own company.
All of these dramas are really fantastic.
They all kept me on the edge of my seat, despite my, shall we say, ideological differences with the underlying premises. They’re that good!
Last words on Business Japanese
Business language is a minefield in any language. Heck, it’s a veritable danger zone in one’s own native language (Japanese people are known to struggle mightily with the ins and outs themselves!).
So, use this as a launching point, but consider finding some professional classes if you are expecting to be in regular Japanese-language business circumstances.
The Japanese themselves need special training, so it’s no shame in you reaching out as well.
But, after all that hard work, you can pat yourself on the back and whisper a nice “otsukare.”
“I’ve lived in Japan on-and-off for the last five years, travelling to (almost) every corner of the Land of the Rising sun. I’ve deepened my love of the language with big hauls from Sapporo book stores, by chatting in Shinjuku coffee shops, drinking in Osaka “snack bars,” exploring distant Okinawan islands, and hitching rides with monks in Aomori. Japanese is a wide and deep language, and I’m always eager to dive in deeper.”