A Samurai in the Boardroom

A Samurai in the Boardroom - Export to Japan

Blog | Friday 6 May 2016

Francesca Henriques, former Marketing Intern at UKTI Japan, examines the influence of samurai codes of conduct in the Japanese boardroom today.

Samurai Codes of Conduct Influence Business Etiquette in Japan to This Day

The end of the Samurai began in 1867 when they were no longer allowed to wear swords in public. It finished entirely in 1871 when Emperor Meiji announced the abolishment of regional domains throughout Japan, and with it, the end of their samurai-led armies.  Some Samurai were able to find themselves work in business or roles in government service. Others turned to selling ancestral belongings and slowly, with faultless comportments, sank into poverty.

The Samurai code however, still lives on today – though a mystery to many, it is associated with impeccable manners, devotion and fighting to the death. Despite the latter not being seen much in business nowadays, looking back at a schoolboy’s Samurai code, much of it seems relevant in dealing with the Japanese in business.

The code that I am referring to is that of the Nisshikan School during the 1860s (found in Janice P Nimura’s book Daughters of the Samurai). From the Aizu region of Japan, these Samurai families were considered the best of the best and consequently last to be conquered. I have to concede these rules are somewhat out of date, although they can still be used to explain some of the local business protocol. It is important to note also that often Japanese business customs are misinterpreted and with a nod to Japanese society this is merely a handy tool to try and decode the mystery of the Japanese boardroom.

1. We must always bow to our elders. 

In Japan where doing business is limited by a lack of mutual understanding of language, physical demeanour is all important.  A bow is not just a symbol of respect; it can also be a greeting.  Combined with the ceremonial exchange of business cards, it is a ritual that takes place before each and every meeting. 

2. We must not lie.

The Japanese are extremely honest in their dealings but they dislike saying no.  The word “no” is rarely used in the Japanese language but there are some other ways and means to communicate a reluctance to do something.  “Chotto” is “not really” and could well mean No - but might also mean Yes, with reservations. Just as the Japanese are reluctant to say No, a visiting business person should bear this in mind and perhaps refrain from saying No himself. 

3. We must not act in a cowardly manner.

The Japanese are courageous travelers, often visiting Europe despite not reading, speaking or writing a European language.  If you are offered food that you might not recognize, keep their courage in mind and try not to refuse the mysterious food items that may come your way - it will be appreciated.

4. We must not eat in public.

You will very rarely see Japanese people eating on the street - the ubiquitous take away coffee cup and blueberry muffin on the run is not acceptable behavior.

5. And lastly “Those things that are forbidden, we must not do”.

If you’ve ever walked the streets of Tokyo you will have seen that when the light shows a red man, no one will cross the road – even if there isn’t a car in sight. Rules are meant to be followed and not broken. Same goes for business, protocol is followed and shortcuts are not an option.

I recently heard that before a ‘salary man’ starts work they are given a sort of rule book. My favourite of these is that you are to take your coat off in the elevator and not in the boardroom. Once the meeting is finished you are to put it back on in the elevator, otherwise you look like you are in a hurry to leave. It is reminiscent of the rush to get out of a class when you know the teacher is overrunning and you, along with your classmates, begin to pack your pencil cases in a manner that ensures the most amount of noise before unzipping your rucksack with childish zeal.

Business Etiquette in Japan Aligns with Courtesy and Common Sense

My point is that much of these rules are common courtesy, as well as common sense. Granted you may not know that the elevator is where you should be taking off your coat in order to be most polite, and the chances are that you will not start putting it back on as the meeting is drawing to a close, rushing out the door as if you have somewhere far more important to be.

Whatever your perception of Japan and their professional customs, the unknown should not turn you away from considering it as a place of business for you or your company. As the world becomes increasingly global it is no surprise that Japan too has developed and continues to develop an increasingly international outlook. This interpretation of Samurai rules and their application in the office is merely a cultural guideline. More often than not you will find that any attempt to respect the customs of the country you find yourself in will be appreciated and respected, wherever that may be and however foreign it may seem.

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