23 April 2001
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Even with the not insignificant influence of globalisation and liberalisation, there is still a basic etiquette that needs to be followed in Japan. Non-domestic lawyers are forgiven much, but must at the very least appear to be trying.
If you are late, you are untrustworthy. It is as simple as that.
The most junior person will sit nearest to the door. Although on occasion an incorrect seating plan will be ignored, more often than not, if people are sitting in the wrong place, they will be asked to move. Being demoted to a more junior position would be seen as losing face, one of the worst things that could happen during a meeting.
Cards should be presented and taken with both hands. You should then study the card before placing it in front of you - ideally, small talk should be made about the card, although this could understandably prove taxing for some. If there is a group of people present, cards should be arranged in front of you in accordance with the seating plan. Never write on a card (it would be like writing on a photograph of the person) and place it carefully in your wallet at the end of the meeting. Dumping it in your pocket along with everything else is a sign of disrespect.
Japanese society places a high regard on politeness. Blowing your nose in front of a client, for example, is seen (some might argue understandably) as very rude. Likewise, saying "no" outright goes against convention; instead, lawyers must find other ways of stating disagreement. Body language is a key part of discussions. A client could nod assent to something, but folded arms or a dropped smile could add an entirely different meaning. And, as in many cultures, not everybody understands irony. So do not even attempt that mother-in-law crack.
This is the cornerstone of much of Japanese culture, particularly when it comes to business. Many Japanese, for example, will not admit that they do not understand a legal concept or indeed the English being used, as this would be deemed as losing face. It is a particular problem for UK lawyers dealing with Japanese clients, and many firms advise lawyers on the best use of speech and ways of clarifying arguments in a bid to avoid this.
This is unique to Japanese companies. Once a business proposal is drawn up, the ringi-sho system is put into practice. Under it, the proposal is summarised and then passed up the chain of command, depending on the value of the project (the higher the value, the higher it goes). Each person will register their approval by affixing their personal seal to the document - if just one person does not attach their seal, that is the end of the project (disapproval without shelving the deal can be shown by affixing the seal upside down).
The whole process can take up to a month, a delay that is unusual to Western business dealings, particularly as it not used as a deliberate tactic. Once the project has been through ringi-sho, no deviations whatsoever can be made from the approved plan. Although some Japanese companies have dropped ringi-sho, for the time being the bulk continue to use it.