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What do Japanese people value?

Japanese Customs / June 8, 2017

Figure 2. FDI between Spain and Japan (€ thousands)


This ARI is based on broader research conducted by the author in Japan as a Visiting Researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Tokyo. Its aim is to explain in depth the importance of understanding Japanese cultural values in establishing and developing business relationships with Japanese organisations.


Spanish-Japanese business relationships are not as good as they could be although they have improved in recent years. However, as a result of the specific features of its society and economy, Japan continues to be a country where doing business is often challenging. The traditional values and traits that have guided the Japanese people over the centuries remain in the way in which most of adult people act in public. Dealing effectively with Japanese business people continues to require an in-depth knowledge of the meaning of certain acts reflecting their underlying cultural values and social customs.

The object of this analysis is both to look at the effect of Japanese cultural values on building and maintaining business relationships and to emphasise the importance of understanding cultural values to conduct business successfully in Japan.


(1) Introduction
All countries have specific values that are part of their national culture, although inevitably they share some with their neighbours. Thus, they should not be understood in terms of a duality, as in an East-West dichotomy, but as a continuum. It is not only Western business people who usually find difficulties in doing international business with people from Asian countries, but people from different Asian countries themselves know that they have different ways of acting in international business. Hence, although Asian countries share certain cultural values they also have differences, since every culture is unique.

The object of this paper is both to analyse the effect of Japanese cultural values on building and maintaining business relationships and to emphasise the importance of understanding these cultural values if the aim is to do business successfully in Japan.

To that end, the paper will first provide a short overview of the business relations between Spain and Japan. Then it will look at the sources of Japanese cultural values, describing those that the author’s research has identified in the business world and explaining their importance for building and maintaining long-term business relations in Japan. Finally, some conclusions will be presented.

(2) Business relationships between Spain and Japan
Despite the long and good relations between Spain and Japan, established in 1868 with the signing of a Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation and maintained with the restoration of diplomatic relations in 1952, the trade and investment situation is still not up to the levels that could be expected although it has improved in recent years.

Japan has always maintained a positive trade balance with Spain although the balance between exports and imports has declined over the past few years. As shown in Figure 1, this is a result of both an increase in Spanish exports and a large decrease in imports from Japan, especially since 2009. Thus, the coverage of Spanish imports by exports has risen from 33.48% in 1995 to 99.20% in 2014.

Figure 3. Influences on the Japanese way of doing businessFigure 1. Trade between Spain and Japan (€ thousands)
Source: Datacomex.

Figure 2. FDI between Spain and Japan (€ thousands)
Source: Datacomex.

As regards bilateral foreign direct investment (FDI), the difference between inward and outward FDI shows that Japan has maintained a large net positive balance (see Figure 2).

Like Spain, trade relations between the EU and Japan have typically shown surpluses in favour of Japan, although the figures have become more balanced in recent years. Nevertheless, as a result of the specific features of Japan’s society and economy, it continues to be a country where doing business is often challenging.

One of the factors causing this situation is an inadequate knowledge of Japanese cultural values. This usually results in misunderstandings, complicates communication and hinders working together. In international business, misinterpretation is not only a question of language but also of good intercultural communication because the same words can have quite different meanings for people of different cultures. In order to communicate adequately with Japanese people it is necessary to learn and understand their culture and customs as well.

The understanding of Japanese cultural values in business does not only consist in having some general knowledge such as, for instance, basic courtesies like greeting with a bow or giving business cards with two hands. This superficial comprehension will not help to do business in Japan. It is also essential to know how Japanese cultural values shape business aspects like making connections and maintaining relationships, adapting to the highly competitive and changing Japanese market or providing an unparalleled level of service.

Japanese people are well prepared about the culture and customs of the country where they want to do business and adapt their own actions to local requirements. Similarly, doing business in Japan requires knowing the local cultural values to understand how to business the Japanese way.

Figure 3. Influences on the Japanese way of doing business
Source: the author.

(3) Sources of Japanese cultural values
In this paper, culture is understood to be the values, norms, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours learnt and shared by a group of people that allow them to see the world in the same way. Values are the deepest level of culture and at the most external level are directly observable features, such as the way of doing things. Behaviour can be seen but not the underlying cultural values, thus they can remain unchanged despite being expressed in different ways of acting.