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Who’s on First? Deciphering Hierarchy

Hierarchy is extremely important in Japanese corporate culture. Relative status in an organization determines how members interact with each other and how they expect others to interact with them.

Imagine a military academy, or some private schools in Europe or fraternities at U.S. universities. In such organizations, freshmen are expected to defer to upperclassmen. Similarly, in all Japanese organizations — businesses, clubs, sports teams and social groups — seniority matters.

Understanding this can help you improve your working relationships with Japanese. First of all, accurately determine the status relationships of the people you are working with. You may need to ask a Japanese person to help you decipher the meaning of job titles. If this isn’t practical, age can often be used as a proxy for guessing someone’s place in the hierarchy because promotion is usually based on seniority.

Once you understand the hierarchy, show respect to people with high status. Japanese who have risen to high positions in their companies are accustomed to being treated as VIPs. Give senior people the red carpet treatment. If you are in a business discussion with someone high-ranking, avoid disagreeing with him or her directly as this could cause a loss of face.

Also, pay attention to the hierarchical composition of the Japanese project team and match it as closely as possible on your side. For example, if the Japanese side team contains a senior manager, a middle level manager, and a junior level staff, give your team a similar composition.

Finally, try to bond with individuals on the Japanese side who are at a similar level in the hierarchy to you, and/or are a similar age. Japanese often are more comfortable with people at the same level, and these relationships can be strong ones that continue as you both move up in your respective companies.

Japanese business etiquette training and seminars are a specialty of Japan Intercultural Consulting. Please contact us for more information on how we can help you prepare for successful interactions with Japanese clients, customers, and business partners.