Not so secret Japanese business phrases

Not so secret Japanese business phrases

Before scrolling to the Japanese business phrases at the bottom of this page, you might want to spend a couple of minutes understanding why you don’t need to become a walking dictionary of Japanese business phrases to succeed doing business in Japan.

First, language fluency and business ability are generally unrelated, as many foreign companies doing business in Japan and which have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on hiring and firing failed (but perfectly bilingual) Japanese executives can attest to.

Second, in sales and business, whether in Japan or elsewhere, language ability is secondary to attitude, motivation, and commitment. My Japanese language ability, while more than adequate to get me through everyday life and business meetings, is far from perfect, but I have sold millions of dollars of products in Japan and consistently outperformed many perfectly bilingual people I know. In my first year selling in Japan, I knew about 50 words of Japanese and did over $1m in sales: if I can do it, so can you!

Third, to learn to speak fluent Japanese takes at least 3 – 4 years, but fortunately you can hire a bilingual age 22 – 26 graduate Japanese executive assistant or marketing assistant for around US$36,000 a year, which is probably less than most US secretaries earn. If you make that hire through one of Japan’s head hunters, it will typically cost more because they tend to deal with older women who are often more aware of foreign companies’ tendency to pay a lot more than domestic Japanese companies do.

A 22 – 28 year-old Japanese woman probably isn’t the most experienced businessperson, but you are not hiring her to run your business; you are recruiting her to interpret your message and relay the response back to you. In fact, in my experience, the problem with many older, supposedly more experienced, and more expensive bilingual Japanese, is they sometimes consider themselves superior to the unfortunate foreign executive sitting beside then, start to heavily filter the customer’s responses and will even answer questions on your behalf and, because the conversation is in Japanese, without you even realizing. That can result in a lot of missed opportunities. If you have ever sat through a meeting where your bilingual employees are chattering to the customer and only occasionally referring to you for answers, you now know what is happening.

In the section on deciding whether to search for a Japanese executive or expatriate for your Japanese company President, I noted that many Japanese think that Carlos Ghosn, the Frenchman President of Nissan, was Japan’s most successful executive of the past two decades. I do not suppose, though I have not met him and could be wrong, that Monsieur Ghosn speaks fluent Japanese; when he makes one of his frequent appearances on Japanese TV business news, he always uses a French-Japanese interpreter. Japanese speaker or not, at his best Carlos Ghosn turned Nissan’s fortunes around.

Although you do not need to become a word-perfect Japanese speaker, many Japanese people really do appreciate foreigners who make the effort to learn at least a few Japanese words and business phrases. Very often it is a wonderful ice-breaker and helps build stronger customer relations if you are able to make a polite greeting or two in Japanese. So, if you, like me, are not so fortunate with linguistics: i) how far should you go in learning business Japanese, ii) what phrases are of most value, and iii) when should you use those phrases? Here are a few:

  • When handing out your business card:
    • Watashi no namae wa Brown desu‘ – means ‘My name is Brown’, next time I meet the Emperor, which happened in Manila of all places, this is the one I will use (although there is a much politer more humble version I would be required to use if I were Japanese!).
    • Brown desu.’ – means the same as ‘Watashi no name wa Brown desu’ but is more colloquial, way less formal, easier to remember and will not get you into trouble.
    • Hajimemashite‘ – means ‘Hello, pleased to make your acquaintance’ and you only use it the very first time you meet unless you want to break the ice by being a comedian.
  • General greetings:
    • Ohayogozaimasu‘ – means ‘Good morning’, generally used only before 10:00am.
    • Konnichiwa‘ – means ‘Good day’ when meeting, used from 10:00am ~ 6:00pm.
    • Kombanwa‘ – means ‘Good evening’ when meeting, used after 6:00pm.
  • Upon parting:
    • Domo arigato gozaimashita‘ – pronounced ‘domo aligato gozaimashita’ means ‘Thank you’ for the event that just occurred, used when parting morning, afternoon or night. Do not use ‘Sayonara’ (pronounced ‘sayonala’) which is more of a last (or long-term) ‘farewell’.
  • Please and thank you:
    • Onegaishimasu‘ means ‘If you please’, used, for example, if you are at dinner with a customer and he/she offers you wine. It can also be used (as by fawning Japanese salespeople and me!) in an expectant way when asking for an order (of the revenue-bearing contract variety)!
    • Domo arigato gozaimasu‘ – pronounced ‘domo aligato gozaimasu’ means ‘Thank you’ for the event that is just occurring, used when thanking a customer for an order or for a meal.
    • Gochisosama deshita‘ – means ‘Thank you’ but only to your host when leaving a restaurant or bar (it literally means ‘I was spoiled’ as in having received food and drink).
    • Doitashimashite‘ – means ‘It’s my pleasure.’, used if you bought lunch or dinner for a customer and he or she says “Gochisosama deshita’.
  • Sorry and excuse me:
    • Gomen nasai.’ means ‘Sorry’, used when you stand on your customer’s foot as you both get into an over-crowded late-night train!
    • Sumimasen.’ – means ‘Excuse me.’, used when excusing yourself from the table or room, or when calling a waiter/waitress.

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