There was an article a few weeks ago over at 43 Folders on how to make your business meetings more productive. It was a good read, but I realized how different meeting culture is in Japan visavi the Western world. The tips presented would not have had the desired effect over here, and that is why I will give you some pointers on Japanese business meetings.
1. Instead of looking at a meeting as a forum for discussion of certain topics, look at the meeting as a lecture and presentation of results. There will be limited (if any) discussion during the meeting; most people except to be given a presentation by the meeting organizer that requires little active participation.
2. Don’t expect answers to any difficult (or easy for that matter) questions during the meeting. If you ask questions, you will be met with silence or perhaps answers that merely avoid the topic. Ask your questions before the meeting in private with the people involved; preferably communicate your questions to the relevant people a few days in advance so they can think through their answers and give it to you before the meeting.
3. In relation to (2), it is a good idea to always schedule invidiual pre-meetings before a big meeting – that way you will make sure you get to hear everyone’s opinion (because people rarely speak up in big meetings).
4. Don’t be impatient! If you are forced to ask questions during the meeting, and you are met with silence, this is a signal that the respondent needs time. In Japan, people let others take their time to think through the subject/question thoroughly. Do not try to put words in people’s mouths in order to quickly get an answer.
5. If your meeting is with external people, be sure to treat them with utter respect, especially if your meeting clients/customers. Remember the unwritten rules of seating; the visitors should sit as far away from the door as possible. Note the order they sit in, the most senior person will often sit in the middle, with rank going down as you move further out from the center of the table. Always be careful with any business cards you receive – do not shove them in your back pocket or use them as coasters etc., the business card is an extension of one’s person and thus requires the same respect as the person him/herself.
6. In Japan it is accepted to have cell phones turn on during a meeting – if you receive an important phone call, it is OK for you to excuse yourself and take the call.
7. People will sleep in meetings if they think they are not directly connected to the topics of discussion – if the people you are meeting are sleeping, ignore it; if your own people are sleeping, do not make a scene during the meeting, take it up with the person in question in private after the meeting.
Those were some quick pointers that will help you through Japanese meetings; there are many more things to think about, but that will do for now I think. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask me. Perhaps I will post a follow-up in a while too if I get enough new ideas.