Handshake, or bow?
Thankfully, no one expects visitors to know how and when to bow the way the Japanese do, and you won’t have to do it. Handshakes are commonplace when dealing with foreign companies (even neighboring Asian countries), so extending your hand politely for a handshake in greeting is fine.
When meeting for the first time, you’ll definitely have to exchange business cards. Keep a small stock ready on hand, and have a proper case in which to put the ones you receive. When distributing your card, be sure to hold it face up and present it to the most senior person first. When receiving cards, say thank you, accept it with both hands and be sure to examine the card politely before putting it away – this is also a good opportunity to ask how to pronounce their name if you need to, but don’t write on the card.
Keep things professional by referring to people using their surname and/or title, if they have one. While Westerners instinctively start calling each other by their first names right off the bat, in Japan the opposite is true.
Always arrive early to a business meeting, or notify your hosts as soon as possible if you know you are going to be late. Wait to be seated, since seating arrangements have probably already been planned out. The Japanese are very fastidious, so be sure to jot down notes as well. During your first meeting, it’s fine to leave the business cards you receive on the table face up for you to refer to, but don’t forget to carefully put each one away in your case before you leave.
When doing business in Japan, the chances you’ll be invited to a nomikai (drinking party) are very high. These are an important part of doing business and building rapport, so it’s best not to skip it, if possible. Some key points to remember: don’t pour your own drinks but definitely refill others’ glasses, and don’t bring the party up at work later (what happens at the nomikai, stays at the nomikai).
In the Japanese corporate world, it’s important to appear professional in the workplace whether you have a high-paying job or not. For men, you can’t go wrong with a dark blue or grey business suit. If you’re female, pack a few dark-colored pantsuits to differentiate yourself from the OLs (since it’s still difficult for many Japanese to respect women in the workplace, setting yourself apart could be to your advantage). If you’re doing business outside the corporate sphere, you can get away with wearing something less formal.
Some basic courtesy will go a long way, and don’t be afraid to ask questions – it expresses your interest and shows you’re willing to learn. In addition, be sure to respect others’ personal space and don’t get overly friendly, i.e., backslapping or grabbing shoulders during a handshake à la Trump.