Includes information on business customs, travel advisory, visa requirements, and other aspects of international travel.
Note: The Government of Japan has implemented various travel restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As of October 1, 2020, most travelers from the United States are not able to enter Japan, with limited exceptions. For a status update, please visit the U.S. Embassy website, here.
An understanding of Japanese business and social practices goes a long way in establishing and maintaining successful business relationships in Japan. Perceived indifference to local business practices may be interpreted as a lack of commitment on the part of the exporter and may lead to misunderstandings and lost business opportunities. One should not assume that because meetings and correspondence are carried out in English that Western social and business norms apply.
Japanese society is complex, structured, hierarchical and group oriented. It places strong emphasis on maintaining harmony and avoiding direct confrontation. Japanese social and cultural norms tend to be group oriented rather than focused on the individual. In building relationships (which often precede a first-time sale or an agreement) one should emphasize trust, confidence, loyalty and commitment for the long term.
Group decision-making is important in Japan and has been generally described as a “bottom up” exercise rather than “top down.” Family businesses founded since WWII and smaller second-tier firms are often exceptions to this rule. However, even in the large family firms, where decisions are made at the top, company members have a sense of participation. This type of group decision-making requires time. Recognizing that it takes a longer time to cultivate business relationships in Japan than in the United States, U.S. business executives should not expect to close deals in just a few days. Consistent follow-up is vital. Likewise, U.S. businesspeople should recognize the importance of working with the staff level of their Japanese counterparts and not exclusively with the executive level.
Gift giving is expected on some business occasions in Japan. Regional U.S. gifts or company-logo gifts are appropriate. Quality is important, but the gift does not have to be expensive – it is the sentiment and relationship implied by the gift rather than its intrinsic value that is significant. Therefore, packaging of the gift is as important as the gift itself and should be done professionally. In Japan, sets of four are considered unlucky (the number four is pronounced the same as the word for death). Gifts that can be shared among a group are appropriate.
Business travelers to Japan should make sure to bring a large supply of business cards (with their title) when they come to Japan; printing bilingual cards is a nice touch. Business cards, still in wide use despite rapid digitalization, are exchanged to formalize the introduction process and establish the status of the parties relative to each other. Japanese bow when greeting each other but will expect to shake hands with foreign executives. A slight bow in acknowledgment of a Japanese bow is appreciated. Japanese executives deal on a last (family) name basis in business relationships, and initial business and social contacts are characterized by politeness and formality.
Business travelers visiting a Japanese firm for the first time should be accompanied by an interpreter or bilingual assistant. Many Japanese executives and decision-makers do not speak English, although they may be able to greet visitors in English and read English product literature relevant to their business or industry expertise. Although English is a required subject in Japan’s secondary school curriculum, generally, English listening and speaking skills tend to be weaker than reading and writing skills for Japanese. Thus, the Japanese side in a business meeting generally expects visitors to bring an interpreter if they are serious about doing business. Although the cost for hiring an interpreter can be high, bringing an interpreter shows that a visiting firm is serious in its commitment to the Japanese market.
The first visit to a Japanese firm generally serves as a courtesy call to introduce U.S. executives and their company, and also allows the U.S. side to begin to evaluate a target company and its executives as potential business partners. A request to meet only with English speaking staff can mean missing the opportunity to become acquainted with higher-ranking executives.
Written contract, even if less detailed than a contract between two U.S. companies, is essential to meet legal, tax, customs and accounting requirements in Japan. Contractual commitments are perceived as representing long-term relationships so the terms and conditions, for example whether to grant exclusive rights, should be considered carefully.
Japan’s travel infrastructure is on a par with that of the United States. A wide range of business travel and tourist services are available. For additional information on traveling to Japan, contact the Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO) in New York at tel: (212) 757-5640; fax: (212) 307-6754, or visit JNTO‘s website.
U.S. business travelers to Japan seeking appointments with U.S. Embassy Tokyo officials should contact the Commercial Section in advance. The Commercial Section can be reached by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
To access the most up-to-date travel and safety information, including regarding Covid-19, please refer to the State Department‘s Country-Specific Information for Japan. U.S. citizens can also obtain up-to-date safety and security information by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll-free within the U.S. and Canada, or by calling a regular toll line, 1-202-501-4444, from other countries.
Japan has long been noted for its low crime and safe streets. Crimes against U.S. citizens in Japan are rare. Crime is at levels well below the U.S. national average. Violent crime is extremely rare but does exist. Incidents of pick pocketing of foreigners in crowded shopping areas, on trains and at airports have been a sporadic concern. Complaints of robberies committed after a victim has been drugged from a spiked drink are increasing. Some of Tokyo’s entertainment and nightlife districts - in particular, the Roppongi and Kabuki-cho areas - are considered high-risk areas for crime, and the Embassy receives reports of drink spiking, credit card fraud, extortion, and even assault in these districts.
Some U.S. citizens believe that Japanese police procedures appear to be less sensitive and responsive to a victim’s concerns than would be the case in the United States, particularly in cases involving domestic violence and sexual assault. Few victim’s assistance resources or battered person’s shelters exist, even in major urban areas, and facilities are generally unavailable in rural areas.
See also information on staying safe in Japan from JNTO, here.
Note, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, travel to Japan by non-Japanese citizens coming from the U.S. is highly restricted. The information provided below is pre-pandemic background.
A U.S. passport, valid for the duration of stay, is necessary to enter and travel in Japan. By Japanese law, non-residents are required to carry their passports (or their Resident Card if staying longer than 90 days) at all times.
A visa is not required for short-term business visits (up to 90 days). However, please note that Japan requires an onward/return ticket for “visa free” stays of up to 90 days. A work or investor visa may take up to two months to obtain. Immunization and health certificates are not required. Foreigners who will be mid to long-term residents must arrive in Japan with an appropriate visa, and upon arrival at the major airports in Japan, immigration authorities will issue a Resident Card. Residents are required to register their address at the nearest municipal office.
Upon arrival, going through both immigration and customs checks are essentially a formality for U.S. business travelers as long as passport and air tickets are in order. All foreign nationals entering Japan, with the exemption of certain categories listed below, are required to provide fingerprint scans and be photographed at the port of entry. This requirement does not replace any existing visa or passport requirements. Foreign nationals exempt from this new requirement include special permanent residents, persons under 16 years of age, holders of diplomatic or official visas, and persons invited by the head of a national administrative organization.
U.S. travelers on official U.S. Government business must have a diplomatic or official visa specifying the nature of travel as “As Diplomat,” “As Official,” or “In Transit” to be exempt from biometric collection. All other visa holders, including those with diplomatic and official visas stating “As Temporary Visitor,” are subject to this requirement. SOFA personnel are exempt from the new biometrics entry requirements under SOFA Article 9 (2).
Passengers are advised to exchange some U.S. dollars for yen before leaving the airport.
U.S. companies that require travel of foreign businesspersons to the United States should be advised that security evaluations are handled via an interagency process. Visa applicants should go to the following links:
The currency in Japan is the Japanese Yen.
Japan’s telecommunications system, one of the most developed in the world, is both efficient and convenient. International calls can be made from private cell phones, public International Direct Dialing (IDD) phones, or hotel IDD phones. The main mobile carriers in Japan are NTT DoCoMo, KDDI, and Softbank; e-commerce giant Rakuten is building out a fully virtualized mobile network. All currently offer, and are expanding, 5G services. Many U.S. carriers offer plans. Broadband and WiFi services are easy to procure, and free public WiFi is widely available in major cities. Nearly all hotels provide free WiFi services. Many restaurants and cafés also provide free WiFi for customers. More telecommunications information can be found on the JNTO website, with insights on telephone use and WiFi.
Japan uses an electric current of 100 volts, and a frequency of 50 Hertz in eastern Japan, or 60 Hertz in Western Japan (including Nagoya, Kyoto, and Osaka). Appliances from Europe, Australia, or Southeast Asia will require an adaptor and may require a transformer depending on the electric device; most U.S. appliances do not require an adaptor. More information on plugs and electricity can be found on the JNTO website, here.
Japan has a system of modern highways and roads linking all parts of country. However, traffic conditions on expressways and in cities are often very congested. Most major intercity highways operate on a toll basis, and tolls can be extremely expensive, making passenger train travel very competitive, especially for international visitors. Japan boasts the world’s densest and most modern passenger railroad system, with fast, frequent services to all parts of the country. Japan’s famous Shinkansen high-speed rail links Tokyo with Japan’s major business centers and beyond. All of Japan’s large cities have highly developed subway and commuter train service. Taxi service is widely available.
The national language of Japan is Japanese (Nihongo) and is spoken and understood all over the country. English is a required subject in Japanese high schools, and it is by far the most widely known foreign language in Japan. International business correspondence and negotiations in Japan are almost always conducted in English. Most Japanese, including business executives, have a limited understanding and command of spoken English, although there are of course exceptions. Japanese business executives often read English much better than they can speak it or understand it when spoken. It is advisable, therefore, to be accompanied by a competent professional interpreter to all business meetings, especially an initial contact where you might be unsure of your counterpart’s mastery of English.
Aside from the area in the immediate vicinity of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power plant, crippled by the disaster in 2011, Japan poses no medical health risks to business travelers. While medical care in Japan is good, English-speaking physicians and medical facilities that cater to U.S. citizens’ expectations are expensive and not very widespread. Japan has a national health insurance system, which is only available to non-citizens with long-term visas for Japan. National health insurance does not pay for medical evacuation or medical care outside of Japan. Medical caregivers in Japan require payment in full at the time of treatment or concrete proof of ability to pay before treating those who are not covered by the national health insurance plan. Most major credit cards are accepted.
Visitors to Japan should carry their prescription or non-prescription medication in their original containers along with a copy of their prescription. Some medications that are commonly used in the United States are illegal in Japan. Adderall, for example, is strictly prohibited because it contains amphetamines, and its possession or importation is a crime. Another example of an amphetamine drug that is illegal in Japan is Vyvance, commonly prescribed for attention deficit disorder by U.S. physicians. It is also illegal to bring into Japan some over-the-counter medicines commonly used in the United States, including inhalers and some allergy and sinus medications. Specifically, products that contain stimulants (medicines that contain pseudoephedrine, such as Actifed, Sudafed, and Vicks inhalers) or codeine are prohibited. Also, shipping narcotic analgesic medications into Japan is limited to institutions designated by the Japanese government. Individuals cannot legally have narcotics mailed or shipped into Japan. Medical marijuana, even with a U.S. prescription, is strictly forbidden and those attempting to bring it into Japan will be arrested and prosecuted.
For more information on bringing medication (prescription or over-the-counter) into Japan, please refer to US Embassy & Consulates in Japan, here.
Local Time, Business Hours and Holidays>
Local Time: Japan is 14 hours ahead of U.S. Eastern Standard Time (EST) and 13 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) from April to October. Consequently, 8:00 a.m. EST in New York City corresponds to 10:00 p.m. the same day in Tokyo. 8:00 p.m. EST in New York City corresponds to 10:00 a.m. the next day in Tokyo. Japan is one of the few major industrialized countries that does not observe some form of daylight saving time.
Business Hours: The typical Japanese workweek is Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., although many Japanese office workers put in long hours of overtime. Flex work hours have become popular at some large companies. The overwhelming majority of Japanese take their lunch break promptly at 12:00 noon and return to the office at 1:00 p.m. sharp.
Holidays: When a national holiday falls on a Sunday, the following Monday is observed. In addition, many Japanese companies and government offices traditionally close during the New Year’s holiday season (typically last days of December through first week in January), “Golden Week” (typically late April through early-May) and the traditional “O-Bon” Festival (mid-August).
See a list of Japan’s holidays here.
Temporary Entry of Materials or Personal Belongings
No restriction exists for temporary entry of laptop computers and software for personal use. Some pharmaceutical items, including medications widely available in the U.S., are illegal in Japan, and U.S. citizens have been detained for importing them. Information on importing such items is available in the American Citizen Services website.
Regarding materials for exhibits, Japan is a member of the International Convention to Facilitate the Importation of Commercial Samples and Advertising Materials under the ATA carnet system. Use of a carnet allows goods such as commercial and exhibition samples, professional equipment, musical instruments and television cameras to be carried or sent temporarily into a foreign country without paying duties or posting bonds. These goods cannot be sold. A carnet should be arranged for in advance by contacting a local office of the United States Council for International Business or its helpline at (800) ATA-2900.
Travel Related Web Resources
Doing business in Japan - U.S. Commercial Service Japan
Consular information & official travel advisories for Japan
Japanese customs, etiquette, and culture
U.S. Department of State; Japan – Country Information