Why am I so enthralled with Japan? Why do I return like a duck to water after living near Tokyo for three years? What calls me back time and again — my framed kimono or Olympic coins? Is it knowing that 57 companies out of the Fortune Global 500 are headquartered in Japan, or the country’s claim to 22 Nobel Prize winners? To be honest, it’s a bit of everything. And because I do return there so often, I’m frequently asked how the concept of women in business is handled in Japan.
It’s not just my impression that Japanese women are increasingly making their mark in the workforce. It’s been well-documented by the Japanese press that their government’s efforts are helping working mothers to become more successful, presumably because of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plans to make better use of Japan’s potential female workforce. And, as many expats probably already know, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, is well-known as a strong supporter of women’s rights.
Expats need to know that wealth is admired in Japan and first impressions are crucial in Japanese business circles. In fact, women in Japan use their wardrobe choices to visibly signal credibility and maintain harmony among their peers. For example, it’s best to focus your wardrobe around a few well-made suits or designer dresses with a length below the knee.
Professional appearance in Japan is all about harmonizing. In fact, I got this immediately from sitting in the lobby waiting for an interview. During the lunch hour I saw men identically dressed in dark stylish suits, white shirts, understated ties and black shoes, each carrying a leather shoulder bag. The same level of conformity applies to women. Most of them did not carry a purse, as female professionals usually carry one professional satchel instead. High, thin, or stiletto heels are not appreciated in the Japanese business world, and it is always better to wear low, two-inch heels.
If you are a 5’7” blonde, you should be especially conscious of looking like an Amazonian. In Japanese culture, where honoring face is crucial, you should wear low heels so that you do not tower over my Japanese colleagues or give the impression that you’re looking down on them. As vivid colors are far too surprising for the Japanese, wear classic navy, black and grey instead.
Another important lesson for female expats is the Japanese culture’s adherence to both protocol and etiquette. As I was told by one Japanese business colleague: “When doing business in Japan, emphasize your standing within your own company hierarchy by asking your male team members to follow your lead, stand back and wait to enter the room after you have done so. This will communicate your elevated position to your Japanese hosts. Be sure that you maintain that status by avoiding actions associated with a lower status, such as passing out materials or serving coffee.”
So yes, whether it’s bonsai trees or bullet trains, tea ceremonies or tanshifunin postings, one of the reasons I so love visiting Japan is because it’s a country of contrasts where the ancient and the ultramodern are seamlessly blended and ancient temples are nestled among commercial and technology towers. But as a female expat looking to become successful in business in Japan it’s as well to remember that because of the emphasis on group harmony over individual expression, it is important to show how well you fit in. Or, as the Japanese proverb goes: The stake that sticks out gets hammered down.
Sharon Schweitzer, JD, is an expert in intercultural communication and international etiquette. A global consultant, trainer, and speaker, she is the author of Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Guide to Building Trust, Inspiring Respect, and Creating Long-Lasting Business Relationships.
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