Is this the Japans? - How might an enterprising business person in Spain best prepare for doing business in Japan? by Steve Nugent - Profesor de inglés

Is this the Japans? - How might an enterprising business person in Spain best prepare for doing business in Japan?

Blog Summary: The following is an extended version in two parts of materials drawn up in June 2021 for the dedicated language learning platform at Oxinity. The learning materials are recycled here to give a flavour of what we can deliver on the platform & then expanded for extension & enrichment for ´flipped learning´ or to provide more engagement also for the general reader who might have more than a passing interest in oriental & particularly Japanese culture.

The principal focus is on the enterprising ESL-Business English learner in Spain who might be interested in advice on doing business with the Japanese. This includes advice on how they might avoid ´culture shock´ & become more culturally attuned to their country so to better cope in those more challenging out of the workplace situations where a good level of ‘Social English’ is required, especially in order to build trust & long-lasting business relationships.

The original material was pitched at Intermediate levels with the tasks involving reading, controlled & free speaking practice, a matching exercise, some interpretation of helpful models, tables & diagrams, & with secondary aims for grammar & pronunciation – use of modals for obligation & pronunciation. In its original form there were around 10-12 CAPITALIZED key vocabulary points - probably too many but offering challenge & adaptability for more advanced levels.

In this extended two-part blog there remains some ´grading´ of language for intermediate learners but also some more challenging material, including more use of idioms, particularly in the second part aimed more at any ´culture vultures´ in our classes who might be seeking specifically to improve their conversational ´chops´ in their second or third languages. I have also taken pleasure in presenting our 180+ collaborating teacher partners at Oxinity with a good deal of challenge - as they are invited to elicit in class for the meaning & use of choice idiomatic terms such as ´HIGH CAMP´ & ‘DREAMBOAT’

"Is this the Japans?"

This is the first utterance by protagonist John Blackthorne - an English naval pilot who had been serving on Dutch warship Erasmus shipwrecked off, & confronted with, feudal Japan around the year 1600. The novel ‘Shōgun’ (1975) written by James Clavell became a best seller and the following TV mini-series aired in 1980 with Richard Chamberlain playing at his most classically ´DREAMBOAT´ was the lead role. As a 10- or 11-year-old this gave me early exposure on a Saturday night to the mysterious Far East.

However perhaps more age appropriate were all 26 episodes of the ´Water Margin´ that I was hooked on at around the same time. Made by Japan´s Nippon TV and adapted by the BBC, the series was based on an epic stories attributed to Shi Nai´an in the 13th Century but set around the early 1100s in China. The narration by the much adored Anglo-Chinese actor Burt Kwouk:


“The ancient sages said do not despise the snake for having no horns, for who is to say it will not become a dragon? So may one just man become an army..”

Both stories focus on culturally & historically fascinating warrior classes, but the Samurai were, of course, distinct to Japan. China, perhaps wisely, sought to separate the ‘military’ from decision makers who were seen instead to be more like highly cultured bureaucrats. In the Water Margin the 108 ‘anti-heroes’ were initially rebels later co-opted by the rulers to help protect the lands from invaders.

It is one of a number of important distinctions within the symbiotic relationship in ‘Sino-Japanese’ affairs which has had its last almost 50 year period analysed by Global Times where it was noted that Japan’s social elites had previously advocated ´division positioning´ between ´Industrial´ & ´Oceanic´ Japan & ´Agricultural´ & ´Continental´ China. However, in 2010 China OUTPACED Japan to become the world’s second largest economy – a status that its closest rival had kept for 42 years. Japan does, though, have GDP per capita running at four times that of China. The much circulated graphic here from “How Much Net” & “the World Bank” gave the picture for 2019.

Let us flip back to our ‘hero’ Richard Chamberlain as Blackthorne (or 'Pilot' then later 'Anjin'). Stranded in medieval Japan, he is depicted as the first Englishman to visit the country & his challenges, humiliations, involvement in power STRUGGLES between competing local warlords & eventual ASSIMILATION represent an effective ALLEGORY on, & a prediction towards, the culture shock & geo-politics that still have important repercussions today.


The historical context for ‘Shōgun’ was that (Protestant) England & Holland were trying to disrupt & replace Portuguese & Spanish (Catholic) trade & military alliances. Catholic missionaries had begun to get a FOOTHOLD in the country, so these strategic interventions can be seen to have impacted on the international relations, business links & trade routes that we see today.


Is Spain then a relative NEWCOMER to Asia-Pacific?


THINKTANK the 'Real Instituto Elcano' thinks so. It states that a clear strategy to boost its presence in the region was only recently established. Historically, Spain has only shown a limited interest aside from the formal colonisation of the Philippines (1565-1898) & the establishment of the first regular trade route between Asia (silk, porcelain, spices, fine woods, lacquer, carpets, folding screens & vases) & the Americas (gold & silver) on the Manila Galleons.  The absence of more meaningful historical links today means that Asia does not have a strong imprint in the collective memory of many Spaniards in the way that Europe or Latin America do. Spain is seen to have LAGGED BEHIND countries such as France, Germany, the Netherlands & the UK in terms of seeking to strengthen ties with Asia-Pacific. Government strategic action then remains central to boosting Spain’s presence in the region the Instituto concludes.

In the 1960s, cash-rich Japanese companies are shown to have begun investing in Spain to benefit from the country’s then-cheap labour & proximity to the EEC. Korean & other Asian companies soon followed. By the 1990s, Spanish companies were seriously considering high-growth Asian economies as OUTSOURCING destinations & potential markets for Spanish goods & services.


However, by 2016, China (12) & Japan (18) were the only Asian countries among the top 20 Spanish trading partners. For investment again only China (11) and Japan (15) were among the top 20 investors in Spain by stock. More clearly needed to be done in this area by the Spanish Government & its leading companies to strengthen links with these two biggest Asian & world economies as well as others such as India & South Korea.


We could task our students to share their ideas & reflect on their business experience to ask what businesses could do to better develop productive links with these countries or this region?

Could they steal a few ideas from old Uncle Sam? The U.S. has clearly reaped the rewards of the strategic balance following WW2 but this video provided by the U.S. International Trade Administration can be highly instructive too for Spanish prospective Spanish trading partners. The advice here includes some mainstays in the lexical set for this topic of potential CULTURE SHOCK – avoiding PITFALLS, TRIPPING-UP etc.  

The Japanese are seen to almost fetishize high design & presentation principles & so the key takeaway is the necessity for ´extensive preparation’ & a deliver means that ´appeal(s) to the eye´.  The findings are consistent with their ‘cash-rich’ & ‘time-poor’ characterisation of the working Japanese which manifests in their thirst for slick time-saving technological devices.

Would a snappy Prezi CUT THE MUSTARD or do we need to also clearly define the market & demographic niche for our potential product or service?  What could be fundamental for leading foreign enterprises seeking this gateway is that the aging population here is seen both as a ‘drag on resources’, & by the punning presenter, also as representing ´A SILVER LINING´ - they, of course, may be both ´cash-rich´ & ´time rich´.



After watching the video a speaking activity for Spanish & other business leaders could involve asking in which of the mentioned sectors Spain might be a global market leader this greying demographic?


  • Medical devices & equipment
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Health Care Facilities & Infrastructure
  • Biotechnology
  • Robotics  


An oft-used (half-finished?) graphic on Quora on Spanish predominant industrial sectors might be helpful – golf carts & other mobility devices could be useful but what of snow mobiles?


“Express Yourself or Enjoy the Silence?


Taking the allegory approach a little too far perhaps – just which song recorded in 1989 might best reflect this said business travellers default position – Madonna´s “Express Yourself” or Depeche Mode´s “Enjoy the Silence?”


Elsewhere on the dedicated platform for Oxinity we have looked at ‘Culture Clashes in International Business’ more generally & specifically at ´HIGH and LOW CONTEXT COMMUNICATION STYLES´. The theory goes that the amount of communication that is transmitted verbally & without much ambiguity or nuance varies considerably between different countries or cultures.



Referring to this model the good news for Spain & similar (Latin) cultures is that they appear to have some shared characteristics with territories such as Japan and China.  Exotic but not too quixotic?

Then we could ask our students to consider the Lewis Model that starts to TEASE OUT further cultural nuances & separations such as the suggestion here that Spanish business people might seek to ´mix the social & the professional but their Japanese counterparts might seek to ´connect´ them instead.

Again, focussing on Spain & ‘the Japans’ we could ask:

a. What can we say about the tendencies relating to speaking & listening of each culture?


b. What can we say about the tendencies towards perceived directness & politeness, & the showing of emotions?


- What implications might these aspects have for Business meetings…or indeed marriages…?


Country Profile:

Japan has a population of approximately 126 million (about twice that of the UK or three times that of Spain) whilst Japan occupies around 378,000 km2 compared to the UK´s 248,000 km2 & Spain´s approximate 506,000 km2.  It is a highly structured & traditional society where great importance is placed on loyalty, politeness, personal responsibility & on everyone working together for the good of the larger group. Education, ambition, hard work, patience & determination are held in the highest regard. Much can be seen to have been in place well before the time of Shogun such as the seven main VIRTUES in the philosophy or "bushido" of the Samurai - justice, courage, benevolence, respect, honesty, honour, & loyalty.


Grammar point

Grammar is always best presented in context– at Oxinity materials are categorized as Topics, Vocabulary (including pronunciation) or Structure.  With this topic on how best to advise the wary business traveller we would not want to miss the opportunity to review tasks that might also sit in the ‘Structure’ section.  We can elicit for the modals for advice & obligation & also how we might use these in questions forms.


The matching exercise below then can have a secondary aim for use of modals when students judge whether or not the detail in the left column is sound advice & is just how serious is the obligation from the sliding scale – you MUST, HAVE NEED, or OUGHT TO, SHOULD, COULD etc. in the positive or the negative.



Given time there is also scope for pronunciation modelling for some of the tricky sounds with modals - MUST & MUSTN’T, for example presenting a few challenges with contraction, elision, or deletion.

In the table below students needs to match the advice in the left column with the text on the right. They also need to judge whether it is good or bad advice & so use an appropriate modal in the positive or the negative.


1. Arrive on time

a. The Japanese believe in consensus & harmony. They want consensus in making an important decision, so many staff may be involved, and the process may take longer than in the Western world.

2. Expect meetings to be one on one

b. White flowers remind the Japanese of death as does the number four.

3. Give importance to the presentation of business cards 

c. The Japanese value punctuality greatly (more so than is the case in many Latin countries)

4. Expect a direct answer to a question 

d. Restaurant entertaining is crucial to business - a business person could be judged by his/her behavior after business hours. Here you should also BRUSH UP ON the ETIQUETTE for accepted table manners in aspects such as SLURPING and for finishing or not finishing food and drinks.

5. Expect the oldest or most senior person (usually a man) to lead the meeting 

e. A handshake is appropriate upon meeting. The Japanese handshake is LIMP and with little eye contact. Some Japanese shake hands and BOW - a highly regarded greeting to show respect and appreciation. A slight BOW to show courtesy is acceptable and repeated BOWS in conversation are common.

6. Be uncomfortable with silence  

f. The Japanese are used to working as a group. They tend to make decisions by consensus with many staff may be involved in decision making.

7. Expect decisions to be made quickly 

g. ETIQUETTE & harmony are very important. "SAVING FACE" is a key concept based on the notion of honour and respect. Such criticisms are seen to reflect badly on both you & the person being criticised.

8. Openly criticise a more senior colleague

h. This as with gift-giving is ritualistic in Japan. It might be presented before the shaking of hands and with two hands with the expectation that when you receive it you should examine it carefully and then put it on the table in front of you during the meeting. Your own business card should include your rank - this could determine who your negotiating counterpart will be.

9. Make a gift of four white flowers such as lilies to a business person or their partner 

i. Because of the importance of 'respect', senior people is greatly valued for their wisdom. However the Japanese greatly value listening and trust building - don't be surprised if this person remains INSCRUTABLE contribute little verbally to the meeting - he is probably trying to assess if you are the kind of person or person that they would like to business with. Additionally, as titles are given importance it is is advisable to send a manager of the same rank to meet with a Japanese colleague.

10. Greet business people with a handshake 

j. The Japanese tend to avoid answering important questions directly in part because of the need to consult others & in part because they do not like to say 'no’ - instead they might say 'maybe' which can usually be interpreted as 'no'. Likewise you should find ways of avoiding saying 'no' with phrases such as 'that will be (very) difficult' or a passive phrase like 'it will be under consideration'.

11. Expect to WINE & DINE as part of the business process

k. Non-Japanese women are treated very politely in business as it is understood that Western women hold high-level positions in business. It is said that a non-Japanese woman is viewed first as a foreigner and then as a woman, but also that a Western women must establish credibility & a position of authority immediately (specific gender politics are explored in part two of the blog).

12. Expect Business women to be treated with equal respect as men

l. As with the typically inscrutability of the senior Japanese business person, silence is a natural and expected form of non-verbal communication. Do not feel a need to chatter or engage in endless SMALL TALK.

Answers: 1c, 2f, 3h, 4j, 5i, 6a, 7l, 8g, 9b, 10e, 11d, 12k

End of Task Practice

Students could be guided to ask their partners some questions using modals & the pointers from that we have learned.


Typically question form structures might start with a question word or modal/auxiliary – the so called Quasi form is common


Question word + auxiliary (be, have or do) + subject + infinitive of verb


e.g What        +  are                              + the Japanese + like?


Questions can, of course also start with an auxiliary but also a modal


(What/How) + modal/auxiliary + subject (pronoun) + infinitive of verb?


We can model these for our students if needed.

What should you do if you are presented with a business card?

Must we bow & shake hands when we meet people for the first time?


The teacher’s task here is, of course just immediate or delayed correction if required. Best practice might be to delay -  listen & repeat any problematic structures & ask the students to try & correct it themselves.  What I find helpful is that the Oxinity platform allows both teacher & student to type any problematic structures, vocabulary & dialogues into the chat field, & copy these exchanges into the end email for student review.

Extension & Enrichment materials:

A number of organisations & consultancies offer support for businesses to either set up in Japan or to break into their markets.


London based Export to Japan’  has put together a highly informative resource base here including this video & sector specific podcasts.

Likewise Tokyo based Krows Digital offers a similar service on the ground aimed mainly at smaller & medium sized companies including young entrepreneurs & marketing teams interested in engaging savvy users of the most popular social media in Japan including TikTok & in the use of key ´influencers´. They also use SWOT analysis to profile a case study of a classic French sneaker brand aiming to break into the Japanese market.

Using a flipped classroom model, hina yoshiharaBusiness English students could be asked to also review these & other resources outside of class & to share their findings the next time we meet.

In part one of this blog we referred to the instructive ´Lewis Model´ which classified the Japanese as ´Reactive´ with a tendency to ´connect the professional & the social´ with the Spanish as ´Multi-active´ with a tendency to  ´mix the professional & the social´.  Both business cultures then seem to value the importance of building relationships & trust through social contexts - any resultuing business deals can succeed or fail because of ´performance´ inside or outside of the boardroom in any social situation.  Here, of course, the business traveller even with an advanced level of ´Business English´ might be out of their comfort zone.  A good level verbal dexterity in ´Social English´ is then also required but what might be far more important is a sound knowledge of Japanese culture - not only break the ice but to impress your Japanese guests or hosts.   

Part two of the blog was also triggered with this in mind as well as the need for extension & enrichment material on this topic. More specifically itis aimed at any enterprising & intellectually curious business person (or other, from Spain or elsewhere) hoping to do business with, or to visit Japan. The primer includes many key voices & their opinions on - lifestyle, spirituality & life-expectancy; food & cuisine; music, theatre, dance & musical theatre; Karaoke; film, animation, anime, graphic novels, manga & gaming; martial arts; comedy, books on, or set in Japan; & also the challenge of more recent feminist perspectives anxious to rock the status quo.


1ª Clase Gratis