Writing business e-mails in Japanese, Part 1: Requests
Writing Japanese business e-mails can certainly be a challenge, but with the right approach, it doesn’t have to be a nightmare. Read up on what to look out for and check some example messages in this article.
Text-based business communication
While Japan has long been (in)famous for still using fax machines in [insert current year here], e-mails are the most widely used business communication medium (at 96.5%), followed by the telephone (90%) and direct meetings (68.8%). These “top three” haven’t changed since 2011.
Naturally, being able to write business e-mails is key for working at a Japanese company. It’s also something many learners dread or lack the motivation to learn (I’m speaking from experience here).
One reason for why people struggle with business e-mails is that they require the use of honorific language, which even many Japanese have a hard time mastering. However, because of their template style, mails in a company setting are not as high a hurdle as they first seem.
Business e-mails and chat messages in Japan are typically longer than their non-Japanese equivalents. That is because they are highly formalized, following certain patterns that include typical greetings, certain formal expressions, etc.
Following these patterns is seen as showing a form of basic respect towards the person you’re addressing. Chances are you’ll be expected to keep to that style even if you don’t have a draconic boss who mercilessly criticizes you for every small expression slip-up.
The formalized structure makes it harder to get into written business communication in Japanese. However, in the long run, it’s easier than it seems. Once you figure out the basic structures, you can essentially copy & paste most of the content, only exchanging the case-specific parts.
Keep the title short
At least in this respect, e-mailing in Japanese isn’t different from anywhere else in the world. Your e-mail title should be concise while efficiently conveying what you want to say. Brackets are sometimes used to highlight the main topic of the message. Often-used bracket types include square brackets  (角括弧, かくかっこ), corner brackets 「」（かぎ括弧, かぎかっこ）and lenticular brackets 【】 (隅付き括弧, すみつきかっこ).
Know your greetings and tone
The greetings you use at the beginning and end of your e-mails and messages will change depending on who you’re writing to.
When writing to someone within your own company that you’ve interacted with before (e.g. someone from the same department), leading with just お疲れ様です (おつかれさまです) is fine. If the person is a client or another person that you or your company is (contractually or socially) “indebted” to, be sure to use いつもお世話になっております (いつもおせわになっております).
Putting the company name (when writing to clients) and department name as well as your name at the beginning is also considered good form, even if you’re contacting the person fairly regularly.
So, when writing to a person within your company, you will want to use this:
(Thank you for your hard work.)
This is ○○ from the PR department.
And when writing to a client or someone else outside of the company, this:
That you for your continued patronage.
This is ○○ from the PR department of △△△△ company.
As far as tone goes, you’ll most likely be expected to write in Keigo (honorific language). Often, that’s true even for co-workers that you tend to interact casually with in person. If you ask me, many Japanese simply do it this way because they’re used to writing e-mails in the formal style. Doing so also reduces the risk of mistakenly slipping into the wrong tone when writing to a higher-up or client.
Follow the established patterns
In general, “going freestyle” isn’t encouraged much in your typical Japanese company. Often, it is considered a privilege of the higher-ups or those with a lot of experience on the job.
When you’re just starting out, you’re expected to follow the rules precisely – basically, you’re allowed to break them only once you’ve completely internalized them. So, don’t try to weave your quirks and personal style into your mails too much and just follow the established conventions.
Don’t let your lines get too long
The wider the width of a paragraph, the harder it becomes for the reader to identify the beginning of the next line. This is true for every writing system, but Japanese (and a few other languages, e.g. Chinese) requires some extra attention.
While Japanese writing DOES feature some lowercase letters (the small つ, for example), the overwhelming majority of characters are of the same height. If possible, the important parts of a sentence should be at the beginning of a line so they’re easier to spot when skimming the message. So be sure to frequently use line breaks, wherever they make sense.
Keeping each line short doesn’t have to mean that the sentences have to be short too, by the way. Formal Japanese is often littered with run-on sentences that are separated into smaller “bites” by line breaks. Of course, writing sentences that are as long as possible shouldn’t be your end goal.
Don’t apologize too much
In Japanese, you find yourself apologizing frequently, often for things you wouldn’t even think of apologizing for in your mother tongue. However, even in Japanese, you can overdo it – more isn’t always better.
Apologizing once (in the beginning or at the end of your message) is fine, apologizing twice is appropriate if you’ve made a huge mistake or are asking for a big favor. But when you put in even more apologies that end up making the main message unclear or hard to understand, it’s time to stop. The same thing applies to expressions of gratitude.
Making a request
Now that we’ve gone through the basics, here are some examples of internal and external e-mails. The parts in brackets are directly translated snippets that you probably wouldn’t use in an English e-mail.
Example 1: Rescheduling a meeting (internal)
Example 2: Requesting documents (internal)
Example 3: Requesting a mistake to be fixed (external)
Interested in learning Business Japanese?
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