How to Learn Business Japanese
Mastering Business Japanese is the key to navigating the Japanese job market and leaving a positive impression at work. Read on to find out what and how to learn.
Business Japanese: What you need to know
“Business Japanese” may sound daunting at first, so let’s break it down into its main components. On the one hand, there is the verbal side of communication: General politeness, technical/setting-specific speech and the ability to convey nuance. On the other hand, there is nonverbal communication: General behavior and manners.
Keigo and Japanese business phrases
The first hurdle you’ll have to clear is general polite speech in Japanese (敬語 keigo). It can be separated into three aspects: Teineigo (丁寧語), Sonkeigo (尊敬語) and Kenjougo (謙譲語).
If you’ve been studying Japanese in class, chances are you’re already familiar with Teineigo. It serves as the lowest level of polite communication with strangers or higher-ups and is pretty easy to pick up. The most important feature of Teineigo is the use of the desu/masu (です/ます) form at the end of sentences. Most established methods of learning Japanese make you familiar with this type of speech right from the beginnnig.
Sonkeigo and Kenjougo are similar in the sense that they’re used to show your conversation partner even more respect. Both feature changes in vocabulary use and the addition of honorific prefixes in front of words. However, the two differ in how they are used.
When using Sonkeigo, you show that you consider whomever you’re talking to (or about) to be of a higher status than yourself. With Kenjougo, on the other hand, you talk about your own actions (and the of the people belonging to “your group”) in a way that shows you’re considering yourself to be of lower status.
If you manage to combine Sonkeigo and Kenjogo perfectly, you’ll be conversing so politely that everyone will wonder whether you haven’t secretly been raised in Japan.
That being said, you don’t have to be a Sonkeigo and Kenjougo master to “survive” in a Japanese office environment (unless you’re directly interacting with clients or other people from outside your company). Business Japanese features a number of commonly used “stock keigo phrases”. A combination of those and Teineigo (the desu/masu) form will get you through most situations perfectly fine.
Examples of stock phrases are お疲れ様です (otsukare-sama desu) and お先に失礼いたします (o-saki ni shitsurei itashimasu). Read more about these and other business greetings here.
The use of language depends on its context, and Japanese is no different. Depending on where you work, the expressions you use will be different.
First, there’s technical vocabulary and speech. For example, take a publishing company. A lot of the words being used there will be different than, say, at an IT firm or an automotive manufacturer. That much is obvious. But sometimes, even the way polite speech is used overall can be different.
A famous example of this is the so-called “part-time keigo” (バイト敬語, baito keigo) or “convenience store keigo” (コンビニ敬語, konbini keigo). Both terms refer to a form of speech taught to part-timers and convenience store employees that follows the conventions of regular keigo, but in a way that is traditionally considered to be incorrect. So if you’ve worked at a Japanese convenience store part-time, you might have to “relearn” some of the phrases you’ve been using.
Japanese business culture and manners
There’s always a non-verbal side to communication, and some would argue that how you act in general is far more important than what you say.
Japanese culture has quite a few unique aspects when it comes to business manners, such as having a system to determine the seat for the person with the highest social status (上座, kamiza) in any given room.
Being able to speak properly is great, but sometimes, you might not even get the chance to talk all that much (e.g. when around higher-ups that do all the talking while you’re in a supporting role). In those cases, showing politeness through your overall demeanor alone is important.
To get more familiar with general manners and business culture, consider checking our articles on elevator etiquette, exchanging business cards, and the dress code for job interviews.
Even if you know all the words and correct ways to behave, there’s one last hurdle left. You’ll face it once you move past the “just get the message across” stage and enter the advanced realm where little details matter.
A popular example is the use of the word “muzukashii” (難しい). If you look it up in the dictionary, you’ll find it has the meaning “difficult”. However, in practice, when something is called “muzukashii”, it usually means that whatever is being talked about is considered to be flat-out impossible (at least at the moment).
There are also cases where higher-ups or senpais will point out “rudeness” in your speech, eve when you’re using grammatically-sound keigo. This can be due to the company culture or you simply not being able to pick up on nuances that native speakers recognize.
However, when you’re just starting out, there’s no need to fret or fear these types of missteps. If you’re working in an encouraging environment, people around you will understand that you’re not a native speaker and still learning. They’ll either inform you politely about your mistake or let it slide.
Learning Business Japanese by yourself
When to start?
When you’re still a student, starting to learn formal Japanese can be quite tricky. Polite speech above the Teineigo level (desu/masu forms) isn’t used in most universities and language schools abroad. Also, in my personal experience, even in Japan most teachers don’t expect foreigners to use it.
When no one around you is using Business Japanese, practicing can be quite difficult. However, if your goal is to work in Japan or with Japanese people one day, don’t push it into the future and start learning as early as possible (once you reach the intermediate level). You don’t have to learn everything at once – small steps are fine.
Study methods – Theory
First, there’s the classic approach: Get a textbook or some other learning material and work through it, memorizing words and doing some exercises.
If you just want to learn Business Japanese in general, without any specific context, just start with basic Keigo vocabulary. This mostly consists of memorizing which informal words to switch out for formal ones (and where to add honorific prefixes), so it’s quite doable on your own.
Another (and arguably more fun) method is watching shows with workplace settings. Both TV dramas and anime are fine, just remember that you’re being shown an exaggerated/dramatized form of workplace interaction. Anyway, the vocabulary itself should be useful. For some recommendations, check the end of this article.
While it’s common to hear stories like “I became fluent in Japanese only by watching drama/anime!” on the internet, it’s probably a good idea to not purely rely on entertainment. Instead, combine it with other study methods. That way, you can “learn” even when you’re taking time off from studying.
Study methods – Practice
As I already said above, input can only get you so far. If you want to improve after memorizing the basics, it’s best to look for something you can practice with.
At university, you’ll usually be able to get yourself a tandem partner from somewhere. You could either use the university’s official system for finding language exchange partners or just approach Japanese exchange students at faculty events/parties, etc.
Keep in mind though that younger people (albeit well-intentioned) often “go soft” on language-learning partners, meaning they won’t relentlessly point out every mistake you make and make comments like “even Japanese people don’t know this, so it’s fine”. So, if you really want to learn a specific thing, make it clear.
Another thing you could do is talk with (and write e-mails to) your Japanese teachers in Keigo. It might take a bit of courage if nobody else is doing it, but it’s pretty effective. Not only will the teachers appreciate your effort, but they’re also much more likely to correct you on every occasion and give you helpful advice.
The final option would be to just take the plunge and do an internship or part-time job (e.g. during a working holiday). If you choose a Japanese-speaking company, you’ll be forced to use business Japanese and polite speech daily – the best way to improve. But be aware of the aforementioned “convenience store keigo!”
The first thing that comes to mind is, of course – textbooks. There are a lot of them out there, aimed at different target groups and language proficiency levels. You can get an overview of the available books on sites of language schools.
My advice would be to not be too worried about finding the “perfect book”. It’s true that an approach that doesn’t fit you can lead to problems down the road. But what really matters, especially in the beginning, are study time and efficiency. Most mistakes can be ironed out afterward.
You can also search online for courses on sites like Biz Japanese, Udemy, and Attain Online Japanese. Most of them will cost you some money, but certainly less than going to a language school in Japan, so they can be a good budget option.
Aside from or in addition to online courses and tutorials, you could consider doing some lessons with a private instructor over Skype. They have the same benefits as Japanese teachers in that they will point out every mistake you make. So, if you’re attentive and know what you want to work on , you should be able to improve fast.
Learning Business Japanese in class
While you can make great progress in short periods of time by learning on your own, it requires a lot of self-discipline and organization. Real-world classes have the advantage of providing you with a pre-set schedule and (through tests) helping you to regularly review the things you learned.
Another added bonus is that you’re able to get detailed explanation and can be sure to get it right. When learning alone, it can often be difficult to figure out things on your own. Even if you have a native speaker to practice with, their explanations can often be vague or even pure guesswork (unless your practice partner is a Japanese teacher, of course).
READ ON How to find the right Business Japanese Course for you!
Decide what and how you want to study
First, you’ll have to decide on what kind of class you want to attend. After all, it’s important to find a class that matches your current skills and circumstances.
Before you just take the first class you happen to run into, consider the following questions:
Are there special business/formal Japanese classes at your university? Do you want to do a short-term intensive course or study continuously over a longer period of time? What does your schedule allow for? Is going to Japan to take classes an option? Do you have a specific profession or job type in mind?
Single course VS integrated curriculum
Some schools and universities (both in Japan abroad) offer single-package business Japanese courses, running for a few weeks to a few months. If the content happens to fit your demands, they are the cheaper and less time-consuming way to reach your goals.
However, unless you’re immediately starting work afterward, a single introductory course to Business Japanese can only equip you with the basics. Planning for the time after the course ends (and choosing the correct time to take it) is key.
On the other hand, you have schools with whole curriculums focused on attaining fluency in business Japanese. Linguage Japanese School in Shinjuku is an example of such a place.
Full curriculums require a higher investment (in both time and money) but offer an integrated approach with many opportunities to repeat, review and practice things you’ve previously learned. They equip you with a wider and deeper understanding of the matter, which without a doubt will be necessary.
Business Japanese language classes in Tokyo
While there are opportunities to learn Japanese in other parts of Japan as well, Tokyo offers the greatest number of options.
In addition to the aforementioned full-time courses (usually running for three months to 1.5 years with about 4 hours of class every day from Monday to Friday), you can find evening classes (usually 1 to 2 hours and once or twice a week), weekend classes and private classes.
Evening and weekend classes are a good choice if you’re doing something else (e.g. going to university or a working holiday) and want to use your free time to increase your general business Japanese level.
Private classes might be more expensive, but especially if you prepare well (and don’t just expect the teacher/instructor to magically give you everything you want), chances are you’ll be able to improve faster than in regular class.
Test your Business Japanese
Once you feel that you’ve improved enough, it’s time for you to test if you really “got it”.
The JLPT is the most well-known and widespread Japanese test, but there’s also the BJT – the Business Japanese Proficiency test. Although no test result will reflect your abilities 100%, they will equip you with certificates that can prove your language skills to future employers.
Of course, if you’re super confident in your abilities, you could also just straight-up go on your job-hunting journey and impress the interviewers with your impeccable language skills. Anyway, in order to get that far, waste no time and start learning now!
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