How to Learn Business Japanese

How to Learn Business Japanese
Florian
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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.

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. Kenjougo, on the other hand, is used to talk about yourself and your own actions (or those 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.

In addition to these speech patterns, there are quite a lot of widely used “stock phrases”. You can think of them as “instant Keigo” you can just learn by heart without having to know all the ins and outs of polite speech.

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.

Setting-specific expressions

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.

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.

Nuanced speech

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” part into the nitty-gritty of things.

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 thing is being talked about is considered to be just flat-out impossible (at least at the moment).

Other traps are English loanwords or words that sound like they’re borrowed from English but are actually made-up “Japanese-English” words (和製英語, wasei-eigo). An everyday example of this is the word “konsento” (コンセント), which sounds like “consent”, but means something completely different (outlet/socket). In case you wondered, the inspiration for this word was the English term “concentrical plug”.

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 the teachers don’t expect foreigners to use it (at least until you reach the very top of the language class ladder).

I studied quite a bit of polite speech from books when I was still at university. But as the saying goes: If you don’t use it, you lose it. In the end, I was able to understand Keigo, but my attempts at speaking were okay at best.

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 regular polite speech (Keigo). It can be used anywhere, regardless of the context. Learning basic Keigo 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.

If there’s an industry or field you aspire to work in, you can start by slowly picking up technical vocabulary over time (e.g. by reading Japanese news).

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.

However, since most people you’ll find there will be around your own age, practicing Keigo with them may be a bit awkward. After all, people doing tandem usually want to make friends, not become business partners.

Also, while probably well-intentioned, younger people often “go soft” on language-learning partners, meaning they won’t relentlessly point out every mistake you make and instead
let minor ones slide with 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!”

Study resources

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.

Another option would be to search for an online language partner you can talk to at least once or twice a week. Because of the aforementioned hurdles of practicing business Japanese with peers, look for people in their 30s and 40s on platforms like HelloTalk. Practicing with them will probably be easier.

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) h elping 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, as long as they’re not also a Japanese teacher, their explanations can often be vague or guesswork.

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.

However, if you’re trying to do something specific, like landing a job in a certain industry or even company in a short relatively short period of time (a few months up to half a year), it might be worthwhile to look for private classes.

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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Florian

My love for ninjas and interest in Chinese characters (kanji) were what first made me come to Japan, as a high school student. Over ten years and many visits later, I’ve found a job here and have chosen it as my new home.