Small talk, inkan and counting in Japan

Sumo, geishas and samurai – Japanese culture can occasionally seem very foreign to Europeans, and it entails a lot of peculiarities. Today, we’d like to give you a look at three various subject areas that you should keep in mind when it comes to business contact with the Japanese.

Sensitive issues

Japan is sometimes identified as a culture of shame, meaning that people’s open appreciation is considered the greatest good and is accordingly sought after. Shame is felt by both people whose violation of existing norms has become known and by people who may have suffered from unpunished public wrongdoing.

This is based on the cultural standard of losing face. In order to maintain everyone’s public standing, negative aspects and mistakes are kept quiet or discussed euphemistically. One’s own emotions are kept hidden – no one should see how others feel on the inside. You should also handle certain topics carefully if you don’t want to commit a blunder when getting to know someone.

  • For instance, you should absolutely refrain from speaking to a Japanese person about Japan’s military past or crimes during World War II.
  • Another unpleasant topic that’s forced out of the public sphere is discrimination against minorities.


If introductory conversations with your Japanese partner are going well and it comes to negotiations, it’s important to know Japanese numerical values. In our Western counting system, numbers are divided by thousands: 1,000, 10,000 and 100,000. But if you’re talking figures with Japanese people, you should keep in mind that they don’t count in groups of three like you, but in groups of four. Another counting unit is used for this: the so-called “man”, or 10,000. Here’s an example: 856,932 in the Western counting system would be 85 man 6,932 in Japan.

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Overlooking a single digit can cause a massive misunderstanding, so take this into consideration when conducting business negotiations. When juggling high numbers, it can even be difficult for practiced translators to specify numerals correctly. It’s consequently recommended to record large, important numbers in writing. If you do get to the point in your negotiations where contracts are about to be signed, pay attention to the use of inkan and hanko.


In Japan, things like contracts are typically not sealed with a signature. In many cases, handwritten signatures under documents are not even legally binding. Instead they use name stamps, called “inkan”, or “hanko” in colloquial speech.

  • These consist of a person’s name on a small block made of hardwood, bone, ivory or marble, often carved in seal script – an ancient form of calligraphy.
  • There are two different types of seal: personal ones and officially registered ones.
  • Officially registered seals are required for rental contracts, banking transactions and car purchases, among other things. For this reason, adults typically have several inkan/hanko.

Even in 21st-century Japan, both private and professional lives are unimaginable without name stamps. One reason for this could lie in the superstition associated with seals. For instance, many Japanese people believe that business is more successful with a valuable hanko.

About Andreas Riedel

I studied tourism management and European studies/cultural studies. In both subjects I took a close look at cross-cultural communication from different angels. I have been working as a key account manager at Eidam & Partner since 2013. We offer worldwide services related to cross-cultural communication, such as cross-cultural training, cross-cultural coaching, eLearning and preparation for international assignments for more than 80 target countries.
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