The Sabra and The Samurai: A Clash of Two Cultures
A guide for business transaction between Israelis and Japanese—two of the world's most opposite cultures—by a man who observed both as an outsider
I’m an American who lives and works in Tel Aviv, but I spent the majority of my career working at Japanese companies both in the U.S. and Japan. I am continuously fascinated and amused when I witness Japanese and Israeli interactions—the two nations could not be further apart on the cultural spectrum.
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In the hope of facilitating many business “matches” (Shidduch in Hebrew, Omiai in Japanese), I list eight critical cultural differences between Japanese and Israeli business practices. Awareness of these differences should help bridge the divide between the Land of the Rising Sun and The Land of Milk & Honey.
1. Business Cards: most Israelis find them to be an unnecessary formality. To the Japanese, they are essential and the optimal way to introduce oneself. So, print business cards. It will be awkward during initial introductions if you don't have them.
2. Punctuality: in Israel, it is quite common and accepted to be “running a few minutes late.” This goes against common practice in Japan, which is renowned for its punctuality. Meetings often begin and end behind schedule.
3. Names: the Japanese will introduce themselves and refer to each other by only using their last names. Israelis feel comfortable introducing themselves and each other by using their first names only. It is advised that when meeting with Japanese people, Israelis would follow Japanese customs and refer to them by their surnames. It is also highly recommended to add the word “san” to the end of the last name—it is a sign of respect and should be used regularly.
4. Communication Style: Japanese meeting Israelis should prepare for a direct, blunt conversation style. Israelis are not known for “beating around the bush,” and freely offer their opinions. This could be viewed as “confrontational,” but to an Israeli, it is simply the most effective way to communicate and avoid ambiguity or the chance for misunderstandings.
5. Delegation Size: Israelis should try not to be shocked at the number of people participating in a meeting or a delegation, which could be quite high by Israeli standards. Traditionally, the most senior member of the Japanese delegation will sit in the middle of the table, and the conversation should be directed toward him or her.
6. Working Lunches: Israelis often organize a “working lunch” during the business day and may suggest ordering food during a meeting. While this is not common in Japan, it is in Israel.
7. Socializing after work: the Japanese often let their hair down after work but return right back to formality the following morning in the office. Do not misinterpret a fun night on the town as a signal to assume a new “buddy-buddy” relationship.
8. Negotiations: Japanese should be prepared for Israelis to often express impatience or frustration for lack of closure in negotiations. Unlike in Japan, Israelis tend to move quickly and prefer resolution and closure over long and deliberate discussions.
By familiarizing oneself with the nuances of Japanese and Israeli business culture, both sides significantly increase the chances of avoiding misunderstandings, confusion, and frustration—which as we all know is the key to a successful and long-lasting match.
Mike Waxman is an experienced international capital markets professional specializing in Japanese portfolio management, corporate valuation, equity research as well as institutional sales. Now residing in Tel Aviv, Mike is focused on increasing cross-border transactions and capital flow between Israel and Japan.