Writing cross-cultural emails: The Japanese edition

The Internet has made it extremely easy to communicate, allowing businesses to reach customers and find new partners around the world. However, cultural and linguistic differences still exist and can create problems, especially at the beginning of a business relationship.

In this blog post, we’ll first focus on some general advice for writing an initial business email to someone who may not be a confident speaker of your language. Then we’ll examine some specific issues related to Japan.

Email application highlighted in the computer

1. First impressions count

Even though this should be obvious, it still needs to be repeated. You only have one chance to make a first impression, and if it’s an email, it better be good. In fact, it better be as perfect as possible. No typos. No misspellings. No inconsistent formatting. No emojis. Professionalism, simplicity, and clarity are your goals.

2. Keep it simple

As in most business contexts, direct and clear communication is vital to closing the deal. However, many of us, as native speakers of our own language(s), often don’t realize how many idioms and metaphors we use on a daily basis. Phrases that seem normal to you, such as “Take the bull by the horns” or “No strings attached,” may be confusing to non-native readers. Review what you have written, and consider rewriting phrases and ideas that may be culturally dependent. Better yet, ask someone else to read it with these things in mind. If they are not a native speaker of your language, that is even better. Often, we can’t see things in our own writing that are obvious issues for someone else.

3. No machine translation

Even though you might think it might be helpful to the recipient, it is probably better not to include a translation of your email text. Translation software can make mistakes that lead to misunderstandings, inaccuracies, or embarrassments. Also, some readers may want to learn from your email as a real-world example. More than one person has mentioned to me over the years that they learn something from my emails. The first time this happened, I was so surprised. I also became even more careful and thoughtful after that what I wrote and how I presented information.

Worst of all, the assumption that the recipient cannot read your email could be viewed as insulting. If a translation is necessary, let the reader do it.

Gmail inbox shown in the browser tab

4. Don’t mix languages

You may want to try to use some words or phrases from the recipient’s language in an effort to be friendly or make a connection. However, unless there is some specific reason to do so, for similar reasons to those above, it is safer to write only in your language. It also could be perceived that you are trying too hard to make a positive impression.

5. Be careful of cultural references

Similar to the advice regarding mixing languages, be careful making references to the reader’s culture unless you are very knowledgeable about it. What you may think is a safe, interesting, or even funny concept or topic may actually be a stereotype or seem inappropriate. Even worse, you might accidentally reference the wrong culture; for example, it would be extremely poor form to mix up Japanese culture with other Asian cultures.

6. Japan-specific issues

While the above advice is basically universal, there are some specific and interesting points about Japanese communication.

Japanese magazine cover written mixed language in English and Japanese

References to the weather or season

If you look into Japanese business communication, one interesting concept is the use of phrases and references to the weather or season as part of the greeting. For example, the phrase, “At the time of fresh greenery, I hope that [name] is doing well” (新緑のみぎり、[name ]様におかれましては益々ご清祥のことと存じます。), is used in the Spring.

When I first learned of this years ago, I began to often include weather or seasonal reference in my own correspondence. However, talking with some Japanese professional colleagues about ideas for the blog post, they clarified that it is usually done in communications with those with whom you already have a relationship. Also, it may be falling out of fashion as some of them indicated that they are seeing less use of such phrases.

Of course, if a response does contain a comment about weather or season, then it would be appropriate to respond in kind.

Status is everything

In Japan, the relationship between the two parties is extremely important. In fact, in the Japanese language, there are different types of honorifics or parts of speech that show the respect that is mandatory in certain contexts. These honorifics are extremely important in the Japanese business world, so much so that newly hired employees are trained in the ones used with customers and superiors. With this in mind, when contacting someone in Japan for the first time, it would be wiser to err on the side of caution and keep your email more on the formal side than casual.

Names and gender

For those not familiar with Japanese names, it can be difficult to determine the gender of the reader. Also, some first names can be both masculine and feminine, similar to the name “Pat” in English. In letters and emails written in Japanese, instead of Mr. or Ms., the gender-neutral honorific “sama” (様) is used after the name, as compared to the more well-known “san” (さん). However, according to my Japanese colleagues, it would be strange for an email to address someone as “Matsumoto-sama” in English. They recommend either using “-san” after the name or just only the name by itself.

Japanese surnames engraved in the wooden decorated wall
There are tons of unique Japanese surnames. Have you ever heard of some of them?

Names and pronunciation

A name is very personal and is the one thing you should absolutely get right in an email to someone no matter what language or culture. Ideally, you will have the Japanese recipient’s name in “romaji” (written out using English letters). However, it is possible that you may only have the name in kanji, the logographic symbol “alphabet.” In this case, you may be tempted to use machine translation, such as Google Translate, to find a romaji version of a kanji name.

Don’t do it.

As names written in kanji often use non-standard pronunciation, it is difficult even for native Japanese speakers to be confident about how to say a name and can be very stressful. For example, the Japanese kanji name of 海部 can be pronounced in 14 different ways. Incorrectly spelling or even having the wrong name in this situation can reflect very badly upon you. If this is the situation you face, just use the kanji name with “-san” after it. For the same reasons, don’t translate a name in romaji into kanji. It’s just too risky.

Don’t panic!

While there may seem many things to worry about when writing a cross-cultural email, don’t worry too much. By keeping the points above in mind and doing your best to write emails with professionalism and clarity, it will be hard to go wrong. The recipients of your emails know that their culture is not your culture and are more than likely to be forgiving of any unintentional mistakes or misunderstandings.

Good luck, and good writing!


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Originally from Ohio, USA, Bailey is an experienced freelance writer and editor, especially for technical and scientific content. With an MA in English and a background in science, he also has more than 20 years of experience in teaching English around the world.

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