Tips on writing formal Business Japanese emails

Or: Don’t make the same mistakes I did. :)

I work in a large IT company with offices in Japan, among other places, and so in my efforts to learn Japanese, I have tried to use it when communicating with Japanese staff. Unfortunately, as I am quickly realizing, formal Business Japanese is quite different than regular Japanese, even the stuff you study for the JLPT exam. At least the Level 3 JLPT exam.1 While it’s still the same language, there are important differences to be aware of if you really want to do it right.

So, a Japanese co-worker, has been giving me some helpful tips that I wanted to pass on:

  • When speaking with clients or vendors (i.e. people outside your company), you should always begin an email with itsumo osewa ni narimasu (いつもお世話になります).
  • When speaking with someone within the company, you should begin the email instead with otsukaresama desu (お疲れ様です).
  • Word choice matters a lot. The regular, more “native” words are often too informal or conversational, while the imported “Chinese-style” words, or kango (漢語) are more formal. For example, the word oshieru (教える) can mean “to tell”, but if writing an email, a more appropriate term might be kisai suru (記載する) meaning “to describe, to state”.2 Another example is rikai suru (理解する) instead of wakaru (分かる).
  • Also, when addressing an external client or vendor you can add “go” or “o” to verbs and nouns. So, using the example above, kisai suru (記載する) would become go-kisai suru (ご記載する). However, never never never use the polite “go” or “o” to refer to yourself, your company, or anyone in your “group“.
  • Also, when stating intention, don’t use volitional Japanese like shimashō (しましょう) as it can sound too assertive. Instead water it down and use the more neutral, more bland shimasu (します) or something along those lines.
  • Also, like formal business emails in general, keep the tone bland as much as possible. American-style friendliness just won’t work.
  • Indirect, passive language is preferred in formal situations as opposed to direct language. Make good use of the passive-case of verbs where feasible. They are used in keigo (honorific) language quite a bit too! :)

Of course, Japanese are patient and understanding if you make mistakes. After all, people are people,3 and learning any business language is always hard, but if you really screw up, and a sincere apology works too. Of course, to make a cake you have to break a few eggs. It’s just that it’s good to avoid mistakes where possible. ;)

I’ll pass along more tips as I learn them. Good luck in your efforts!

Namu Amida Butsu

Update: Added more tips, updated the footnotes to new format.

1 – Actually, basic keigo (respectful language) and kenjōgo (humble language) are included in the JLPT 3 exam. Westerners who study Japanese tend to rely too much on textbook formal Japanese, and don’t make use of keigo and kenjogo enough. In social situations where someone is older than you, you can really communicate better when you master some basic keigo and kenjogo. They will understand you either way, but using respectful language will show that you appreciate the culture better, with its emphasis on hierarchy. It’s hard to get used to this since we don’t use it much in English, but “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” ;)

2 Thanks to reader “Maxx” for pointing out that kisai suru is used in a written context only. :)

3so why should it be

About Doug 陀愚

A Buddhist, Father and Japanophile / Koreaphile.
This entry was posted in Japanese, JLPT, Language. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Tips on writing formal Business Japanese emails

  1. Wendi says:

    Are there any good books on writing business Japanese? I also work in a Japanese company and must correspond with them daily. I am learning conversational Japanese, but I also want to deepen my understanding of business, keigo and kenjogo Japanese. Any suggestions?

  2. Doug says:

    Hi Wendy and welcome to the JLR. I am not aware of any such books at this time, but appreciate any recommendations anyone has.

  3. Tyler says:

    Hi Doug,

    Great article. These are all helpful tips. I’ve notched a few professional e-mails in Japanese myself, and another tip I might add is to use “~sete itadakimasu,” or “~sete itadaite orimasu” when doing or stating something you might normally ask someone for permission first, such as using English.

    I find that essentially the more time you spend practicing keigo, the better your written business Japanese will sound.

    Tyler

  4. Doug says:

    Hi Tyler,

    Great catch on the use of itadaku. I totally overlooked that, but that should be added in there, along with general reminders about humble vs. honorific speech. Totally agree on the need to practice keigo, but I’ve also been reminded by Japanese coworkers when not to “overdo it” too. I’ve yet to get this balance right and tend to be overcautious. :P

  5. Max says:

    Hi,

    please ask a Japanese how he would use “kisai suru”. It’s more like “to note s.th.” I guess.

    Max

  6. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Max and welcome to the JLR.

    Regarding “kisai suru”, I did ask a Japanese co-worker. I mentioned that in the post. This post was written because I made the mistake of using 教える in a business email and my co-worker suggested 記載する instead. So this advice should be valid, but may depend on the context too. :)

  7. Max says:

    If you describe something VERBALLY, you should not use “kisai suru”. “Kisai suru” refers only to a description in WRITING. That is the crucial point. Sorry, I forgot to mention.

    Max

  8. Max says:

    教える is also used for a VERBAL action. If someone reads your post, he could think, that 記載する would also apply for a VERBAL action, but it does not.

  9. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Ok, I see what you mean now. You’re right. I’ll clarify that in the post. Good catch, thank you. :)

  10. Frenky says:

    I would recommend
    Writing E-mails in Japanese
    The Japan Times | 2006 | ISBN: 4789011844

    it helped me with email writing

  11. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Frenky and welcome to the JLR. Thanks very much for the book suggestion. I will probably take you up on that because I definitely need the help. :)

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