I have always pictured Japanese business letters as a flowchart of questions like “What is the current season?” and “Does the addressee work at a company or a school?". The answers to these questions largely determine the wording of the letter (see the Sample Answers at the end of this article). This means that writing these letters is often very formulaic, and that is exactly why native Japanese speakers use websites dedicated to the art of writing business letters.
In this short article, I would like to share the formula for polite and appropriate Japanese business letters. In addition, free yet very helpful websites where you can find sample letters will be shown for your reference.
*If you would like to print out this article, please do so from the "Full Article" page not the "Printer Version" page - the format will be not correct.
Organization of Japanese Business Letters
Japanese business letters usually follow a general format like the one here. The sample letter shows an announcement of a party to celebrate a company’s 10th year in business. The following section describes each section of the sample letter.
(2) 株式会社 オフィス Noriko
部長 山内 俊行様
マーケティング課 畑 麻衣子
(5) 拝啓 時下ますますご清栄のこととお喜び申し上げます。平素は格別
(6) さて、ジャパン ランゲージ ソリューションズは本年をもちまして、創立10周年を迎えるに至りました。これもひとえに皆様のおかげでございます。つきましては、誠にささやかではございますが、下記のように祝賀会を開催したいと存じます。ご多用のこととは存じますが、皆様お誘い合わせの上ぜひともご参加くださいますよう心よりお待ち申し上げます。
Some Common Rules
2. Addressee including company name, department, title, name with proper honorific title: If the addressee's name is unknown, it is appropriate to use their title such as 「マーケティング部長殿」. Also, if a letter is addressed to more than one person, you may want to use 「各位」 such as in 「お客様各位」.
3. Writer information including company name, department, title, name
4. Letter title: 「XXXのご案内」 is very widely used, such as in 「カタログ送付のご案内」.
5. Preceding sentence (called 前文 in Japanese): This part is composed of salutations (頭語) + seasonal greetings (時候の挨拶) + words to pay respect to the company’s great business + words to show appreciation for their business.
6. Body (主文): It usually starts with 「さて」.
7. Closing sentence (末文): This is often optional. There are certain formats as well. If you require the addressee to respond to your letter, you can say 「折り返し、ご一報賜りたくお願い申し上げます」. You can search for 「末文」 online to see many more examples.
8. Closing word (結語): They have to match the salutations seen in (5). For example, 「拝啓」 is always followed by 「敬具」, and 「謹啓」 takes 「敬白」 at the end of letters.
9. Notation: 「記」 is always used and is usually centered.
10. Additional information (追記)
11. Complimentary closing (結び): Japanese business letters need 「以上」 to mark the end of documents.
Insert necessary phrases that are often not in the source text. It is difficult to create polite letters without having certain components. For example, you should always have (5) Preceding sentence (前文), (8) Closing sentence (末文), as well as (11) Complimentary closing (結び). There are no perfectly corresponding phrases in English, so the source text often lacks them.
If you need to skip (5) Preceding sentence (前文), you can do so by using 「前略」 as Preceding sentence, and close the letter with 「草々」 as (8) the closing word. This is only acceptable when the letter does not require utmost politeness.
Don’t overdo politeness and formality. If it is an email, it is acceptable to be less formal. You can usually omit the seasonal greetings and the addresses of each company, etc.
Websites with Sample Letters for Free and without Registration
Here is a collection of websites where you can learn more about formats and see sample letters. The ones below are free and do not require registration to use.
This Microsoft website offers many templates in Japanese. They have categories like レター (Letters) and 案内状 (Invitations/Notes).
This website has a great number of sample letters for business-to-business occasions.
This site is run by Japan Post Service. They have a list of seasonal greetings which are considered to be a requisite for formal letters. (Please see the last section of this article for more on this).
This website has a format similar to the one I posted here, as well as how to appropriately address people at various positions (e.g. 課長XX様, not XX課長様).
You can find many sample phrases by searching 「前文」, 「頭語」, and 「結語」 using Eijiro dictionary here.
Sample Answers to the Questions at the Beginning of This Article
Here are the answers to the questions in the Introduction for this article.
What is the current season?
「時下」 which I used in my sample business letter can be used in any season. If you would like to be more poetical, this website has many to choose from at http://sample.teglet.co.jp/intro.php
Does the addressee work at a company or a school?
If addressing a person at a school, use 「貴校」 to refer to their organization. If it is a company, use 「貴社」.
I hope this article provided you with enough information to get started on that Japanese letter. Happy translating!