Navigating Japanese communication styles in the workplace: Tips from GLOBIS MBA School

By Chiara Terzuolo

Anyone who has worked in or with a Japanese company has experienced it; the colleague who is always bubbling over with new solutions each time you talk, who then never proposes them in department meetings. Situations in which the elephant is not only in the room but heavily tap dancing across the conference table, and yet no one addresses the issue. The long silence which follows the innocent phrase “any questions?” after a presentation.

The extreme reluctance of most people to speak up about their ideas or concerns in a public work environment can make communication between teams with members from Japan and other countries a bit challenging— but it doesn't have to be! In this article we’re teaming up with GLOBIS University, Japan’s No. 1 business school, to discuss the roots of Japanese communication style and ways to avoid communication faux pas in cross-cultural business situations.

Mr. Kenya Yoshino, lecturer in Leadership, HR and Cross Cultural Management at GLOBIS University

The Roots of Japanese Communication Styles

Preserving the harmony of the group and taking care to not challenge authority have deep historical and cultural roots, going back all the way to the days of small, interdependent village life, where rash behavior or disagreements could influence the survival of the entire community and even lead to the offender being ostracized. As far back as the 600s, the leaders of Japan have sought to bring harmony (or wa) to the islands. In fact this value was considered so important that it was the very first tenet of Prince Shotoku’s Seventeen-article constitution, written in 604.

However, despite this desire for accord, it is impossible to deny that Japanese society is also immensely competitive. According to Hofstede’s theory of cultural dimensions, there are six major traits in each society's culture that influence the values and ultimately behavior of its members. Japan ranks highly in both traits of competitiveness and avoiding uncertainty but low in individualism.

A Fine Balance between Competition and Cooperation

This combination of values creates a complicated situation in which people seek to be harmonious with their group but at the same time are required to compete with each other. The way most individuals deal with this is by separating their private and public opinions, which also allows for a certain degree of control over group interactions. By following these unspoken social rules and prioritizing harmony, it is possible to create a safe, conflict-free space.

So, returning to the example of the dancing elephant in the boardroom, no one will bring up its antics in the meeting for fear of causing embarrassment to the project leader or making the gathering awkward. The flip side of the coin is that people will not ask questions in public, least they be perceived as being ignorant or perhaps even selfish by taking everyone’s time during the presentation. In either case, they are more likely to approach the person later in a private chat or email, as to avoid causing disruption and maintaining the wa.

Mr. Kenya Yoshino, former head of the Career Office and now lecturer in Leadership, HR and Cross Cultural Management at GLOBIS University, teaches that Japanese society has traditionally valued implicitness. In a way meetings in many traditional companies in Japan are basically public ceremonies to officially establish something that has already been amply discussed and decided behind closed doors. As such, bringing up problems or stating one’s personal opinion could be viewed as disturbing the group consensus, even if done with the best of intentions.


Speaking Globally

While this works well enough in a Japanese context, issues start to appear as soon as other cultures are thrown into the mix. Maintaining the wa is certainly important but adopting a global mindset is vital to succeed in business. GLOBIS’ expert team know this well, as they have been at the forefront of the movement to globalize Japan’s workforce. The university’s hands-on program teaches the next generation of both Japanese and international leaders how to work together by bridging cultural differences, and helps students learn to manage cross-cultural teams around the globe.

This kind of knowledge is essential in today’s business world, as communication style differences between Japanese and non-Japanese teams still cause misunderstandings and unfortunate jokes about “yes meaning maybe, and maybe meaning no” in Japan. It can also lead to Japanese business people being taken aback by feedback or comments which are meant to be helpful, but seem overly aggressive from a local perspective.

Although this subject is well-worth exploring in depth, Mr. Yoshino has two quick useful tips to get things back on track without disturbing the harmony of the group, in cases where a meeting, project or discussion seems to be going in the wrong direction.

The first is prefacing feedback with acknowledging your own part in the issue at hand, so that it doesn’t seem like you are exclusively laying fault on others. This is especially powerful in situations when you are working as a team, as it reinforces that you are all in this together, and no one is being singled out for blame. Even if you feel you haven’t made an error, simply adding a little phrase like ‘I apologize; my instructions should have been clearer’ or ‘we should have noticed the issue sooner’ can help facilitate smooth communication.


Mr. Yoshino also recommends avoiding statements of opinion, and instead using questions as a way to ‘shine a light on the problem’ by verbalizing it without appearing overly emotional or pushy. By using questions you bring the whole group into the discussion, while also leading it into a more positive direction towards a solution created by consensus.

Of course, this is not a one-sided issue, as Mr. Yoshino feels that Japanese business people also need to push against the comfort zone provided by the divide in public and personal opinions.

There are plenty of Japanese people who feel they should share their personal opinions, but find it very difficult to do so, especially in a corporate setting. Expressing concerns and disagreement in a public setting makes them worry about being labeled as uncooperative or—even worse— KY (kuuki yomenai, someone who can’t “read the atmosphere” of a situation).

Using questions can also be a useful starting point for Japanese people to speak up and get their point across without appearing unaccommodating. For example, if they feel that they have a better solution for a problem at hand, asking a casual question that begins to direct the group away from the current consensus to that new solution is an effective tactic. Something casual such as; “Sorry everyone, I’m still a bit confused. Can you explain (this or that part) again?” will open further discussion.

The ability to deal with people from different backgrounds is an essential ability in this era of globalization, no matter where you are from. For young business leaders seeking to advance their career in Japan or learn how to manage international teams effectively, GLOBIS University teaches the skills they’ll apply in an ever-evolving business world.

Across GLOBIS’ unique and rewarding curriculum, students will have a chance to develop their capacity for cross cultural communication through lively discussions and group work with classmates from various countries. GLOBIS is proud of its diverse student body, encouraging interaction between learners in order to enable them to bring innovation to areas where it is most needed, seeking beyond cultural and social boundaries to become tomorrow’s business leaders.

Learn more about GLOBIS

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The long silence which follows the innocent phrase “any questions?” after a presentation.

This actually means, get ready for the backstabbing after the meeting is adjourned.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I love how these articles try to justify stupid behaviors and archaic cultural norms.

In reality when the manager says something everyone is expected to fall in line behind that opinion or action, its not about wa in most cases its about people being to afraid to question stupid behaviours and systems for fear of being ostracized.

Japan is the country that needs to change its practices if it wants to move into the global economy more not the other way around.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Different societies have different accepted behaviors, making them neither better nor worse, just different. However, I would observe that societies that have a long history of militarism and dictatorship, whether it be the feudal kingdoms of Asia, Russia, most third world countries, or Prussia, for example, developed societal norms which empower the dictatorial status quo. Perhaps that is part of why democratic methods, which require a healthy give and take of opinions, have a hard time establishing themselves.

I can admire, up to a point, the habit in Japan of maintaining group-think through almost obsequious behavior, but if I am honest, it is very far from my own way of behaving.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I really do not agree with this article. The fact that we are being told to use a statement with no real meaning like apologising for an issue that is not our fault. So we can start a conversation about an issue that needs to be solved is completely backwards. How about we just talk about the issue with direct communication instead of being scared because of some cultural difference that has not progressed for 1000's of years. Because of globalisation and generally the world becoming smaller strategies like the ones suggested are just tip toeing towards more confusion.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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