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How to win an argument – Japanese style

31 Comments

Having come from a nervous argumentative family (the type of East Coast Jewish/Italian you see in Woody Allen movies), one of the great appeals of living in Japan has been the fact that people just don’t seem to like to argue, or at least do it the way we do ... with the shouting, yelling, fast talking, table pounding, food flying from the mouth and allegations that Party A is giving Party B heartburn, or a heart attack and both parties are livid, ultimately uttering the ultimate fighting words, “I will sue you for everything you’ve got."

This is not to say Japanese never fight.

There was one time that was all the Japanese ever seemed to do ... at least, if you watch those samurai dramas in the late afternoon. It is also a historical fact that one of the privileges of being a samurai is that you could cut down anyone who offended you on the spot. But that was then; this is now.

Today, drunken train scuffles occur now and then, sometimes over the silliest of things.

I personally am not prone to violence, but despite all the push and shove, you get used to entering and exiting sardine packed trains. But there are individuals who get a little overenthusiastic and seem deserving of retribution, so now and then, I will respond with my own shove or elbow to the ribs.

There are other situations. Perhaps we’ve all seen it where some police are patiently standing in between the two parties as they go at it, even taking a few pushes and shoves, while the rest of the police have other parties of the group separated and are talking over the matter.

There are gangsters too. I’ve seen a few situations where people had the living daylights beaten out of them in broad daylight, in front of crowds, one within yelping distance of a koban.

These are extreme examples, though. Overall, Japan is peaceful. Bicycles disappear, people pull “sagi” (confidence) scams and women get groped, but out and out slug 'em fistfights, or the nervous family spats in the type of family I grew up in are very uncommon.

In my experience, rather than fighting, many Japanese tend to avoid conflict situations. On the other hand, friends may act as intermediaries in resolving a dispute. However, beware. If a conflict can’t be resolved in a group situation, the member who fails to help restore the peace may be shunned.

Intermediaries, in fact, are an important way the peace is kept in Japan. A formal legal example is a "chotei." Prior to going to court, people are required to mediate using the “chotei” system. In many cases the individuals are not necessarily brought together in the same room – meaning, they never fight it out face to face. Rather, the mediators listen to their concerns, exchange information back and forth between each other and try to get both parties to agree to something reasonable.

On the other hand, when trying to negotiate from within an organization, there’s "nemawshi," which some people translate as prior consultation or back channeling. A big mistake made by some Westerners not familiar with the system is thinking that a formal meeting is to be used to argue a point, and not understanding why participants in the meeting only listen, but don’t argue back.

Which leads to the question: If you’re a Westerner in Japan, what’s the best way to negotiate and resolve conflicts in formal business settings and which of those rules are applicable to personal relations?

Here are some of the basic rules of the road that many foreigners living in Japan are commonly taught.

(#1-6 are interpersonal and business, 7-10 are for business situations especially.)

  1. Hide emotions – especially negative ones, and particularly arrogance.

  2. Understand that saving face (even that of others) is very important in Japanese society and sometimes decisions may be made for this purpose alone. Allow for it.

  3. Learn that Japanese do not say no directly. The longer you’re in Japan, the better you learn to recognize it. Likewise, if you put an acquaintance in a position where he or she is forced to say it, realize the person may become avoidant.

  4. Avoid direct arguing. Japanese will often avoid retorting or discussing a point, even when they know its right.

  5. Be a very good active listener and take note of the speaker’s concerns. (As you speak, notice the other person may glimpse down and say, “un, un, un” after everything you say. This does not mean he or she agrees with you. It means he or she is listening intently, and soon it will be your job to do so as well.)

  6. Respect Japanese group spirit. Understand its dynamics, work around it, but do not try to go against it.

7.Know about the "ringi" process (Decisions are made based on group consensus and the buck is passed upward until it reaches the top of the line. In Japanese companies, ideas are said to originate bottom up, as compared to the traditional American style of top down). Likewise, be patient for it to play out.

  1. Avoid bold power plays, including threats of suing and going to court. It usually comes across as childish and immature.

  2. Respect the "amaeru" system -- the Japanese person’s feeling of dependence on his employer and obligation to those he employs.

  3. Personal relationships are very important in the decision making process. The longer the contact the greater its value. Japanese people also sometimes judge people intuitively, even in business situations. This is another reason negative language and emotions can backfire.

But in citing these rules, two sayings come to mind. One – "Deru kugi wa utareru." (The nail that sticks out gets pounded down) and Two – Rules were meant to be broken.

I’ll leave the analysis up to the reader.

© Japan Today

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

31 Comments
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In over a decade of working in Japan I have found that it is this list of rules that largely hinders Japan's ability to regain her position on the world economic stage and is a big part of why her political system simply doesn't work.

While these cultural behaviors were fine though the Meiji era, and somewhat stormed over during the war and during the subsequent rebuilding and bubble periods, they are all back in strong form in the time that they are least needed.

What Japan needs today are people willing to put these rules aside and change the destiny of the nation. We need arguments against foolish policies like transporting and burning nuclear contaminated waste in population centers. Or more people willing to challenge long standing business leaders who have lost touch with what is required to run their companies in the 21st century.

I know these proposals would be answered with a defening sound of sucking teeth and "chotto" said with considerable tension, but without challenges to these behaviors, Japan is destined to wallow in the shadow of her Asian competitors and her relevance on the world stage will continue to decline.

We all have to change if we are to adapt to the present and prepare for the future. It is time Japan learned to have an argument and put some of these rules aside.

3 ( +6 / -3 )

Pull out a video camera as you will be in for a long slow process with no results.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

It is definitely a problem. However, if you follow these rules, it means that a person who is even just slightly higher in status can just avoid you and leave you alone with your injustice. The problem is that if you have got a rotten apple in the chain of command, he or she will keep the whole section for which he is responsible down.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

"ideas are said to originate bottom up, as compared to the traditional American style of top down). "

After working in Japan I agree with your remarks. But when compared to American companies why do everyone say that Japanese companies are managed top down and a person have no say in the decision making process?

Rob

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I enjoyed this article. Thank you Mr. Landsberg. Wishing you all the best!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

The title of the article is " How to win an argument – Japanese style" and no where I can find any tips on how to win argument. The title is not related to the contents of the article. Its simply a list of DO's and DONT's. Will that help to win argument? I doubt.

I would like to add one tip that comes to my mind on how to win negotiation?

Whe negotiatijng for discounted price for anything ( car, house rent, property deals etc) the buyer should never disclose the amount that he would be willing to pay. The moment buyer declares the price he willing to buy than he is looser. In Japan its a unspoken rule or culture that when the buyer discloses the amount that he is willing to pay then he looses and the seller will never agree to negotiate. The buyer can say he is looking for chepaer deal or expecting more dscounts or do not show interest in the product you really want to buy. The seller or agent will try all his skills to know the price that buyer is willing to pay. But please be aware...

I hope to get more tips from the author or other readers of this article that can help gaijins to negotiate and win in Japanese way..

Rob

3 ( +3 / -0 )

@rdinero35

The title of the article is " How to win an argument – Japanese style" and no where I can find any tips on how to win argument.

The argument, Japanese style to win, Fight not, you must.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Well collaboration, simply true . Thank you Mr. Landsberg. Wishing you all the best!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Learn that Japanese do not say no directly.

I love this one. It caught me out for a good few years.

Q.Can I have this? A. sore wa, muzukashii desu

Muzukashii translates as 'difficult', but it means impossible.

It is these cultural differences (not language) that can make a huge difference if you can negotiate them.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

As Squidbert so eloquently put it in yoda-speak, to win an argument like a Japanese would involves NOT having an argument and instead using something similar to an arbitration hearing, but with two arbiters. My nihongo sensei has already drilled some of these points into us. We already know that when asking a question of a Japanese national, they will do everything in their power to NOT say "No", and instead will even go so far as to leave the reply unfinished. ("ボーリングはちょっと。。。") which we are to interpret as an answer in the negative.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Fadamor:

There was a famous article from a former head of Sony, titled "The Japan who can say no."

From Wikipedia: This is a 1989 essay originally co-authored by Shintaro Ishihara, then Minister of Transport and leading LDP figure and current governor of Tokyo; and Sony co-founder and chairman Akio Morita,

How to win your argument:

Make sure you have enough high ranking supporters!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

^ That too.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Deru kugi wa utareru.” (The nail that sticks out gets pounded down)

The use of this quote bugs me. It is misinterpreted. The original meaning is not a threat not to stand out, but a statement of the human condition. It means that those who stand out because of extraordinary ability or another enviable quality, and don't hide it out of modesty, are hated due by those who envy them. I've seen many Japanese at meetings stand up and/or go out on a limb with their opinions in front of the whole staff, and none have been "pounded down" for doing so. In fact I'd reckon that many Japanese appreciate a good ole "let me tell you" speech, just as long as it's not everyday.

It's all about shadenfreude.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I somewhat disagree because of the following;

The Japanese are Japanese because of their culture. You cannot be a half or even a Japanese who has lived abroad mostly and expect to be in their society. Contrasting to other countries where if you stay long enough and learn the language you will gradually feel yourself becoming more as one with the people and the culture, here you will make friends and even live very well and be happy, but you still feel like the odd one out. However usually that makes you somewhat "unique" or "interesting" and thus foreigners don't feel the racism as you may elsewhere if you were such an outsider.

Because of the Shi Kata system which governs all aspects of Japanese social life (there is even a shi kata for dealing with the gaijin) you cannot play by their rules and expect to win. Sitting around playing by their rules may just make you even more odd and a stand out. Imagine a total Japanese trying to act American and copying your culture, language, and body language when they are resolving an issue with you.

I believe the foreigners strength is that they DO NOT NEED to use the Japanese Shi Kata system. You do not have to adhere to people around you if you have a place of power that is your own. And in many cases the foreigner in a Japanese company has just that. You can deal with people who would be too far your superior to even address in that manner to the general office public. You can disagree when you are not actually in a place of power to do so.

You can get your way -Know of many locals who do that?

1 ( +2 / -1 )

@ thepersoniamnow Well said. You're right. Non-Japanese can get their way but must be very foxy (in the manner of the folkloric shape-shifter) to do it. And they won't be able to succeed all the time. There are ways to beat the system, but it's best to pick your issues. Then bring them in through the back door in a nonchalant and non-threatening manner. I have had repeated success this way. Not always, but often enough to satisfy. One of my good friends marvels at it and repeatedly tells me, "You out-Japanese the Japanese."

I also agree with the point that non-Japanese have a place of power all our own. However, we need the courage to use it. Sometimes we can be so busy trying to fit in and playing by the Japanese rules that we squander that resource. If it backfires there's always the fall-back position: Play the ignorant, non-Japanese card. As I said, be foxy.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

It was a fairly good read for me. I agree with the general concept of "respecting the system" that the author is pushing. Knowing the right people and knowing who to trust are also important (especially in a business setting).... in a scary way, it's kind of the mafia where you could be gold one minute, and then "whacked" the next minute by the same people who commended you. This can happen even if you have performed well or have done something commendable, but you are too bold or arrogant afterwards (which is also something that the author doesn't recommend). This is called "Choushi ni noru" , or "getting carried away".

0 ( +1 / -1 )

My favorite example of Japanese people who won't say "no" are the people who will instead say, "perhaps you would rather..."

2 ( +2 / -0 )

A good rules, really. Its can to use in negotiations for any people.... I'll try to use it on my work. But in our society if you can't to say "No", or no direct arguing, this maybe seems as a hesitating, vacillating....

0 ( +0 / -0 )

How to win an argument – American style? With a gun.

-6 ( +0 / -6 )

sourpussNov. 02, 2011 - 09:56PM JST

Deru kugi wa utareru.” (The nail that sticks out gets pounded down)

The use of this quote bugs me. It is misinterpreted. The original meaning is not a threat not to stand out, but a statement of the human condition. It means that those who stand out because of extraordinary ability or another enviable quality, and don't hide it out of modesty, are hated due by those who envy them

I'm not so sure about that... The way my husband put it, it means anyone who "sticks out" in "Group-oriented Japan". He used that very same expression to tell me that's what he had become by marrying a foreigner...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

i don't see how you can win an argunment with this rule. "Avoid direct arguing. Japanese will often avoid retorting or discussing a point, even when they know its right."

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The Japanese win an argument by agreeing not to agree and no one has lost face.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

i don't see how you can win an argunment with this rule. "Avoid direct arguing. Japanese will often avoid retorting or discussing a point, even when they know its right."

The emphasis is on the "direct" part.

Direct confrontations are frown upon, it causes people (the losing party anyway) to lose face, resulting in the burning of bridges - bad idea in the "social harmony" loving Japan.

You are suppose to solve things "quietly" and without "incident".

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

This is true for the older generation but the 40s and younger will get in your face as face worse than any Westerner Ive ever known. The 40ish age group "obaterians" can really be loud and forceful.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

My own rules are simple, be absalutly sure that you are absalutely blameless in regards to the event that may lead to a confrontation.Never be afraid to appologise if you are in the wrong and that the regret is expressed before a situation can escalate. If you are in the right ignore the other persons intentions to cause ill feeling, if they are unjust they are not worth bothering about anyway. Everyone has a right to their own oppinion, if you cant agree beg to differ, and in this computer age, the ultimate weapon, unfriend them from facebook

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Don't act like a stereotypical, loud-mouthed, obnoxious American basically... that applies for most other cultures too.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

I'm Japanese and I think this article is one of the best written article about the Japanese and their way of thinking. It's always fun to know how Westerners think Japan and it's people. Even Japanese, it's really difficult to get along well within a group. We're often required to "Kuki wo yomu / 空気を読む," which literally means "To read the atomosphere." As a Japanese, I sometimes feel a bit suffocated to find other Japanese people are trying to be harmonious. Differentiating "honne / 本音" (one's true feelings) and "tatemae / 建前" (public face, or opinion)is challenging and tiring. Mr.Landsberg is not only a dispassionate thinker but also a person who has considerable experience in Japanese society, which makes his article quite interesting. Thank you, and keep up the good work!!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

The use of this quote bugs me. It is misinterpreted. The original meaning is not a threat not to stand out, but a statement of the human condition. It means that those who stand out because of extraordinary ability or another enviable quality, and don't hide it out of modesty, are hated due by those who envy them.

This is true. It isn't meant to apply to anyone who is different. I usually hear it in the context of school bullying towards an exceptionally pretty or talented child.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Apparently, some of these rules can also be found in the TEPCO and OLYMPUS employee manuals...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Jacqueline Miyagaya,

Your situation is exactly what I'm talking about. He is sticking out because he has put himself in an enviable position (marrying a foreigner, and all the romantic stereotypes that that entails).

The fact that he is different is not what makes him a nail. It is WHAT makes him different that makes him stick out. He is just being envied, and envy is a universal human feeling. There is nothing particularly Japanese about it at all.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

As Woody Allen's monologue and dialogue, playing the stereotype. He does it cleverly though.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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