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.)
Hide emotions – especially negative ones, and particularly arrogance.
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.
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.
Avoid direct arguing. Japanese will often avoid retorting or discussing a point, even when they know its right.
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.)
- 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.
Avoid bold power plays, including threats of suing and going to court. It usually comes across as childish and immature.
Respect the "amaeru" system -- the Japanese person’s feeling of dependence on his employer and obligation to those he employs.
- 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