The question I am asked most often when talking to an executive coming to Japan for the first time is, “Can you give me some tips on what I shouldn’t do? What do I do when I meet someone? I don’t want to make any cultural mistakes.”
Usually, this question is posed rather nervously and at the end of a conference call, after our team has dealt with what we think really matters. We’ve carefully explained the situation they are dealing with in Japan. We’ve proposed what we regard as a smart, culturally sensitive media relations strategy, or a comprehensive bilingual programme to integrate Japan into their global communications strategy.
The nervous questioner could come from Poland, the UK or Spain. But more often it seems to be a North American who is deeply concerned that if they hand over their meishi backwards, make their bow wrong or stick a fork in their sushi, they will have to scuttle back home having gotten Japan irredeemably wrong in some subtle, unfathomable way.
Now, these are successful people working for leading companies. They have done megadeals and handled crises around the world, and they are sophisticated communicators. So why is it that the thought of committing a minor cultural faux pas in Japan sets their knees trembling?
I usually tell them that it’s best to assume that Japan and the West are about 95% the same. Mothers scold their children, big sisters torment their little brothers, kids make a lot of noise and don’t want to do their homework. And wherever you are, businesses grow, mature and then restructure or fade away. The big companies tend to face similar challenges — making rapid decisions, getting staff pulling towards a common goal, and growing their presence in the market.
In my experience there is a much greater gulf between a group of farmers in a pub in North Yorkshire and a senior journalist on the FT in London, than that between a Nikkei journalist and the CEO of, say, General Electric.
This is an important point. I see so many foreign companies failing to engage their Japanese stakeholders properly. And I think the reason for that is that they are spending too much time worrying about Japan’s supposedly alien way of thinking, at a time when Japan is increasingly looking outside for new ideas.
So don’t worry about the 5%. Get the 95% right!
It is much more important that our foreign clients tell their corporate story to Japan in the right way, to the right audience, than that they bow at the right angle (which they will get wrong, and, anyway, many Japanese want them to act like foreigners).
Most of our visitors these days have been here a few times and survived to tell the tale of how they wore the toilet slippers on the tatami matting. Indeed, as Tokyo has become internationalised, the potential to make a cultural gaffe has declined. But still the idea that Japan is so different remains; while, at the same time, it seems that Japan is entering one of those ‘learn from overseas’ phases — as seen after WWII, in the Meiji era, and back when the language was imported from China. It is very unlike the “Japan can do nothing wrong” attitude that I remember in Tokyo towards the end of the bubble era (early 1990s).
Japan’s businesses and consumers are facing outwards and ready to embrace the foreign vacuum cleaner, financial service, cheese or, in my firm’s case, advice. It is what is new and better value, or just simply better that they are looking for in the 95%. So we and other firms must concentrate on communicating effectively what we are and what we do to the audience we address in Japan, while only worrying about the 5% if it gets in the way of our main goal.© Japan Today