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Japan from the outside - Not easy, but not that different

15 Comments

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

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15 Comments
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Seems like sensible advice. I look forward to the comments.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

The way to understand the differences is to know that on the surface you will fit in fine, but that Japanese will never fundamentally accept dealing with a foreigner as a fully normal situation, and will always in their heart of hearts prefer to deal with a Japanese.

3 ( +11 / -8 )

Japanese facing toward? Yeah, they embrace the foreign vacuum cleaner but not the foreigners.

1 ( +8 / -7 )

Nothing but PP/fluff piece fom someone obviously with a opersonal agenda -- builing business for his firm. If he had actually worked in a senior position at any Japanese-based company, he'd know that Mizuame and sillygirl are correct:

The way to understand the differences is to know that on the surface you will fit in fine, but that Japanese will never fundamentally accept dealing with a foreigner as a fully normal situation, and will always in their heart of hearts prefer to deal with a Japanese.

Japanese facing toward? Yeah, they embrace the foreign vacuum cleaner but not the foreigners

Just look at how well Olympus accepted Woodfard.

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-1 ( +6 / -7 )

Learn the language.

3 ( +7 / -4 )

The article is pretty correct.

When my overseas clients are visiting, I always tell them to try to do the formalities right, like handing over their business card the right way etc, but that it's not a big deal if they get it wrong. These aren't the things that will tank a business deal/relationship. What will make or break a relationship is how the business is done after the small formalities.

Often Western companies, in particular American companies, will push their own side very strongly, without as much consideration of the other side, in the expectation that the other side will push back accordingly (as would happen in their countries). I tell them that if they push this hard in Japan, they may get what they want in the meeting, but long-term it will come back to bite them. I've seen situations where pushing too hard hard has caused the entire deal to fall apart after the fact, an other situations where the issue seems to be resolved within the meeting, but then the Japanese side just keep circling back to it over and over and over, in effect using up a lot more time than if it had been dealt with better in the first place. Rather than pushing so hard, both parties should make an effort to consider the motivations and priorities of the other side, and come up with a solution that benefits both sides. I've found in Japan that this way of doing business leads to stronger relationships that are more efficient, and last longer.

One thing to also recognize is that there is a difference between being in Japan and doing business, and coming to Japan to do business. When people are coming from overseas, they will get a lot of leeway from the Japanese insofar as what is expected of them. But when someone is trying to do business in Japan (i.e. a Japan-located business), there is more of an expectation to understand Japanese business practices, to do things the Japanese way, and to either have an understanding of the Japanese language, or have an assistant/translator who can speak Japanese at a native (or close) level.

7 ( +10 / -3 )

Just look at how well Olympus accepted Woodfard

Why don't we? They accepted him VERY well, he worked his way to the top of the company. His (and their) downfall was their corruption, had nothing to do with international relationships.

Any reason you bring up his name, and not Howard Stringer or Carlos Ghosn, both foreigners who have served as CEO of very large Japanese companies?

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

Strangerland's last paragraph was right on the mark.

Listen well, learn as much Japanese as you can and try and be as comfortable as possible with seemingly odd approaches to a problem.

I don't think it is just Japanese that fundamentally would prefer dealing with members of their own culture. I believe it is quite universal.

There were a lot of good comments here.

I think we become better people when we learn to 'accept' other's approaches to a situation; though it's been a bit difficult for me to not just assume the others are .. you know, not so right.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

more often it seems to be a North American who is deeply concerned

Blame the dozens of 1980s cross-cultural business titles that had Americans bowing while their counterparts expected a handshake.

“Japan can do nothing wrong” attitude

If you're selling to Japan, isn't this a good position to begin from?

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Ask President Obama LOL he bowed!

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

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.

You can pretty much apply this to any country in the world. In the end we all want the same thing... a better life for our children than we had. The sooner we can realize that not every American is a cigar-smoking, bandolier-draped warmonger and not every Muslim yearns to wear an explosive-laden vest, the sooner we can start acting humane and not acting insane.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

So why is it that the thought of committing a minor cultural faux pas in Japan sets their knees trembling?

Because that's the Japan brand.

Kaimychal brought up Obama's bow. Perfect example of trying to do it the J way and flubbing it. (Plus bowing usually looks silly when tall people do it. Looks fab though if you're between 150 and 175 cm.) Bowing, business cards and toilet slippers are but minor visible elements in Japanese etiquette's minefield.

Naturally, no one likes to look stupid or get things wrong--especially when big business deals are involved. However, it goes with the territory. No matter how hard you try to get it right, something will always be found wanting--and anyone with any sensitivity will be made to feel it.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

it’s best to assume that Japan and the West are about 95% the same.

How does that help them, exactly? You mentioned various aspects of business etiquette, but you've barely even scratched the surface. Getting the etiquette side of things right is a trivial matter in comparison to understanding the more complex inner-workings of Japanese business culture.

Small gift from their home country (if its the first time they meet)? Meeting etiquette? Building the relationship through respect, trust & mutual understanding? Doing 9/10 business over drinks / dinner?

This is the real way business is done in Japan. As a Strangerland mentioned above, it's about respecting the way business is done here and not coming in 'all guns blazing' with an agenda. If you're going to spruik your own business on a news site, at least give us armchair critics something to work with ;)

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Language skills and manners are key; even a few months of study will pay off with respect. Get an actual HUMAN TEACHER, rather than a computer program; the latter is fine for vocabulary building, however the human will give you verb conjugations, traditions and manners, secrets for acceptance... truly, one can gain some important skills in a few months and even more if you can give it a year. You'll never, ever regret it.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

When the top level executive is complimented on his/her skill at eating with chopsticks and told that their Japanese level is good despite not being able to utter the most trivial of greetings then they will truly know they are somewhere different. Not getting mugged after a night out walking home will also convince that they are truly somewhere extra dimensional....

2 ( +2 / -0 )

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