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Japanese company meetings: Getting by at the table

27 Comments
By Robin Pharo

Japanese company meetings are an entirely different beast to what goes on in an American-style office. Not too long ago, I worked for a Japanese IT company in Tokyo. My department was divided into a wide assortment of sub-sections, but we all had a weekly meeting to discuss projects together and share announcements.

When everyone entered the room for that weekly meeting, it was as though we were gathering right after a funeral. The mood was solemn; team members who had worked with each other for months, if not years, seemed embarrassed to so much as talk to one another out loud, and laughter seemed more of an attempted means to release tension than a reflection of being at ease.

There would be a team leader who would take us through the meeting, asking if anyone had announcements or material that they wished to have discussed. Whereas you would normally expect people to input their ideas one after the other in almost rapid fire succession, getting people to express opinions at a typical meeting here was akin to pulling teeth.

There would be perhaps one or two older veterans who seemed rather comfortable with themselves and confident with whatever they had to say about such-and-such, but otherwise everyone else would be deathly quiet as though they were dreading that their name would be called out.

Without exaggeration, I have never witnessed as high a level of tension at any other job as I did here.

If an outranking team member contradicted another member, there would be cases in which that member would fall deathly quiet for about 10 seconds before offering a feeble reply, or even times where the member just wouldn’t respond at all with so much as eye contact.

Another aspect I found striking about meetings in Japanese business environs was the pace. I was used to people systematically tackling a problem, wasting no time in assessing what would be the most effective means of addressing the issue at hand. In the case of this team, the subject matter would be mulled over for hours. We rarely finished meetings on time (which wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t cut into the lunch hour), and it always seemed as though everything that could possibly get said, was said.

The meticulousness alone was unprecedented for me. If there was a single bit of a doubt regarding the minutest of details on a proposal, it would be dissected, analyzed, and reviewed over and over again until every imaginable alternative had been exhausted -- and to that end “time” was certainly never an issue.

I wouldn’t be so quick to judge one way of doing things over the other as being better or worse, but it always is intriguing to become aware of such differences, and realize how the way even a simple meeting is carried out is reflective of the values of the surrounding culture.

People take their work more seriously in Japan, always stressing details and never rushing to a conclusion. On the one hand, it is highly admirable for a culture already renowned for its working values, but for the outsider, it can also be a cause for frustration.

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27 Comments
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Wow, some brilliant insights here. <g>

As has been noted elsewhere many times over the years, meetings in many Japanese companies are a place for confirmation, not discussion and decision-making.

Confirming who does what. Confirming that consensus has been reached (usually somewhere other than at the meeting itself). Confirming schedules. Confirming each key participant's place in the corporate firmament.

A lot of what looks like careful, deliberate dissection and analysis is really just jockeying for position and verification of responsibility (which is often pushed down the chain of command) and authority (which usually resides at the upper end of the chain).

Still, I always admire the salarymen who come to meetings armed with a pencil case (when was the last time you saw an American businessman with a pencil case, for heaven's sake??), from which they'll pull out a pen (two or more ink colors), a mechanical pencil, a highlighter, and an eraser...

That's what I call a work ethic!

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I absolutely hate going to meetings in Japan. Actually I just hate working here.

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I absolutely hate going to meetings in Japan. Actually I just hate working here.

So why are you still here?

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"Another aspect I found striking about meetings in Japanese business environs was the pace. I was used to people systematically tackling a problem, wasting no time in assessing what would be the most effective means of addressing the issue at hand. In the case of this team, the subject matter would be mulled over for hours. We rarely finished meetings on time (which wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t cut into the lunch hour), and it always seemed as though everything that could possibly get said, was said."

At a Japanese company ?? Yeah right. This HAS to be made up.

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The above is so true. On the other hand, working for American bosses, they can go too far the other way, flitting from one topic to another with no depth at maximum speed while reading an email on the dingleberry and typing a second email with various mistypes on the laptop along with several other multitasks all while talking to you in stream of conscience (like this post). At least the JP boss tends to move in a linear and deliberate fashion.

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That's why the Japanese work such long hours. Meetings are un-productive, inefficient, always painstaking, even for the most trivial of subjects, and there are LOTS of them. Most of the actual decisions have already been made in some kind of nemawashi beforehand. There's no concept of time-management, and often no strict agenda.

While the Japanese seem to see this as highly civilised, the work environment often reminds me of the way packs of dogs behave. Meetings are the place where the alpha male exerts his authority, while the other males cower, laugh at the boss's jokes, and fight amongst themselves to see who's going to be the beta. There's inevitably an omega- the one who is bullied. I often think "Who's turn is is today ?".

As always, "this is the Japanese way", and the majority of Japanese are too used to this kind of operation so see any alternative, plus it's a vicious circle ; the only people able to change the system are those at the top, who got there via this route. Attempts to shake things up and get the meeting on track are seen as "KY".

I know that this style is very pervasive, but I am surprised that this kind of behaviour still exists in newer businesses, such as tech, where bottom-up thinking and new ideas are more or less the lifeblood of the company. Globally-minded companies, such as Rakuten and Sony have changed their meeting styles, apparently.

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I've sat through many Japanese board and committee meetings and would say the author of this article is quite correct about the Japanese business style. I have one observation why meetings take so long : the Japanese language. It is imprecise to the extent that it requires face-to-face discussions that written action notes often times fail to accomplish in Japan. A Japanese executive would rarely approve and sign-off on a written memo without discussing the issue in length with the originator and his members.

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In my experience, everything in the above article is correct. Businesses here are just frightfully unproductive.

Efficiency is certainly not a big thing here. The only things that matter are 1) making every single detail "perfect", no matter how trivial it is and regardless of time considerations, and 2) preserving the status quo. Once you introduce changes / ideas, you are at risk of upsetting "wa" and unless you are a very high-ranking member of your group, it is simply something you do not do.

Someone mentioned Rakuten above. Actually, Rakuten has instituted a new policy of holding ALL in-house meetings in........ English! I really really really wish I could sit in on one of those meetings...

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This article is right on. Having worked 10 years at an old and proven Japanese tech firm I have seen it all first hand. Actually at a US division mind you. My favorite incident of the Alpha Japanese boss was when an old Tokyo University alum who was known for being a real bully asked several engineers to have one volunteer to work on something. The engineers were mostly south asians and american. We all stood there silent. After an uncomfortable 30 secs the boss says okay point at the guy you think that can do this in this group. Nobody pointed. Too funny. I eventually volunteered.

The other parts of this artivle about the exhaustive meetings where lowbies who barely speak are commonplace even at US divisions of Japanese companies (where there are japanese expat management and team members).

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Generalizations... straight out of a "Businessman's Guide to Japan"

Meetings where I worked were straightforward and to the point. Nobody was afraid of speaking up and there was no "battle" to see who the "beta wolf" was. Sheesh, what absolute nonsense!

As for "efficiency", duh, it was a manufacturing company. How could it afford not to be? It was the bureaucratic nonsense back home that really gets my hackles up. If you haven't done so already, just wait till you move back home...

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Yeah, this is a pretty good description of a meeting at a traditional Japanese company, but doesn't everyone know all of this already? Nothing in this article mentioned anything that someone who's worked here for a year wouldn't have picked up on. Unless they're "KY"

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I for one, am so bored by reading about boring meetings that I refuse to take part in them, or read about them anymore.

I had my temper tantrums about meetings in Japan in 1989. Since then, I have lived my life without them. These open-ended sleep sessions waste resources to a terrible degree. They are entirely unnecessary. ReformedBasher would probably say the same, but sooner or later, every company that wastes resources this way is doomed. It does not matter what country it operates in.

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ronaldk -- glaciers move in a "linear and deliberate fashion" as well. But, in today's global economy, Japanese companies and managers cannot afford to move at glacial speed. Just look at today's news about Apple. While DoCoMo and KDDI are still trying to catch-up with the current iPhone, Steve Jobs has just raised the bar -- exponentially. (Smartphone is sure looking good for that deal.) Imagine how many meetings it will take before they can even begin to develop a response?

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I regularly have to sit in meetings that were initially scheduled for only one hour but drag on for two hours. In most cases at the end of two hours there have still been no conclusions or outlines to direct future activities.

You have to ask what the point of the meeting was, and other commentators are right. You waste two hours in such a meeting and it means you're behind on your proper work. Some of my meeting colleauges have it worse though, they go from one departmental meeting to another, consecutively, all day, every day of the week. One can only wonder at what that does to the human soul.

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People take their work more seriously in Japan? Hmm, I would not say this, they pretend to be more serious in order to earn more points from their bosses. It is all about to look like and not to be, imho

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Wy speed up the meetings when you are not going home until 11pm anyway? Meetings are a convenient way for them to fill the time they have to spend in the office until the boss leaves.

In their defense, Japanese companies are very profitable and avoided major layoffs in the bad economy so they can't be doing that bad of work, right?

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This article is accurate. The protocals in meetings are too strict. The formality involved can be overwhelming. There is an acute attention to details that often prevents focusing on the big picture. A good leader in the meeting changes that though.

Somebody mentioned Japanese language. An excellent communicator can use Japanese better than the average English communicator. Communication 101 is the issue regardless of the language used.

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I hate Japanese meetings. Do me a favour a send me a memo of what decision has been made so I can save my time instead of sitting in a room staring at each other knowing that there are mistakes being made but I can't voice my opinion - or if I do, it won't matter anyway.

My husband has been complaining about the western meetings - "Why does everyone get to have an opinion??? They take too long!" Was rather shocked at that one and when pointed out it is important for people to express their ideas so things don't go wrong he understood it and thought that perhaps Japan does have crappy meeting culture.

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Couple posters have figured out whats REALLY going on with most meetings, they are simply filler!

Meetings in Jpn were invented so salarymen can pretend they are working hard when mostly they are just wasting/killing time.

And to the poster who said J-companies must be making lots of money........well a few do but loads set things up so they just break around even so they dont have to pay much if any tax & they foist that onto their employees to pay on the companies behalf.

Meetings are killing many companies here, as one poster said the world aint sitting around waiting for Jpn to do something, they just pass Jpn by

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There is no attitude of "lets give it a try and see how it works" in Japan. It takes months, if not years for a corporation to make a decision on even tiny things. Very different from foreign companies.

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Companies are wasting time. And time is money. Nothing good about that. Paying attention to detail = good. Stressing over every little detail = bad. Not rushing a decision = good. Taking forever to come to a decision = bad.

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Again - as in comments to some other articles before - I cannot confirm most of the points risen by the author or other posters here. Am I working in the "wrong" company?

Funeral atmosphere? Never seen it except when there was a real reason like before the announcement of business results and corresponding bonus cuts.

People too shy to counter superiors/seniors? Never seen that. Just the opposite, I've seen people in Japan criticizing their boss in a meeting much more heavily and openly than anywhere else. Factually justified, of course.

Bullying in company meetings? Never seen that.

Meticulousness and going into all bits and pieces? Yes, I've seen that. It usually happens in meetings that were badly prepared.

Meetings taking too long? Not any more since our company took a strong policy on meeting times a couple of years ago. Only meetings with colleagues from overseas tend to run out of time consistently.

Meetings just to nod off decisions which were taken previously already? When you want to take a controversial decision with broad support, you discuss it with key decision makers before and try to arrange a majority before you go into the meeting. That's how it works everywhere, not just in Japan, doesn't it?

Too many meetings? Yes and no. Actually the overall number of meetings seems to be about the same as in other places, but Japanese tend to invite every Tom, Dick and Harry, who could potentially make a contribution or might feel left out. So as an individual, you have to join more meetings. No real problem any more since the advent of laptop computers and WLAN everywhere. Before that time, you could use the meeting productively to take a nap :-)

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One more remark about the many meetings in Japan: I actually find them useful for networking and information spread inside the company.

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I have worked for 3 companies here, 2 Japanese, one foreign. Meetings were all totally different. Most annoying was the foreign company where it took 10 minutes to decide who is writing down what was said.

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Meetings are farcical. Start exactly on time, no more than 40 minutes, background material given to attendees beforehand so that meeting is based on solutions not, "Why is this happening?" questions. No coffees, no notes, no phones. People should remember what's been said. If they need minutes, they're not listening. Always finish a meeting early. Military and TV newsrooms have the best meetings. Most meetings are atrocious around the world. If meeting requests pop up on Outlook.... red X 50% of them. People will respect you for it.

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I'm curious. A few commenters said most of the important decisions were made before the meeting by a few people. Do they refer to secret or private meetings at work or during their drinking/carousing sessions after work?

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jason6, it's mostly "private" meetings at works, email, phone. You don't discuss those things during drinking after work.

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