Japanese Communication Styles

Of all the aspects of dealing with the Japanese, the ones which probably cause the biggest dilemmas concern communication difficulties.

Japanese communications are epitomised by subtlety and nuance, where how one appears and what one publicly states (tatemae) and what one really thinks (honne) are often poles apart. There is often a huge distance between the expressed tatemae and the felt honne — they can often even be contradictory.

The development of relationships in Japan is often dependent on people’s ability to read the underlying truth which may underpin the spoken rhetoric. It can, of course, be very difficult for the non-Japanese to navigate these very confusing paradoxes. It is probably best to say that everything should be questioned in order to ensure that clear understanding has been achieved. Check back several times for clarification of anything that remains unclear.

Communication difficulties are further compounded by the fact that few foreigners speak good Japanese and that levels of English in Japan are at best very patchy. Much of what is said by English speaking businessmen in cross-national meetings is simply not understood – or more worryingly misunderstood. The need for the clear and precise use of language is never greater than in such situations. The combination of Japanese vagueness and lack of comprehension leads to enormous problems which make problem-solving and decision-making very tortuous.

In times of stress or difficulty during a meeting, the Japanese will often resort to silence in order to release the tension in the room and allow people to move away from the area of difficulty (to preserve the harmony or wa which is tantamount). Unfortunately many westerners are extremely uncomfortable with silence in meetings and feel the need to fill the silence with more discussion over the issue the Japanese would rather avoid.

In addition, Japanese body language is very minimal, making it difficult for the untrained observer to read. The Japanese seem to be very still in meetings, sitting in a formal upright posture. It is rare for any reaction or emotion to be visible.

A brief overview of some key concepts to consider when doing business in Japan

Written and Produced by Keith Warburton

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Japan – a decades old paradox. Ultimately modern; completely traditional.

It has perplexed observers for decades as to how Japan can be so advanced in terms of technology and infrastructure whilst at the same time being wedded to traditional cultural approaches to all things corporate. Japanese companies are at the same time innovative and disruptive whilst retaining strong alignment to traditional hierarchical structures, risk aversion and detail obsession. How does Japan retain its position in the global economic league tables when it seems to stubbornly refuses to move with the latest corporate thinking?

The question continues to be asked as to whether it is really possible to do business in Japan as a foreign entity or are things so weighted against foreign entrants that it really isn’t worth the effort. The answer has to be a resounding ‘yes’ as many companies have entered the Japanese market and had great success. However, many companies have also failed to crack the Japanese market.

So what is the key to doing business in Japan in a successful and sustainable manner? At Global Business Culture we strongly believe that understanding Japanese business culture is the key to success. How can Japan be innovative and traditional? The answer is ‘culture’. How can Japanese companies retain strong alignment to hierarchy and remain efficient? The answer is ‘culture’.

Looking at Japanese business culture is not a ‘nice to do’ it’s a definite ‘need to do’. Take the time to really understand the key drivers of your Japanese colleagues, clients and other stakeholder and you will find the benefits obvious and immediate.

This country profile provides an overview of some of the key aspects of Japanese business culture in a concise, easy to follow-format. The document includes information on:

  • Background to business
  • Business Structures
  • Management style
  • Meetings
  • Teamwork
  • Communication
  • Women in business
  • Entertaining
  • Top tips