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.