Business In Japan: How To Beat Communication Problems

Doing Business In Japan? How To Overcome Communication Difficulties

An exciting thing about finding a Japanese partner is also the source of many difficulties for Americans: Japan is so foreign! 

At first, you’re surprised by how “Americanized” Japanese culture is. Western-influenced everyday fashion, architecture, western brands, traffic control systems, on the surface Japan doesn’t look foreign at all. Change the Tokyo signage from Kanji to English and you could be in Chicago, right? (I would say New York, but Tokyo is mysteriously clean, unlike the Big Gray Apple.)
Wrong. Be prepared for business culture shock. It becomes apparent the more you communicate and personally interact with your Japanese partners. The following tips may help you better communicate with your Japanese partners.
Numbers Are Clear, Language Is Fuzzy
Attention to detail is a huge part of Japanese culture.  In comparison, Americans are way casual with everything, the way we dress, talk, plan, eat. The point is that seeing the complexity of everything is an ingrained part of Japanese culture, and a big factor in the success of your Japanese management counterpart. In the US, however, we try to simplify everything. We want to move fast. We want to be direct because we’re rewarded for it. We’re taught to be bold, to make quick decisions. We don’t want to be labeled as “slow to act.” This creates a big difference in the way we use language versus the Japanese.
As a successful manager in the US, you’re adept at speaking clearly and assertively about what you want and what you consider a problem. You’re quick to accept credit for individual achievements. You’re quick to assign blame and accept responsibility for things that go wrong. You address problems with superiors and employees promptly. This is actually perceived as terribly casual by Japanese businessmen. (I say “men” here because I have never met a woman manager in Japan.) In Japan, the role of the individual is not valued apart from the group environment in which the actions have been taken. That would be an oversimplification of the situation. To affix credit or blame to one individual is rarely done in Japan.

Numbers Aren’t Fuzzy Unless You Are Too Casual With Them
Think of the Japanese tea ceremony. Process, process, process. Can’t we just have our tea please? If you’re not sure what the tea ceremony is like, go to YouTube now and check some out. The Japanese relationship to speaking is similarly complex. It is accepted that language is nuanced with many layers of meaning. You will think you are hearing your partner agree with you. He will be nodding and saying, “Yes, yes.” That seems simple enough.But slow down, cowboy. Every “yes” means only, “Yes I am listening and considering what you say.” They do not necessarily mean your partner agrees with what you say. This is one reason why I call Japanese language communications “fuzzy.” It can be frustrating, but it’s a lot easier to just accept it as the way it is. I wasted too much time thinking I could “train” my partners to be more direct.

Get More Of What You Want With Numbers
While it’s difficult speaking about your plans and objectives with your Japanese partners, one way to get more of what you want is to use numbers. Numbers are not vague and complex for either of you. But please, get your numbers right! 

In the US, we throw numbers around “casually.” There’s that word again. But you do it all the time. You shoot from the hip. You’re okay with scanning numbers just to see “which way the wind is blowing.” Don’t do this with your numbers for the Japanese. 

Also, put your ideas into writing. Use graphs if possible. However, make very careful projections that you believe in. Do not inflate your projections in an attempt to win favor or to get a yes. Take a longer term perspective than you are used to, five years is good. I’ve found it much easier to have definitive communication in writing with my Japanese partners.
Be as careful and accurate with your projections as you possibly can be. If you do, you will earn respect and find that your ideas are more easily accepted and acted upon by your partner.

What are your tips for improving communication with a Japanese partner?
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