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About Being a Foreigner Working in Japan

Being a Gaijin or Gaikokujin in Japan

By D. McCaughan

A foreigner living in Japan, like any expatriate experience, soon learns that working here has many behaviors that might seem strange “at home.” Not long ago I was in a meeting when . . .

Differences Between Japan and Foreign Countries

Crossing legs is considered unpolite in Japan
Crossing legs is considered unpolite in Japan

Of course there are many formalities about introductions, meeting exchanges and the niceties of procedure in Japan. I have heard of one foreign company that lost a competitive pitch for some Japanese business, because during the presentations one of the visiting American executives crossed his legs. That simple act that might in the West be an indication of being comfortable with the progress of the meeting was taken by the potential Japanese client as a mark of disrespect. Or being too casual in what was seen as a formal business meeting.

On the other hand, I have seen so many meetings go wrong simply because what the Japanese people in the meeting saw as being contemplative was interpreted by some foreigner used to being compelled to constantly talk as not paying attention or lacking ideas. One man’s studiousness is another’s lack of action. The need for formality and structure in Japan means a “brainstorming” session is often really a formal presentation led by someone. The idea of a Westerner’s idea of an “open-ended, no negatives, say whatever comes into your head” style brainstorm session seems unfocused and vague. Actually as I wrote that description it did indeed seem vague. But the point is clear. There are just things that different cultures see as different. 

Thinking silently vs Talking too much

Japanese keeping silent in a meeting

After one such session a few years ago, I received two complaints: one from the most senior American attending who said “we obviously don’t have the best Japanese staff as they don’t know how to jump in with ideas,” the other from the most senior Japanese attendant told me “it is terrible, our American colleagues are so childish and insist on saying whatever comes into their heads.”

So I recently started asking some foreign businesspeople that have been living in Japan for five or more years for their opinion of the things that still surprise, worry and delight them about business practices in Japan. One typical story came from a fellow I recently hired. He has just graduated with an MBA from a prestigious Japanese University. He thought as a Westerner that even though he spoke good Japanese he would have trouble fitting in. What has surprised him has been the greater difficulty for his Japanese-American friends who did the same course, simply because while as an apparent foreigner he was forgiven for “not understanding” where his friends looking Japanese in appearance and language were often seen as failures because they did not understand the accepted cultural practice. It reminded me of another colleague who is Japanese but spent over half his childhood being raised in America. We have one senior staff member who after eight years working with this guy still refuses to believe he is actually Japanese, and that he is just “Japanese looking Hawaiian who speaks strange Japanese.” This sort of things reminds me of the ongoing “Obama birth certificate” story, conspiracy theories about the citizenship of Mr.Obama, who might not be eligible to the U.S. President.

Nemawashi vs Surprise

Nemawashi makes meetings perfunctory and boring
Nemawashi makes meetings perfunctory and boring

Another foreigner began talking about “meetings” and “working together.” The desire for lots of people in meetings and constant meetings that sometimes seem to be just precursors of other meetings always seems strange. Of course a simple explanation that a consensus driven culture drives the need for constant consultation is easy enough to understand even if the execution still rankles with many foreigners as time wasting. Then one long term British resident explained it to me as the difference of “nemawashi vs. surprise.” The former, he explained is simply the need to avoid surprise, to allow everyone to be comfortable with what will be seen and decided upon. The problem is that the American business school believes that surprise is in itself a key part of successful meetings.

Working Together vs. Individual Focus

Think about the greater society and cultural influences. Japanese culture is not driven by the historical need for surprise. From small communities with limited resources who resided in the same place for millennia of generations came a need to always work together. It leads to the growth of slow building perfectionism. The generations of craftsmen have been honing skills, learning and working with each other. That’s one continuous chain of making things better. Hence consensus. Meanwhile in America (and indeed my own Australian culture) we have the frontier mythology. That society is made up of always pushing the boundary, of individuals making a discovery and shocking the world or of working alone to defeat nature. Just look at any Hollywood movie dealing with the business world. In the end the “Big Idea” is solved in a rush of last minute “breakthrough” thinking by the hero individual. So “working together” versus “individual focus.”

I once had a team working on a major client project. The day before the big presentation we did a rehearsal. Generally all was good except that someone needed to take the various elements, put all the charts into one format, correct the spelling (in English and Japanese to align the two documents) and do a little tidying up. That was agreed at 6.00pm. At 8.00pm I checked with the team member designated to make all the changes. He was at his desk surrounded by seven team members who were all, to me at least, just watching him put the document together. I suggested they all go home and rest up for the next day. At 9.00pm I checked and they were all still there watching that one colleague typing. I more firmly told the others to go home. An hour later, I checked again. They were all still there. At which point I lost it. To me this was just people sitting around wasting company time. My “western” logic said they should be at home as much as possible and that they were not really contributing. So I grabbed a few of them, took them down the elevator, put them in taxis and directed them to tell the driver to take them home. And at that point they got mad with me, explaining that I was not being supportive of the team and especially of the one guy typing the changes. What I was seeing as their wasting time and sitting around doing nothing they saw as essential support. My pressing them to “abandon” their colleague was seen as my being uncaring.

One Man’s Good Deed Is Another’s Misdirected Effort.

A few months after I arrived in Japan in 2003, I was drinking with a couple of longer term foreign colleagues. One of them declared that as the “new boy” I would soon learn that our (all Western businesspeople) were really in Japan “to teach them how to do business properly.” To which my naïve reply was “Ahh, if the Japanese have managed to take a string of crowded islands with little natural resources and make it the second economy I am not sure I can teach them anything.” Or maybe I should have said we can all just learn.

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