“We Japanese” is a phrase that you will typically hear in Japanese social and business interactions. Although Japanese are generally a bit more individualistic than people in other parts of Asia, they will outwardly strive to present a unified opinion. It is essential to understand the subtle ways that leaders build consensus to nurture the strong support and loyalty of the teams and companies they lead.

Traditional Japanese Worldview

Group Orientation
Identity defined by group, family, company

Harmony within group very important

Relationship Focused
Personal interaction takes precedence over tasks

Patterns of rank and status observed

Need for Certainty
Rules for appropriate behavior are known and should not be broken

Requires reference to context.  Relationships are given priority

Exact Time
Punctuality is important, particularly in business

Cultural Note: Japan is one of the most homogeneous societies in the world, being over 99% ethnic Japanese with only a small Korean minority.  The country has historically resisted outside influences and the U.S. used force in 1853 to open the country to outside markets by sailing the navy into Tokyo Bay.

Cultural Assumptions

  • Emotional sensitivity highly valued
  • Respect for authority/tradition
  • Group harmony is essential
  • Simplicity/humility highly valued
  • Gaining wide consensus on decisions
  • Face-saving crucial to relationships
  • Sense of continuity with the past
  • Social responsibility

Traditional Japanese Communication Style

Imply/suggest what is meant.  You need to read between the lines and develop a good relationship.

High Context    
Background information assumed depending on nature of relationship.

Sensitivity to hierarchy/face saving very important.

Emotionally Restrained
Emotional expression is distained as unprofessional.  Trust and credibility are developed through emotional suppression.

Message can weave and wander.


Gift Giving for the Japanese

  • Exchanging gifts is a highly common practice, both from a business standpoint and socially.
  • How a gift is presented is more important than the gift itself.
  • Gifts are not normally opened in front of the person giving the gift.  This is part of face saving.
  • Wrapping gifts is essential and there are many services available to do this for you.  A well wrapped gift is a sign of respect.
  • Gifts are often presented with both hands and a slight bow
  • Japanese appreciate quality, so choosing gifts from respected companies with strong brands is a good approach.
  • Try to match the value and quality of the gifts you receive when reciprocating.  Giving something with either more or less value can cause embarrassment.
  • Things to avoid when giving gifts are the colors white and black (they signify death) and even numbers, like a bunch of flowers that have an even number, which is considered unlucky.

Traditional Japanese Management Style

Tends to be implicit and nonverbal (through observation of others and of the situation) with some verbal presentation.  Vagueness and ambiguity may be positive in avoiding open disagreement and the attending embarrassment.

Decision Making
Upward (from middle or bottom of organization), relatively slow; consensus through lengthy discussions, informal as well as formal, is expected and sought.

Conflict and Confrontation
Conflicts and confrontations are to be avoided if at all possible; harmony in interpersonal relations is a primary goal; conflicts may be dealt with indirectly through an intermediary, or informally in “after hours” socializing; agreement management is important, to prevent problems from occurring; a good manager is aware of problem before it is openly presented.

Social Interaction
Predictability and ritualized interaction is valued until very clear friendships or working relations are established.  Repartee, sarcasm, “one-upmanship” can be embarrassing or threatening; disagreements in public or social settings (parties) can cause discomfort and embarrassment.

Time Orientation
Past, present, and future, all viable, due to deference to seniority (in organizations as well as people), interdependence, and lifetime employment.  Manager is responsible for stewardship of ongoing institution.

Non-Verbal Dynamics

Bowing is the traditional form of greeting, but handshakes are common as well, although gentle rather than firm.  Dramatic gestures, arm movements or facial expressions are best avoided, as unintended meanings can be attributed.  Reserved body language is ideal.

Touching is kept to a minimum between acquaintances, although in crowds and amongst strangers, Japanese will push themselves against others to get to their destination.

Japan has an extremely high population density, especially in the cities, so sense of personal space is quite small, particularly when out in public.

Business Practices

PROBLEM SOLVING Thorough, step by step; group input, consensus; planned implementation.
MOTIVATING PEOPLE Job security; personal concern for employees; group solidarity; stern but caring leadership.
APPRAISING PERFORMANCE Supervisor-focused; best for foreign manager to be clear but soft, suggestive. Often done informally, in after- hours socializing.
NEGOTIATING, PERSUADING Detailed preparation; dependent on company consensus; seek mutual accommodation. Building relationships is critical.
DECISION MAKING PROCESS Collective responsibility; leader influences and reflects group; consensus driven.
PARTICIPATION IN MEETINGS Seek wide input; punctual; cultivate harmony; respect rank, not everyone will feel comfortable speaking. Silence can be common.
Authoritative but nurturing superior; loyal, deferential, obedient subordinate.
HIRING Correctives emphasized over dismissal; assistance with alternatives if dismissed.
CUSTOMER RELATIONS Customer/client = emperor; consistent focus on accommodating client, meeting customer needs.