Three people communicate with different shapes in speech bubbles over their heads, attempting cultural empathy for understanding
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Those who come to Japan and land a job with an understanding boss and coworkers are lucky. Others face a lot of stress.

Some of the stress comes from culture shock, either due to something general, like high-context communication, or something more specific, like a boss who lacks cultural empathy—or even fails to understand what empathy is.

Why Japan Struggles with the Difference between Sympathy and Empathy

Empathy is difficult for many Japanese people because of a limited repertoire of cultures and thought patterns. Japan is, after all, a highly homogeneous culture compared to Europe or the US. What’s more, Japanese culture does not endorse open discussion.

Critical Thinking: Hypothesis-Driven Thinking

Anyone can come up with a good idea. The real challenge is putting that idea into action. In this online course, explore how to form compelling, testable hypotheses and bring ideas to life in your own organization.

Thus, many people in Japan think they are practicing empathy when they are in fact expressing sympathy.

But what is the difference between sympathy and empathy?

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Sympathy vs. Empathy

Dr. Milton Bennett, an American sociologist known for creating the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity, says that sympathy is “the imaginative placing of ourselves in another person’s position.” Whereas empathy is “the imaginative intellectual and emotional participation in another person’s experience.”

Dr. Ikujiro Nonaka, a Japanese organizational theorist and professor emeritus at Hitotsubashi University, further explains that sympathy involves conscious reflection and analysis over agreement or disagreement with an objectified “other.”

But empathy, he says, goes deeper. Showing empathy involves an unconscious understanding of another person, expansion of your relevance to them, and deviation from your regular habits.

The main difference, then, is how much you can set aside or even go beyond your own values, mindset, and position to understand another person. Sympathy observes the Golden Rule: to treat others the way you would want to be treated. But for empathy, the Platinum Rule is better: to treat others the way they want to be treated.

The first step to developing empathy is accepting that everyone has their own reality and world view. That’s easier to do when you’re inherently surrounded by diversity, which Japan is not.

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How to Set Your Expectations for Cultural Empathy

For Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, empathy is “the ability to perceive others’ thoughts and feelings, to collaborate and build relationships.” He also says it’s an existential priority in business that allows us to identify the unmet, unspoken needs of customers.

That all sounds nice enough on paper. But is empathy really a trainable skill?

The short answer is yes. But first you need to set expectations.

It’s important to note that people don’t favor sympathy intentionally. Cultural empathy is naturally limited when exposure to other cultures and thought patterns is limited.

Further, in Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map, Japanese culture scores very high on high-context communication, indirect negative feedback, and confrontation avoidance. All of these discourage people from speaking openly about differences. That means Japanese workers need to get out of their comfort zones, and their non-Japanese coworkers need to have a little patience—practice cultural empathy of your own.

But there are things you can do as a leader or coworker to help overcome those limitations.

How to Develop Empathy

Even if you understand the difference between sympathy and empathy, it’s a whole different challenge to practice it. Empathy, like diversity, is easier said than done.

So how can we foster cultural empathy?

The SECI Model

To start, you can use Nonaka’s SECI model, which breaks down knowledge into four combinations of tacit and explicit knowledge creation: socialization, externalization, combination, and internalization. Together, these form a process which creates innovation.

SECI Model

The SECI model illustrates how knowledge is created and shared. Learn how to put it to use for best practices, and how the Japanese concept of “ba” fits in to broaden your perspective.

The SECI model shows how “knowing” isn’t a simple on-off switch. People need to receive information and apply it, whether it’s through instruction or experimentation. Tacit knowledge can be acquired through socialization, which generates empathy as you put yourself wholeheartedly in the context of another person.

In other words, learn by doing.

The SECI Model visualizes how knowledge is created and transformed as people interact, developing understanding and cultural empathy
The SECI Model | ©GLOBIS

A Safe Environment for Cultural Empathy

One easy way to start growing cultural empathy through socialization is by utilizing a fundamental need we all share: food.

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As the saying goes, you are what you eat.

Culture is represented in food, and a big part of empathy is understanding culture. So if your coworker is open to sharing a meal, talk about the meaning of food in each other’s culture. Share the different things you ate at home growing up. Talk about family recipes or holidays where certain foods were always present.

By connecting through the basic need of food, you can start to understand where the other person comes from—their national, ethnic, and religious background. And by talking about the meaning of food, you internalize their unique perspective as an individual.

Nadella also highlights the importance of firsthand experience: “It is impossible to be an empathetic leader sitting in an office behind a computer screen all day. An empathetic leader needs to be out in the world, meeting people where they live and seeing how the technology we create affects their daily activities.”

Thus, giants of knowledge from the East and West are saying the same thing. There must be some truth in it.

Why Cultural Empathy Has a Place on Your Team

More empathy at your workplace can vastly improve turnover of non-Japanese staff, as well as reduce discriminatory language and behavior among team members and management. It also leads to more happiness, better performance, and a win-win situation for everyone.

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