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Using Japanese Values to Thrive in Global Business

Japanese companies have unique cultural, communication, and operational challenges. But they also have values that have led to remarkable longevity. Check out this seminar to hear how these values help earn trust from overseas head offices and develop employees.

Over the years, some Japanese office vocabulary has entered the English-language zeitgeist, like kaizen, tycoon, and honcho. But hou-ren-sou hasn’t yet had its moment in the spotlight. This shorthand term for a communication philosophy embodies more than just reporting to the boss, it’s a mentality that is encouraged, even for Japanese schoolchildren.

To learn more about how this concept is applied in a work setting, we spoke to GLOBIS faculty Kelvin Song and Kenya Yoshino for their personal experiences and insights.

Using Japanese Values to Thrive in Global Business

Japanese companies have unique cultural, communication, and operational challenges. But they also have values that have led to remarkable longevity. Check out this seminar to hear how these values help earn trust from overseas head offices and develop employees.

What does Hou-Ren-Sou mean?

This word is a mnemonic acronym of three communication steps.

·       Hōkoku (報告): To report

·       Renraku (連絡): To contact or communicate

·       Sōdan (相談): To consult or ask for advice

Hou-ren-sou is also a homonym of the Japanese word horenso, which means spinach, making it easy to remember.

While this may sound like a rigid list of steps, it’s more of a fluid system of communication with a focus on knowledge sharing.

Insights Staff: What is your definition of hou-ren-sou?

Kelvin Song: Open, continuous communication, reporting, asking for advice, and getting everyone on the same page. It can take many forms, but for me, it was weekly reporting to my manager, and him then reporting to the upper management. It’s not really about the frequency of reporting, it’s more about being transparent and not hiding things until the last minute.

Kenya Yoshino: “Ho” is to report, “ren” is to communicate, and “so” is to consult. In a nutshell, the objective is to share. You share responsibility by reporting, sharing information by communicating, and sharing knowledge and wisdom through consulting.


Insights Staff: Do you have any personal experience with hou-ren-sou?

Song: At the beginning of my career, working at my first company, I found it very troublesome that I had to write a report of what I was doing every single week. And some departments in the company even required daily reports.

I kept asking myself, “Why do I have to do this? Right as a new employee? I don’t have a lot to report right now.” So at first, I didn’t understand the purpose.

I had a lot of pride when I was young. When I faced problems, I wouldn’t want others to know and would try to solve them by myself. I wanted to have something good enough or substantial enough to report.

But one day I went with my boss to a meeting where he had to report the project status to the division leader. He was open and explained that the project was not going well, progress was moving slower than expected, and we weren’t hitting our goals.

I was thinking to myself, “Why do you have to report this? We still have 2-3 months to go, we can improve the situation.”

But to my surprise, the division leader didn’t get angry. Instead, he was very supportive and started suggesting possible solutions.

In the end, we didn’t manage to reach our goals within the deadline and when we reported the results to the division leader a few months later, he said not to worry and understood we had done the best we could. The delay wasn’t a surprise to him because he had been made aware of the situation well in advance.

For me, this was when I learned the power of hou-ren-sou. It wasn’t reporting just for the sake of reporting.

Insights Staff: What are the pros and cons of hou-ren-sou?


Pros: If you share the information, your supervisor shares the responsibility. They know what’s going on and they give advice on how to take action. The burden isn’t on the individual.

Cons: It takes courage to be open and honest—especially if you have done something wrong—and some people might take advantage of that. It might hurt to admit your mistake and be blamed for it, but you learn and grow from those experiences.


Pros: To me, the biggest advantage of hou-ren-sou is that it sets expectations

The reason why people get disappointed is because the expectations were not set properly at the beginning. But, by having a continuous communication style like hou-ren-sou, you can set expectations early. And more importantly, I think you get a lot of support from stakeholders. Not only support, but you also share the responsibility.

Cons: As for cons, hou-ren-sou can be misinterpreted as, or even used as a tool for, micromanagement. While it might look to the employee that the management is trying to control or watch what everyone is doing, I don’t think that’s often true. Management just wants to be aware of how projects are progressing, they are not trying to control the employees.

It should be for sharing knowledge, not to collect information that will later be used against the person reporting.

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Insights Staff: Japan has a reputation for slow decision-making. Do you agree and does hou-ren-sou have a part in this?

Song: I mean when it comes to decision-making, every culture has different metrics. Japan spends more time on discussions because the culture is based on consensus, according to INSEAD professor Erin Meyers in her book The Culture Map.

But what I see is that once a decision is made, the implementation is super-fast. We already know everyone is on board, so this makes up for the time it took to choose a direction.

Insights Staff: What has been the impact of technology on hou-ren-sou?

Song: It’s much easier nowadays. Back in the day, it was only possible to keep everyone informed by phone calls or in-person meetings, but nowadays you can use instant messaging, Business Intelligence (BI) dashboards, notion, etc.

I do see the similarities between hou-ren-sou and the agile way of working where you have daily stand-up meetings, and you keep track of all your tasks digitally. So I do feel like as much as people want to say that this style of communication is too much or it’s quite Japanese, I feel like the Western workstyle has similar characteristics.

Yoshino: When I first started my career, it was in an open space office and when I made phone calls, everyone could listen in. I could learn from my supervisors by observing how they interacted with the customers and navigated difficult negotiations.

On the other hand, of course, if you said something stupid or inappropriate they would scold you right after hanging up the phone. But I think there was a lot of benefit to this. It was a really good way to train and educate people.

Now, we use email and online chat, which makes closed communication more frequent. This is why Japanese companies will try to encourage information sharing by copying so many people onto one email. I’ve heard many non-Japanese people don’t like that. They feel like they’re being watched. But I think the goal is transparency. In modern offices, there are fewer in-person interactions than before which has, in some ways, made open communication more difficult.

Insights Staff: What part of Japanese work culture do you think is difficult for non-Japanese people to adjust to?

Yoshino: I went to high school in the US, and I had some culture shock when I went there. Everything is credited to the individual. I got used to that and when I came back to Japan, I had to share everything. There’s no personal credit and the team comes first.

If you’re good at something and you’re in a team where other people are not on the same level as you, then it can feel like you’re doing all the work. In this case, it’s hard to maintain your motivation.

In Japan, the benefit or motivation does not come from the performance itself, but from the whole team succeeding. If you have the mindset that you should get the credit or advance more quickly, my advice is to expand the concept of oneself and to consider your team members’ credit as your credit.

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