An image of a western man standing in an elevator full of Japanese salarymen.
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Groupthink

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Japanese work culture is often a mystery from the outside looking in.

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.

That “outside” includes where you’re located physically (it’s hard to get into the trenches if you’re on the other side of the world), as well as where your head is at. An American business mindset can’t thrive in a Japanese work environment without some understanding of high-context nuances.

Consider the case of Jo, who came to Tokyo from silicon valley three weeks ago and joined a traditional Japanese company in time for the corporate retreat.

There’s just one problem: No one will tell him how to book his Shinkansen ticket. They’ve told him he can take the local train, mentioning that it’s cheaper and only takes twenty minutes longer. But he wants to witness TESSEI’s seven-minute miracle, and he doesn’t mind covering the extra cost out of pocket.

Still, no one will help him. Are his coworkers hazing him? Or could it be that he’s missing some unspoken rules?

Jo’s coworkers likely don’t mean him any harm. He’s probably stumbled into a Japanese work culture faux pas that can be traced to at least one of the following:

  • Respecting the hierarchy
  • Reading the air
  • Fulfilling a social obligation

Before determining precisely where he went wrong, Jo would be wise to gain an understanding of high-context communication.

Japan: Land of High-Context Communication

Much of the confusion around Japanese work culture can be traced to one simple fact: Japan is all about high-context communication.

In a high-context culture, people don’t spell things out for you. That may seem evasive, but there’s a goal behind it: harmony within the group. Being too direct can make Japanese people uncomfortable, even sow discord. It’s a key factor in learning how to give negative feedback. For a similar reason, high-context cultures come with a strong respect for hierarchy, meaningful body language, and “maybes” that in fact mean “no.”

All of this is especially tough for Jo, who’s used to the low-context communication of the US. There, everything is explicitly explained. But how can a simple “Please tell me how to buy a Shinkansen ticket” possibly be a low- vs. high-context miscommunication?

This is where those three faux pas possibilities come in. But as Jo considers them, he should stay oriented to a high-context mindset.

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Respecting the Hierarchy 

Jo was raised to mind his (low-context) manners, but he’s not afraid to speak up, either. This is the beginning of Jo’s struggle with the hierarchical structure of Japanese workers.

Senpai Culture

In its simplest form, the hierarchy of Japanese business culture can be broken down into two roles: 

  • The Senpai, someone with more experience, like a mentor
  • The Kohai, someone with less experience, like a mentee

In general, everyone who’s been in the company longer than you is your senpai. Since Jo has just come aboard, he’s the kohai. And he’s expected to defer to his senpais as a sign of respect.

When the company retreat was officially announced, Jo expressed he wanted to take the Shinkansen. His senpai paused and repeated that they were all planning to take the local train together, as that was the cheapest option–even the director would be taking that route. Jo said he didn’t mind paying the difference or traveling by himself.

Jo didn’t realize it, but by speaking out against his senpai’s plan in front of the entire team, he disrespected the corporate hierarchy. 

Poor Jo had no clue that there was another way to get what he wanted: the nemawashi, or “shadow meeting.”

An infographic explaining the differences in corporate hierarchy between American and Japanese business culture.
©GLOBIS

How to Conduct Nemawashi

Respecting your senpai doesn’t mean newer employees are expected to follow everything they say. In Japanese work culture, it’s typical for participants of an upcoming meeting to hold nemawashi. These are informal “shadow meetings,” or pre-meetings, in which everyone can gauge each other’s true feelings.

Groupthink

Groupthink refers to group pressure and the perception of consensus which together lead to ill-formed decisions—or even unnecessary risks. Learn to identify the warning signs of groupthink and apply countermeasures in this online course.

Nemawashi would’ve been the perfect opportunity for Jo to express his desire to take the Shinkansen. The actual meeting was the worst time for him to bring it up, because it showed open disagreement in front of others, including a superior.

Nemawashi are so important that failing to utilize them might even result in your boss shooting down a proposal based on feelings of betrayal. 

If it sounds like the work culture of Japan renders actual meetings to pageantry for announcing predetermined agreements, that’s because they are. It’s considered a best practice for everyone to be on the same page before a meeting is held in Japan. This preserves the hierarchy and ensures no one will be embarrassed in front of the team.

It’s hardly surprising that Jo’s coworkers don’t want to help him purchase his Shinkansen ticket now.

Even with the missed nemawashi opportunity, Jo might’ve been able to course correct if he’d read the room–or the air.

An infographic explaining nemawashi or shadow meetings that take place in Japanese work culture.
©GLOBIS

Reading the Air 

Reading the room is critical for high-context communication. In Japan, failure to do so could earn you a “KY” label, which stands for kuuki yomenai (literally “can’t read the air”).

Jo doesn’t know it, but by hounding his coworkers about help with his Shinkansen ticket, he’s being pretty KY.

When his coworkers remind him the local train is cheaper and about as fast, Jo heard, “The local train will be better for you.” In fact, his coworkers were telling him, “The local train is better for the group.” And the group wins out in Japan.

But Jo is missing the signals. As the rest of the office prepares for the trip, Jo is still harping on the Shinkansen he wants to take–for personal reasons, no less.

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How to Learn to Read the Air

For Jo to recover from his failure to read the air, he’ll need a change of mindset.

First, he needs to remember that the company trip (including the commute) isn’t a personal holiday. From an American mindset, the chance to ride the Shinkansen on the way to the venue is the perfect opportunity to kill two birds with one stone–one might even argue it would be a waste not to.

But for a Japanese employee, personal plans should be way down the list of priorities.

Second, if he has someone in the office he trusts, Jo can quietly confirm with them if he’s supposed to take the local train. Is it the rule? It’s possible his coworker will reply, “It’s not an official rule, but…” or “We all took the local train last year.” These are both hints that yes, he’s expected to take the local train.

Finally, Jo would be wise to put himself in his coworkers’ shoes and consider how they’re reading the air around him. High-context communication is a two-way street. So when Jo gets a “maybe” instead of a “no,” that’s because his coworkers are respecting his place in the group. They don’t want to embarrass him, so (in their minds) they’re giving him all the information he needs to come to the right conclusion.

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Social Obligations

In Japan, what you say or agree to creates a social debt (more precisely, an obligation) between you and the other party. This unspoken contract holds a lot of weight in Japanese work culture. Keeping your word builds trust and proves that you’re a reliable, loyal person.

Of course, there’s a Japanese word for this phenomenon: giri.

How to Balance Giri vs. Ninjo

Roughly translated as “a burden of obligation,” or even more dramatically “a debt of gratitude and a self-sacrificing pursuit of [someone else’s] happiness,” giri is not something to be trifled with.

The term is thought to come from Japan’s feudal era. Back then, samurai had an extreme sense of loyalty to their lords, and merchants prided themselves on duty to their customers. 

Nowadays, giri still plays a strong role in Japanese culture. It can apply to relationships with family, friends, or coworkers. It often directly contradicts ninjo (literally “human emotions”), or the desire to do what you want.

By insisting on following his ninjo to ride the Shinkansen, Jo violated the giri between him and his colleagues. Now he’ll need to save face by setting aside his ninjo. Only then will he regain his honor and the respect of his colleagues.

An inforgraphic explaining the difference between the concepts of giri and ninjo in Japanese working culture.
©GLOBIS

How to Save Face in Japanese Work Culture

If you embarrass your boss or coworkers in a silicon valley, you might feel like a jerk. Jo’s misstep in a Japanese company is more serious: He’s lost face. 

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The concept of “face,” or mensu in Japanese, represents the way other people see you. Jo ruined his mensu by disrupting the high-context harmony of his team. He’ll need to set things right, or else risk an uncertain future for his career in Japan.

First thing’s first: He needs to drop the Shinkansen idea. If he’s extra smart about it, he can go to one of his coworkers and quietly express that he’s realized his error, he’s so embarrassed, and can they please tell him how to get a ticket for the local train? Similar to nemawashi, this will surely spread around the Japanese workplace and earn him a few points.

Next, Jo should be sure to pick up some omiyage, or souvenirs (usually sweets), to share in the office with anyone who couldn’t attend the retreat. This simple practice shows that he’s thinking about the group. He should also make a point to thank whoever was in charge of planning the retreat for their hard work.

Japanese working culture respects unspoken rules as well as subtle shows of humility. Jo doesn’t need to stand up in front of the office and offer an apology. His actions can speak louder than words, redeeming him in the eyes of his boss and teammates.

Do you feel like you’ve cracked the code on Japanese working culture? Take our quiz below to see where you stand!

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