Chapter 2: Communication

This chapter will highlight the advice given by the participants on the topic of communication and the steps that they have taken to act as a catalyst for open discussion.

Communication differs between Japanese and foreigners. In Japanese corporate culture, consent is often valued higher than facts. For example, everyone who has experienced working in a Japanese business environment knows the use of the word “wakarimashita 分かりました” as an answer to a request of doing something. However, it does not mean ‘I will do it’ . It literally means ‘I understand’ and is a typical reply to say ‘no’. The Japanese tend to try and avoid uncomfortable situations. That means instead of stating the facts they say nothing to avoid embarrassing situations. Finding the right balance between directness and indirectness is key in producing an environment that is sensitive to cultural mannerisms. Both foreigners and the Japanese need to confirm at the end of every meeting if anything else is yet to be stated. As the Japanese may still hesitate especially if its bad news, a bit of encouragement from foreigners such as “Any bad news? I would rather hear bad news from you directly if any instead of as a rumor later on.” could be helpful to make the Japanese to speak up.

Direct & Indirect Communication

Japan is often seen as a complex market due to its honne/tatemae practice as well as so-called telepathic communications often described as “reading the air”, etc.

However, when we think of the future direction and global competitiveness of Japanese companies, how should the communication be? How is the current practice of direct & indirect communications now in today’s Japanese corporate world? Is it pretty much the same across Japan or quite different by industry?

What would be the Third Way regarding the ideal mixture of direct/indirect communication in Japan?


Story B: Indirect Communication

Case 1

Your boss told you ”そんなに時間かけなくて良いから” to one of the tasks he ordered. You assumed that you can hand it in at a “so-so” level, but realized that your boss was expecting 100% level. With this experience, you always do more than ordered, which leads to overwork and over quality.

Case 2

Your client says ”検討させて頂きます”. You assumed that it was a polite “no” but you’d be surprised that it was real, and be surprised when they actually come back to you in a few days. (and vice versa)

Case 3 (with just a bit of exaggeration)

When your boss emails you “Can you prepare so that I could use it for the next meeting?” with a document, what it includes is the following

  1. confirm that there’s no error in what’s written (typos, etc)
  2. print it out
  3. make copies for the participants (of course, with 2 holes and staples on the corner)
  4. go to the meeting room before anyone else, and put it on each of their seats (and not make it like “take one copy when you seat”)
  5. prepare the projectors so they can be shown

Case 3 is a typical type of miscommunication at work that many young generations suffer. The boss expects what is normal for him/her but doesn’t realize that it is his/her normal and not the staff’s. It is similar to when your mother says “prepare for school!” your mother expects you to wash your face and brush your teeth and make your bed even though she doesn’t say it. A business version of this frequently occurs at offices.

Case 4

One example I will never forget is when the president, chief engineer, and I came to Japan to negotiate a large electronics company. The purpose of the visit was to obtain an OEM (license) agreement for the technology to be integrated into its software. The first two meetings were to discuss the technical integration and the final day was to seal the deal. At breakfast during the last day, both the president and engineering staff were not their usual energetic selves and said deal seems not to go through. They were ready to head to the airport soon. When I asked at the meeting on the third day, directly to the Japanese staff, if they would like to proceed with the meeting (in Japanese), they all said yes, the team approved to proceed, and the contract would be sent from the legal department!

I wondered for many years about why this miscommunication happened, and in this instance, it seemed the expected feedback from the Japanese side made our team feel the deal would not go through.

Over the years, I’ve felt that a lot of miscommunication occurs because feedback is not provided or provided indirectly.  I’ve even had Japanese colleagues comment they don’t know what the boss is thinking.  However, one time I had a “second” meeting after the first that was used to explain the first meeting.

After my meeting, the organizer of the meeting accompanied me to the factory gate after our meeting. I initially thought this was a polite gesture, but he had something to discuss — and this meeting was more important than the first. He told me the boss prefers to make a contract with a competitor, but the engineering team wants to work with us, and proceeded to tell me what I needed to do to get the deal!  This was not the only time, I’ve experienced many “second” meetings with sales staff and now arrange an opportunity myself now.

Virtual Teams & Telework

Working in virtual teams is a common practice in globally operating enterprises. Also, remote work draws more attention during the last few years. However, in Japan, the development of these topics was rather moderate compared to other countries. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 forced a dramatic and unplanned change in dealing with teleworking.

For many people, telework gave them the first opportunity to work in their own room without being disturbed. It is easy to concentrate and should be more productive.

Telework removed people from the office layout which was often reflecting the hierarchical nature of the company. On the virtual meeting, there is no hierarchy seen on the screen. So the hierarchical mentality of the Japanese people may change gradually.

Telework is good for independent-minded people while making group-oriented people feel more isolated and lonely. Those who feel isolated and lonely have to find a way to address their mental challenges.

Some people find Teleworking is good because they can spend time doing other things, even something completely unrelated to work. If such people increase, it could damage the productivity of the company.

Some people such as mothers with small children find it difficult to work at home. They probably want to have someplace away from their household activities in order to concentrate on work.

1:1 coaching is becoming more necessary in order to engage people as daily interactions are missing and people feel unsure and disconnected. They now want to get more guidance from their boss and senior leaders through 1:1.

With no daily interactions in the office, spontaneous creativity and synchronicity among employees are not happening as often as before.

Telework is challenging some fundamental definitions of work we used to have, such as physical proximity, pay for time, belonging to a company, etc. From now on, people will no longer take physical proximity as a necessity for work. Also, performance & results will be the main evaluation factor regardless of actual working hours spent. Also, people will choose a profession rather than a company. If they want to work at home, they will not choose a job at a factory. An argument for fair treatment was based on the assumption that people join the same company and rotate around different jobs. But now, if people choose the profession rather than the company, people will soon understand that different professionals work differently even in the same company. So there will be no more argument about fair treatment.

While Telework is convenient and productive for many people working at home, it is probably threatening the quality of talent development for the company. People often learn from their leaders and role models by observing them in actions such as conducting a meeting, giving a presentation, handling a difficult issue and leading a project, etc. But now, when a young person joins a company, what he or she sees all the time is the image of their leaders or managers just talking on the PC screen. It is very hard for them to develop the image of successful leaders and to observe leaders in actual actions. Also for leaders, it is very difficult to show leadership if they are interacting always online.

What would be the actual actions of leaders in the online era anyway? Maybe that is the main question.


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