Making decisions in Japan

Written by Diogo Carneiro November 2013. Posted in Decision-making, Int. Skills

Japan, Rice and Decision Making

Making decisions in Japan

When people see Japan and rice in the same sentence, they probably think of things like sushi and onigiri. The ones who like drinking could remember that the Japanese drink sake is made from rice. Those who are more familiar with other aspects of Japanese culture could remember the various festivals and gods related to rice. But what could that cereal, that is so linked with the Japanese culture, have to do with the Japanese business world and, more specifically, with the Japanese process of decision making?

The process of decision making have been studied for a long time by scholars in many disciplines, such as mathematics, psychology, economics and political science, as described cited by Buchanan and O’Connell in their article “A Brief History of Decision Making”. They discuss series of techniques that can support leaders through this process, such as “SWOT analyses” and the “Ishikawa Diagram” which helps you find possible outcomes and then choose the best one. Many theories try to crack the process in a series of steps, such as gathering information, analysing possibilities and choosing the best solution. But to use some of these techniques and theories, first we have to know how the culture of a certain place influences the process of decision making there.

In his book Culture’s Consequences, anthropologist Geert Hofstede develops some cultural indicators to characterize different cultures. Among them, “Uncertainty Avoidance” shows how a society deals with the uncertainty of the future, in other words, if they are comfortable taking risks or not. With a score of 92 on a scale from 1 to 100 in this indicator, the Japanese culture is noted as not being willing to take risks. This strong high-risk avoidance makes the decision-making process in Japan incredibly slow. The Japanese tend to put a lot of effort into analyzing the best outcome and preparing the company as much as possible to fit to the chosen solution in a process called Nemawashi to avoid possible risks.

Another indicator that Hofstede proposes is: Individualism vs Collectivism”, in which Japan scores 46 on a scale of 1 to 100. It is easy to suppose that this indicator shows that Japanese society tends to be inclined towards collectivism. Within the Japanese corporation, during the decision-making process, there is a rigin-sho, which is circulated throughout the company with the purpose of gathering approval for the decision from all levels in the hierarchy. This “group filling” is also a legacy from the Confucianism, a philosophy that preaches the ethical thinking of the jin, or humaneness, which means thinking in terms of the consequences of your acts upon the others. It has its origin in China, but has been widespread in Japan since early times.

In a study comparing the decision-making styles of the US, China and Japan, Maris G. Martisons held a survey with managers from these three countries and separated them according to the cognitive complexity of their decision-making style, and whether or not it was people or task oriented. The Japanese were allocated as being people oriented, being easily related to the “group filling”, and having a low level of cognitive complexity, which we can relate with the high-risk avoidance, since a high complexity would bring more uncertainties.

But you might be asking: “What does rice have to do with all this?” Incredibly, several sources say that the most common method of decision making in Japan has its roots in rice farming from the medieval era. Its economy of scale made developing the cultivation of rice much easier in groups of farmers where decisions were made collectively. As Amiciliar Ramos puts it, in the planting of rice, “the survival of each one’s plantation depended on the water that his neighbor let pass”.

In her article “Why do Japanese take so long to make decisions?” Kopp says that the Japanese people prefer “more gradual change, which entails fewer risks” but that they will have to adapt their pace to the “fast-moving environment” of nowadays. But I think that maybe the others should be influenced a little bit more by the pace of the Japanese.