Managing relationships in Japan

Written by Juriaan Kroeze November 2013. Posted in Leadership, Int. Skills

Managing relationships in Japan

When we look at how different countries throughout the world have evolved in the past centuries, we notice that there’s a correlation between the increase in a country’s welfare and that country’s score in Hofstede’s indices. The increase in welfare often leads a country to let go of its strong religious, masculine, group-oriented past. Arguably, if the economy in a country grows, the level of education will also gradually improve there and the new knowledge gained will eventually replace the culture’s old superstitions and belief system. This claimseems not to apply to the Japanese however, as they have surprised the world with an enormous economic growth spurt, while staying insanely loyal to their old traditions.

Confucianism, an ethical belief system in which relationships are of high value, and the country’s long history of agriculture, an industry that requires successful group work, might both have had an influence on the Japanese culture. The Japanese still tend to operate in groups, which anyone doing business in Japan will soon notice and will have to take into consideration. The Japanese do not like to stand out, as it’s not common to separate yourself from the group. Also, individuals rarely get the blame for mistakes or receive praise for achievements.

When having meetings in Japan, it is recommended to be on time as the Japanese are very punctual and expect their business partners to be that as well. Meetings ought to be set up well in advance and the Japanese counterpart will probably want to know who is coming and what everyone’s positions in the company are. If possible, have someone who’s either already familiar with the Japanese counterpart introduce you, or have someone from inside the counterpart’s company introduce you. The Japanese are hard-working business people but will only be able to work with you if they trust you. This might take time and requires patience.

Furthermore, the Japanese have a high-context culture, which requires more reading of body language as opinions are rarely voiced directly. Individual thoughts are not encouraged and so it will be highly unlikely to see a Japanese disagreeing with anyone in public. Controlling emotions and avoiding conflict is considered polite and respectful. Foreigners tend to find it hard to read the Japanese and will often confuse silence for agreement. Instead of thinking that the Japanese are blindly agreeing with any of the proposals you’re putting on the table, they should be given space to think through every detail of the deal. It often occurs that more meetings have to be set up to discuss the same things over and over until everything becomes extremely transparent so that the Japanese feel confident and can get to a consensus as a group.

The long and winding road to a consensus, however, does not only depend on information given in a meeting. The Japanese have a fairly complex hierarchical system and every single step has to be approved by someone with authority. In addition to all of the above, it should be mentioned that the Japanese are not easily convinced by a deal that will only lead to good results in the short run. The Japanese are relatively long-term oriented and prefer deals that will benefit them in the long run.

Managing relationships with the Japanese requires a great investment in bonding with them in order to gain trust. Once the relationship has been established, it will still take time before the Japanese feel comfortable enough to agree with business offers.