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It is quite common in Japanese culture to communicate using indirect means. Being a foreigner in the workplace I sometimes find it difficult to convey my thoughts. Some examples are:

  • My boss never tells me to do anything. He simply suggests things very subtly.

  • If I ask him a question and he doesn't know the answer, he would be unable to come up with a sufficient reply.

  • I find it difficult to counter argument with him considering the fact that the Japanese workplace is quite conservative in contrast to the American workplace.

Is there anything I can do on my end in order to improve our communication? We have a great and friendly relation and he treats me quite well. It's simply that sometimes we both are unable to understand what the other person intends to convey due to differences in work culture.

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4 Answers 4

up vote 58 down vote accepted

After a decade plus working in Japan, I have three strategies:

  1. Directly reconfirm anything you are asked or implied to do
  2. Ask for forgiveness, not permission
  3. Learn the language, or at least the non-verbal cues

Reconfirm, Reconfirm, Reconfirm

I have found that many Japanese managers are reluctant to give direct and specific orders on what you should do. They will either:

  1. Give vague suggestions on direction (e.g. "It would be nice if we could explain how important this opportunity is to our management")
  2. Give specific goals with absolutely no direction on how to achieve them (e.g. "We need to double our sales this year")

In both situations, the disconnect is between what you are being told, and what you actually need to do as a result of what you're being told. The only way to be sure that you are on the right track is to confirm. For instance:

Japanese boss: We are currently struggling with having this group meet deadlines because they don't have anyone who speaks English in their group.

Reconfirming: Would it be helpful if we translated a summary of the document in to Japanese before we make the request?

The point is that you want to make sure that you understand the gist of what they are looking to accomplish, and get at least an indication that if you start working on something they won't be surprised when they get it.

Ask for forgiveness, not permission

I have never met a manager who actually gave a clear set of comprehensive instructions of what they want beforehand. In my experience, all Japanese companies have a system of approval, where they give you a direction, you throw something together and show them, and they tell you what to fix to refine the idea. I find that this is generally because they aren't quite sure what they want, and it is far easier for them to criticize comment on what you show them afterwards.

If you try to confirm every detail before you do it, you will probably cause headaches for both parties. It is often far easier just to do it, and then be apologetic when you get it wrong. You will end up with something closer to what you want this way, and your manager will feel that you are a good employee for taking their feedback. For instance, let's say you bring your boss a presentation he suggested he wanted (and you reconfirmed):

Japanese boss: Why is this graph coming before the explanation on the next slide? And the graph is showing in US Dollars rather than Japanese Yen, but in this company we do all our accounting in Japanese yen and the dollars may confuse management.

Good Employee: That is a good point. I will move the explanation before the graph. I am sorry I put it in US dollars, I will change that to Japanese yen. Should I use the current internal rate to adjust to Japanese yen?

Note the reconfirming at the end to prevent further misunderstandings

To make this process go smoother, I tend to put something that is very easy for the boss to pick up on and suggest a correction to (so they feel that their input is needed and appreciated), and that also allows them to let some of your other parts stay as-is. You will get better with practice as you figure out how your boss likes things, and are able to get closer to what they are thinking without asking (or being told how many things you need to change after having done all the work).

Learn the Language (or at least the cues)

Learning the language gives you a very good insight in to the many non-verbal quirks and cues that come up over and over. Understanding the interactions on TV, especially on shows discussing politics or other contentious issues will give you a much better idea of how to approach situations in the office. If you aren't inclined to learn the language for whatever reason, I suggest finding a culturally bilingual person in your office and asking them about things that come up often (the infamous sucking of air through teeth, the 'I agree, but I want you to do something totally different', or the 'yes, we should look in to that' when they really mean 'absolutely not in a million years', etc.).

I recently met another non-Japanese working here who was worried because his company was restructuring, and he didn't know if his job was secure. He has always gotten along well with his manager, and his manager keeps telling him that he is appreciated, but his contract was going to expire within a month and he hadn't gotten notice of a renewal yet. After discussing it with him, it became clear that he wasn't reading the non-verbal cues, and he wasn't aware of how a Japanese office works (the yearly personnel transfers being 'secret' until the last second, the importance of having been brought to see the big boss to discuss how valued he was to the company).

After discussing it with him for an hour or so, he felt a lot more secure in his job, and ended up getting the contract renewal offered to him the next day (as I had explained). Having people to bounce these concerns off in person is incredibly important, and allows you to have someone to address specific concerns where the details are incredibly important.

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7  
@Trojan, this is a standard trick for people who do creative work in many industries, and not just in Japan. –  Alex D Mar 27 at 15:46
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@Trojan: It's called a duck: programmers.stackexchange.com/questions/122009/… –  Daenyth Mar 27 at 17:00
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@Daenyth No, a duck is something extra that you intend for the manager to change/remove, because you don't want them to meddle with the parts that matter. This is completely different - a prototype that you want them to comment on. –  Izkata Mar 27 at 17:08
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@Trojan, it was actually recommended to me by one of my coworkers here in Japan. He said, "Japanese managers need to comment on something or else they aren't doing their job. If you want them to ignore the more significant changes you are making to what they are used to, you need to give them something easy to comment on so that they can feel their feedback is both necessary and effective. So, for instance, if you make a document in Japanese, intentionally leaving mistakes with the characters you use (use homophones), they may not comment on your overall message." –  jmac Mar 27 at 23:39
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Hey @Aditya, writing on non-verbal cues would be a book in and of itself which is why I didn't elaborate. A lot of the statements in Japanese (Ganbarimasu, Kento-shimasu, Ryokai-shimashita) are ambiguous and require reading the person beyond understanding the words. When speaking English, the same tendencies come through, which is what makes understanding the non-verbal cues so important. Agreeing too quickly = probably doesn't want to do it, extended disagreement followed by capitulation = probably won't do it and will hope the other person forgets, etc. Find someone who knows them, and ask! –  jmac Mar 28 at 2:12

I think that I have something important to contribute here which will probably help with some communication problems.

It's EXTREMELY important to also learn the different body language signals that are used there.

In most Asian countries, there are significant differences in this regard compared to the western world. While people there might cut you some slack and forgive your various errors about this, after a while they'll feel offended that you didn't make an effort to fix this.

You can probably easily find a lot of the required information, but here's a good guide about this: http://www.tofugu.com/guides/japanese-body-language/ .

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Hey Radu, could you share what parts of the link you think are relevant to the specific question? As explained in this meta post, providing links should be accompanied by explanations of what relevant information to the asker is contained (quoted or summarized). Mind making an edit? Thanks in advance! –  jmac Mar 28 at 2:20

I'm expanding on this quote made by jmac: "I have never met a manager who actually gave a clear set of comprehensive instructions of what they want beforehand. In my experience, all Japanese companies have a system of approval, where they give you a direction, you throw something together and show them, and they tell you what to fix to refine the idea. I find that this is generally because they aren't quite sure what they want, and it is far easier for them to comment on what you show them afterwards." I work in this kind of environment, although it is in Texas, and everyone is American. This is what happens when non-computer-literate users ask a software developer to write a system.

In one situation, there can be a cultural disposition toward vagueness, in another, it comes from an inability to on the part of the customer to provide clearly identified objectives. If you are a spy, of course, the target is deliberately obstructing your efforts to learn what they're doing.

Generically, the appropriate response is to start assembling whatever intelligence is available: incoming paperwork, summary reports, spreadsheets, schedules, etc. One might also look at other people's answers to similar problems. Is there a software package for this line of business? If so, what kind of reports does it produce? Is there a product made by a competitor? If so, what do the customers think of it?

Situation: the users don't have any formal description of their own workflow - people simply adapt as they settle into their respective roles. A developer in this situation has to make the best guess, putting together a prototype. People will mark up screen shots as they attempt to run it - adding columns, shifting things around, etc. This is the closest you can come to 'reading their minds'.

In my case, I am 'hacking' their business process. I can't ask - I have to watch. Since you may not be writing software, one scenario might be that you're being asked to produce quarterly reports, in which you can't imagine what the use of those reports will be. Or, you are being asked to design a product - the company knows it wants one, but it doesn't know precisely what features will be included. In the first example, you have to hack the internal business environment, and identify what the sore points are that they need to see. Your reports should document operational areas that are creating grief for customers or causing them to find other vendors. In the case of a product, you have to hack the market - figuring out what existing customers are expecting, or where new ones would come from, and what they would want.

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Purging most of the comments here, as I believe they relate to a past iteration of the question. I strongly recommend keeping extended discussions for chat and sticking to stand-along, focused critiques here in comments. –  Shog9 Mar 29 at 0:22

I am neither American nor Japanese so my suggestion could not be good enough. For my prespective in western work culture the relation between boss and employee is more friendly while in eastern more respect.

If you have time then watch some Japanese drama or movie on http://gooddrama.net/ with english subtitle. By this you can be able to understand their culture as well as some basic words like Arigato (Thank you), Gomen'nasai (Sorry), adding 'San' suffix with name when asking senior or elder. Because you will be listening japanese and reading english at a time and if you will looking your favorite genre (Business/Action) then you won't be bore.

http://www.gooddrama.net/japanese-drama/made-in-japan

http://www.gooddrama.net/japanese-drama/hero-japan


Edit

@jmac: This is right, journalist and script writer always looks exceptional story around them and put on their news, novel or drama because put common story make no sense. In short their is very less probability to learn daily life from news, novel or drama.

But please look in this way, person is facing the culture shock (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture_shock) So it will takes 6 to 12 months for adjustment phase. After work they already tired more than normal because of homesickness, social gap, different environment etc. So learning from any concrete material may be hard. So what type of activities they can do. Use social media like Facebook, Skype to chat family member or friend. Playing video games on mobile or console, net surfing or watching anime/cartoon and drama/movies. By watching drama with subtitle means person is listening Japanese, observing (some) culture difference and reading subtitle. Hope after watching some drama person may be familiar the language for example if some one speaking in Chinese, one in Korean and other in Japanese then they can find who is speaking in Japanese even thou they cannot understand whole sentence. (Atleast its true for me). The another example is If I say “Jack and Jill” then anyone know who is boy and who is girl but if I say “Kyo and Kuroko” then its not enough because most names are common for boys and girls in Japanese, Chinese and Korean and that is enough for shock if someone is believing that boys and girls have different names.

Anyway this is not a proper solution or answer because if someone does not like drama or they feel better to read solid and formal material. That’s why I said my suggestion can not be good enough.

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7  
Hey Atif, if you haven't lived/worked in Japan, what makes you think that watching drama is a good way to understand an actual Japanese working environment? No drama I've ever watched was remotely like any office I've worked in here (which isn't shocking -- amazingly enough people tend to watch drama because it is more interesting than real life). –  jmac Mar 28 at 2:17

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