After a decade plus working in Japan, I have three strategies:
- Directly reconfirm anything you are asked or implied to do
- Ask for forgiveness, not permission
- 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:
- Give vague suggestions on direction (e.g. "It would be nice if we could explain how important this opportunity is to our management")
- 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.