I’ve started to read NTC’s Dictionary of Japan’s Cultural Code Words by Boye Lafayette De Mente, which covers a bunch of concepts that are nearly untranslatable or incomprehensible from a Western perspective. It seems to focus predominantly on business-related etiquette and how Japan’s business practices differ from America’s in very subtle but critical ways. The more I read it the more I’m dissuaded from pursuing anything business-related in Japan; the author paints a picture of a Japan that values irrationality and deceit to either “save face” or avoid being impolite. Have I misunderstood what I read? Is the author simply wrong?
Additionally, how does Japanese culture compare with other East-Asian nations such as China in terms of interpersonal relationships? I’m sorry if that seems like a vague question.
Face is very important in various Asian cultures and not exactly the same (at least in my personal experience in Japan, China, HK and Taiwan. Heck it’s not exactly the same across China for that matter - Shanghaiese act differently than Northerners).
There is no easy answer. I think that
a) it’s too easy for a foreigner to blame stuff on face or cultural misunderstandings rather than what is normal business culture in that country.
b) face and what may appear to be not the most rational business decision can also be quite different if one is looking at a short term opportunistic trade versus a long term trade off.
c) Japan is rationale within the Japanese context and ditto on the deciet thing. Silly gaijin using "Merican standards is a pretty common sin.
d) low context versus high context cultures. IIRC, Japanese is low context because what is said should generally not be taken literally. America is high context as in “I mean exactly what I say” (unless I have these terms backward)
One simple example, in Japan you can request something and get the answer back “it could be difficult” (chotto muli desu). To an American, this literally means it’s doable although there may be some obstacles. To a Japanese, it means "no fucking way and don’t even think about trying to force your way through. When I was first working at UBS in Tokyo in the 1990’s, the common response to “it could be difficult” was "so, whaddya need and how much will it cost, just get it done yesterday numbnuts*. Suffice to say this ended in tears until the FOB foreigner figured it out and the Japanese staff learned to not be polite in the Japanese sense because they would really suffer in the end.
There was no irrationality nor deceit - just a clash of mutal cultural misunderstanding.
*actually, no one would phrase it in such a polite way on the trading floor.
In a sense, yes. Western business and culture is precisely as “irrational”, just in ways you are familiar with and so not aware of. For instance the focus on “winning”, where making a deal that ends up disadvantaging the other party is actually seen as a clever move, even if it wasn’t necessarily all that great for you - as long as you ended up better off than him you “won”. The fact that you may have done better with a win-win deal, or will now find it difficult to deal with them again, is not taken into account.
Deceit is perfectly acceptable in Western business practice as long as it’s in the service of victory, rather than of maintaining face or “harmony” (lack of public confrontation).
I’m with the OP on this. People who play coy like this are a pain in the ass. If “No” means both “No, thank you,” and “Yes please, but I’m too ‘polite’ to say so,” it means you have to work twice as hard to get an honest answer out of them. And if you take them at face value, it’s somehow your fault you didn’t recognise their doublespeak for what it is.
You learn to figure it out. It’s really not any different than knowing that “I’m sorry I can’t go on a date with you, I have to wash my hair” means that a girl is not interested in you. Once you know them, the signals are relatively unambiguous. I agree that is occasionally maddening from someone else, but you have to figure they find our culture equally obnoxious.
In China, one of the central goals of any interaction is to make sure that nobody comes out embarrassed in public. When you need to deal with something unpleasant, you always make sure that person has an “out.” This is one reason why people give rejection so indirectly- it’s not that they don’t want to deal with rejecting you, but they want to make sure that you are still able to keep your dignity in front of others. For example, if you need to fire someone, you will probably do this by signaling to the person that their work is over in a discreet way and then waiting for them to resign. That way, they can make it look like it is their choice.
You learn how to do this stuff pretty quickly. I surprise myself sometimes by still unconsciously doing things like this.
I’ve never read this book so I don’t know if you’ve misunderstood it, but I used to work in Japan as an English teacher and would not agree that the culture values irrationality and deceit. There are plenty of things about Japanese culture that are unfamiliar or frustrating for Americans, but they weren’t irrational – at least not any more than the practices of other cultures. The Japanese also struck me as being generally quite honest, albeit often reticent about things that Americans would tend to be more open about.
I had an adult student “Kenji” who told me he’d be missing class because he was making a trip to Europe. I asked him if it was for work or a vacation, and he said it was for a vacation. When Kenji returned I asked how his trip was and he mentioned a few things he’d done, like going hiking. At least a week or two after that one of his classmates, who was also a coworker, was making jokes in class about how Kenji’s life was different now and he couldn’t go out anymore. I said “Kenji, did you get married?” He said yes, then added “When I went to Europe, that was my honeymoon trip.” Now, even by Japanese standards Kenji was a bit shy, but when I mentioned this to my coworkers it apparently wasn’t considered THAT strange that he hadn’t mention that he was getting married, while as an American I felt it was quite odd!
Incidentally, I can’t remember ever encountering a situation where a Japanese person was telling me something like “That’s a bit tricky” when they really meant “It cannot be done.” It may have happened, but if so it never led to any confusion worth remembering. What I actually encountered more often was people telling me (in English) “It’s impossible”. I found this kind of amusing because it was never in reference to things that were truly impossible but rather things that were not permitted, like taking photos inside a temple. The Japanese may have gotten the message that more subtle responses don’t work with Americans. “It’s impossible” may also be seen as a way to avoid argument and allow everyone to keep their dignity, as it suggests that there’s no one to blame and nothing that can be done to change the situation. It wasn’t that it was wrong of me to want to take pictures, or that the temple worker was refusing to grant permission for me to do so. It was just “impossible”, and we both just had to accept that and get on with our lives.
(Bolding mine.) It’s funny, this was exactly the analogy I was about to post.
I don’t think the Japanese are that different from Westerners in wanting to avoid hurt feelings and angry confrontations. While there are some different standards for what is considered polite, or even acceptable, behavior, I think a lot of problems are really due to the language barrier. There are Japanese expressions that have a commonly understood meaning to the Japanese but that are not necessarily clear to others. This is of course hardly unique to the Japanese language.
For instance, many of my students expressed amusement or confusion regarding the American custom of saying “Bless you” when someone sneezes. Several asked me what Americans thought would happen if one DIDN’T say “Bless you”, and although no one said so outright it was my impression that this was viewed as a comically backwards superstition.
That’s because it IS a comically backward superstition, it just takes an outsider’s perspective to make that obvious.
The example I’ve had cited is easterners saying yes to things because they don’t want to upset people, like in business saying “yes of course we can do that” when they know full well they can’t. If true I think that would probably be far more frustrating to deal with than someone being too polite to say no (a friend of mine who teachers foreign students English told me that the Japanese don’t have a word for no, just eight words for yes in descending orders of enthusiasm - sounds like bullshit to me though).
An article I read on the Chinese concept of kimchee (sp?) really struck me as odd - the act of offering gifts that one is not supposed to take. The author was Chinese/American and said she was visiting relatives in China who were offering her gifts of money and all but begging her to take them (which she knew she wasn’t supposed to do). After a week of this she finally relented to get them to shut up and later received an angry call from her mother saying her relatives had told her what a greedy girl her daughter was. WTF??? What’s the point in me offering you a gift if we both know that you’re not supposed to take it? Even more bizarre, why take offence if you do? That’s what happens when you offer gifts.
Maybe I’m confusing “chotto muli” and “chotto muzukashii desu.” It was almost 20 years ago…thanks for the correction. Standing joke amongst the gaijin later became we would say “it could be difficult” in English when we meant “fuck off and die dorkbrain 'cause it will never happen.”
I lived in Japan for three years and I didn’t have too much trouble with the cultural difference aspect of communication, but people were probably being more direct for my benefit than they usually would have been. I confused some of them, though, because they expected a stereotypical American to be on the loud, assertive, outgoing side, and I happened to not be those things. So some Japanese people at first thought I was not so friendly, or didn’t like them, or was unhappy with being there, even though a Japanese person who was acting the same way would have been unremarkable. (Several people told me this after they got to know me.)
Once in a while I was unsure if I was interpreting something accurately and it was useful to run it past another Japanese person. For example, a lady I met only once invited me to come visit her in Tokyo some time. I asked my neighbor, who was her cousin, “Is it really okay for me to take her up on that invitation?” The neighbor said yes, and even made the phone call for me so he could have smoothed it over it had turned out to not be a real invite.
I was not in a business situation though, and I know there are a lot of rules and scripts I never had to study or observe. I worked in a school and I figured part of my job was to show people how Americans do things. So I sometimes said things I knew no one else would because it wasn’t protocol. (I was polite of course, and having said my odd American thing, dropped it and deferred to the authority of those around me.) I would not have done that in a business relationship.
“Iie” means something more like “on the contrary”, or “Not at all”. So you don’t really use it when you are refusing to do something for someone, like, “Can I do X” “No” would sound weird if the user just said “Iie.”
If you were getting refused something they have loads of words that would do, going from the aforementioned “Chotto muzukashii deshou” all the way up to “Zettai muri desu” which means “Completely impossible.” It’s just bad manners to say it that way. But push hard enough and eventually it will be said!