japan communications

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Hisashiburi, all.

Internet access in Japan was limited for me, so I apologize for the lack of updates.

After not being in Japan for over a year, it was a great trip, and I was able to make a few observations.

Part of the reason for the trip was to go to a wedding in Yokohama. The bride and groom are both young Japanese people, and I had never been to a wedding in Japan before, so I was looking forward to it.

The first thing that struck me was the amount of money that changes hands. As cousins of the bride, our family made a cash gift much larger than we would ever be expected to spend in the US. There are standards for how much friends and family should pay for a gift, and it is quite staggering. A friend in Japan was invited to three weddings in a month (none relatives) and ended up spending over a months salary in cash gifts. We now see single people often declining or making up excuses not to attend weddings simply because the cost of the money gift is so high (though, I have to admit, much simpler than the registry and shopping, etc...)

The interesting thing is that after the cost of the wedding, they would probably end up breaking even.

Hotels in Japan often have "chapels" for weddings in them, that way the wedding, reception, and out-of-town guests can all be in the same place. Set courses for the affair are all put together by the hotel, which makes for conveniece for the new bride and groom and insures nothing is forgotten. At the wedding we participated in there was a "wedding staff" who arranged everything, including photographer, videographer, kimono dresser (for the moms), and even babysitter. And, of course, the priest who held the ceremony.

The majority of Westerners working in Japan are English teachers. Less than 1% of Japanese citizens are Christian (as opposed to 25%+ in S. Korea), but Japanese weddings tend to follow the Christian pattern. (It is said in Japan you are born Shinto, marry Christian and die a Buddhist). This is likely for two reasons: 1) the traditional Japanese wedding is very beautiful, but very long and debilitatingly expensive and 2) the romantic impression of western weddings seen in movies and TV shows. What this means is there is a market for western priests to hold wedding ceremonies. There are certainly less ordained western Christian priests in Japan than the market demands, and the reality is that 80% of wedding ceremonies performed by non-Japanese are performed by actors, not actual priests (mostly English teachers looking for a little extra cash on the weekends). Does the marrying couple care? Probably not, and it may even be preferable this way.

The ceremony I attended was performed by an Australian gentlemen, and was almost completely in Japanese, and I almost couldn't tell if the nearly incomprehensible accect the "priest" spoke in was a put-on or his Japanese was really that bad. It reminded me of the "Gottsu 'A' Kanji" character, Mister Bater. A Kansai-ben spouting foreigner played by comedy team Downtown's Matsumoto. I hope this is a trend that doesn't continue in Japan, as it took away from the ceremony.

The reception was second-to-none with a five-course meal, live entertainment, and more waiters serving beer, wine, and champagne than I imagined could be in single room at one time. Service in Japan, especially for an event such as a wedding, is immaculate. A woman at the table I sat at preferred whiskey and water over wine or beer, and a glass was brought to her without question or complaint immediately upon her request. One by one we went to the bride and groom's table, (who sat at a long table facing the tables of guests) and gave our congrats and a toast. There is no telling how many toasts the groom drank, but I don't think he had time to eat, and was looking pretty happy by the end of the meal.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Arrival to Japan...SUCCESS!

It seems coming west over the Intl Date Line isn`t as hard on the system as going back to the US. I will try and update here and there over the next couple weeks.

Some observations after being in Japan for a day: It`s been a while since I have been in Japan during winter, but every shop and restaurant is decked out for Christmas, and it`s still November! I don`t remember things being like this. I don`t see any houses with Christmas lights, though, only businesses. In general Christmas is always celebrated as a sort of holiday for lovers, accompanied with the official Japanese theme song for Christmas, Wham`s `Last Christmas`.

One of my favorite things to do over here is go to bookstores. My favorite is the GIANT Kinokuniya store in Umeda, Osaka. For a country that is so up on technology, HD, gaming systems, etc. it makes me happy to see how crowded bookstores are. It is not just comics and magazines (though there is no shortage of those) but fiction and non-fiction books as well. It still appears that Japan is remaining a well-read society.

Big news now is the trade of Hanshin Tigers pitcher Igawa to the Yankees for about 30 million bucks. The Tigers fans are famous for their obsessiveness, despite the teams history of struggle. Man-in-the-street interviews in Osaka about the trade on Wednesday elicited three kinds of responses: 1) `Good for him! He can follow his dream of playing for the American pros!`, 2) `This is a blow to the team. I hope the Tigers can find a decent replacement` (typical so far) and then 3) `I hope the Yankees know that he stinks it up after five innings!`. A very typical Osaka-jin reply. On the news program I saw three different people (two men and a woman) came up with something along those lines. I had to laugh.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Off to Japan for three weeks, so I hope to have some new and interesting cultural observations (and pics) to bring to you very soon.

Friday, October 20, 2006

This was reported by A.P. today, and I think it shows an interesting cultural struggle going on in Japan today:

From the A.P. wire:

Births in Japan Rise for 7th Month

Japan's birth rate rose for the seventh straight month in August, the government said Friday, raising hopes for an upturn in the country's plunging annual birthrate and declining population.

A falling birthrate and an expanding elderly population pose serious concerns for Japan as it struggles to tackle a labor shortage and eroding tax base. Japan's birthrate in 2005 stood at a record low of 1.25 babies per woman in her lifetime, far below the 2.1 rate needed to keep the population steady.

In August, a total of 98,276 births were registered, up 3,001 from the same month in 2005, or a rise of about 3 percent, according to Health Ministry statistics released Friday.

That's the seventh straight monthly gain in birthrates. But Reiji Murayama, an official of the Health Ministry's vital and health statistics division, said it was too early to say that the latest data meant a turnaround in the country's annual birthrate.

"We cannot predict if the falling birthrate may hit the bottom this year yet, until we will see the remaining four months," Murayama said. The nation's population last year declined for the first time on record, shocking officials and spurring a spate of measures to encourage women to have more babies.

To encourage women to have more babies, the government started a project to build more day care centers, while encouraging men to take paternity leave. Amid changing lifestyles, many single women are delaying or forgoing marriage to pursue careers.

Without the religious influences of some other countries in Asia, it isn't surprising that some Japanese women finally said to themselves "I am independently successful, so why should I give up this salary and this freedom just to get married and make babies?" The biggest pressure was probably from the young women's parents, especially if she still lived at home. (It is common for young people to live at home until they are married, but now that the average age for marriage is getting later and later, some of those "young people" are still at home, even into their 30s and later.)

Another barrier to marriage and motherhood was the snail-like pace Japanese bureaucrats and business-leaders take in making changes to meet the modern times. Things like child-care, guaranteed employment after maternity leave, paternity leave, and other benefits to having children are all new concepts in Japan, which the rest of the first world has been toting mother's rights for decades. It took something as drastic as an actual population drop and the rapid increase in the elderly population (leading to the eventual devastating drain on the country's heath care and other resources).

How could the government and corporate leaders let things get so bad? Faithful readers to Japan Communications may have a couple guesses.

1) Change is something that is generally avoided and is considered "bad". It's only when not changing becomes more damaging than changing that the push for real change actually happens.

Ten years ago schools started shutting down and there was a hiring freeze on new teachers in some prefectures (this still continues). In many parts of Japan students go to schools where entire floors are left unused. Schools are being converted into community centers, or are rented out. Many young kids now haven't had a teacher under the age of 35. This wasn't enough of a sign to government officials that there was a shift in the national thinking, and a reaction would be needed.

2) The older generation (bureaucrats and company officials) tend to take advice from other members of the older generation, and not from younger or non-Japanese sources.

Three of the big-five auto manufacturers in Japan have hired non-Japanese CEOs in the past five years. Why? Because Japanese CEOs don't work quickly to make drastic changes, but these companies (Mitsubishi, Nissan and one other) were experience losses, and their boards of directors had the intelligence to find quick-minded solution oriented leadership.

Naturally there are more complicated issues going, and a few paragraphs exploring Japanese culture won't solve Japan's population problems, but it is interesting to see how the cultural traits we have looked at can sometimes have farther reaching influences than one might expect.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Independent Worker / What's the Gamble?

In the US, workers often pride themselves and compliment each other on how independently they can work. "She can work well on her own," is a phrase we want someone to use in a recommendation. Employers look for people that can be given an assignment, and do it on their own. Once abilities are clear and trust is established, the employer will allow the employee to make decisions and changes on her own. This creates efficiency in the work place.

And this is the opposite of what a Japanese employer is looking for. In Japan a worker who works well in a group, and who doesn't strive to work independently is the one that is valued. Japanese work using a constant cycle of consensus getting and approval. The process may be slower than Americans are used to, but also result in less risk-taking.

Let's take this discussion out of the conflict-ridden international office, and into the world of gambling in Japan.. The laws about gambling in Japan are a little obscure. Technically gambling is illegal, but gigantic loopholes allow for a limited variety of gambling. The three main types of gambling in Japan are Mah-jong, "pachi" games, and the races. Let's look at each type and see how the cultural tendency of risk-aversion is not conflicted with this gambling.

Mah-jong is a tile game popular all over Asia, and had a period of popularity in the US in the 1970s. Mah-jong can be played at home, among friends, or at Mah-jong parlors, where a single may join a three-some, like at a golf course. The cultural equivalent is poker, where a group of people are trying to create the best combination using the cards they are dealt. Like poker, Mah-jong has a long cycle of discards. Essentially it's like poker, but the winning "hand" will be of 14 tiles lined up in one of the hundreds of combinations possible to win. Unlike poker, it's not who has the best hand, but who creates a winning combination first.

Like poker, this is certainly gambling, and also like poker, skill is what creates a winner at the end of the night. It can easily be argued that the sheer number of tiles and winning combinations that need to be memorized to be successful, and then figuring out the probability of certain combinations coming up (discarded tiles are seen by the other players) require more skill than poker. That dependence on skill makes Mah-jong a much less risky gambling prospect than Western favorites, like craps or blackjack, which require more luck - or in other words, are more risky.

"Pachi" games come in two forms: pachinko and pachi-slots, AKA pachi-suro. Pachinko (which also had a certain popularity briefly in the 1970s in the US) is often referred to as "Japanese pinball", but this title is only partially accurate. Players sit at a vertically standing board, covered by glass and full of a series of pegs and pockets. Small steel balls are shot into the playing field (like pinball) and bounce off pegs until they either fall into a pocket, or fall to the bottom of the board and are discarded. Different pockets do different things, either release more balls to the player, open a larger pocket for bonuses, start a slot wheel spinning, etc. There are thousands of varieties of machines, with new ones coming out constantly, but the goal is always the same: hit the largest bonuses to release more balls than you are using, creating a win. Pachinko players do not simply sit at a machine and start throwing money in. First they look at the machine, and the machines around it. Do the pegs look friendly, or do they look tight? Is this a good machine to play on, or is it set to be a money pit? A good reader of machines will see his afternoon profitable. Fortunately for the pachinko parlor owners, more people believe they can read the machines well than actually can. But, again, there is a skill involved.

Pachi-slots are similar to pachinko only in the notion that it's human vs. machine form of gambling (no dealers and little to no human interaction required, a selling point in Japan for the shameful Japanese gambler). In pachi-slots there aren't balls and pegs, but the machines look like traditional casino slot machines, and are filled with coins. The one difference is that there is a STOP button in front of each of the three spinning reels. Players stop the quickly spinning reels in an effort to initiate a bonus round which will lead to a big payout. Like pachinko, there is a science to choosing a machine and stopping the spinning reels to lead to big pay-outs. Also like pachinko, those that actually understand the science number far less than those that think they do, but, again, risk is averted. Imagine a slot machine in Las Vegas with STOP buttons on the spinning reels! It would be unheard of! Now imagine being a Japanese slot player, and going to Vegas... it would be like playing slots with your arms cut-off. It is hard to imagine why Japanese players can't understand why Americans throw their money away in casinos? Think risk-taking vs. risk aversion.

The final form of gambling in Japan is the races. Just like in the US, Japanese horse racing is very popular, and there are fancy, high class tracks, and smaller local tracks all across the country. The difference is when we look at the other types of races you can gamble on. In the US along with the horses, we also have greyhound racing. This obviously requires no rider, so even less human involvement than horse racing. Even with pages of statistics, betting on dogs is a risky gamble. In Japan there are two other main kinds of racing: not dogs, but boats and bicycles. One can't help but think that the potential for outside influence is much higher on gambling on boats (one-man mini rockets) and bicycles. (And to be sure, boat gambling and bicycle racing doesn't have the history or regality of a big horse race. They are more local, and a little more seedy.) Japanese gamblers wouldn't imagine betting on dogs. It's just too risky. (Of course addicts will gamble on anything.)

So even in the high-risk world of gambling, Japanese tend to do what they believe are low-risk activities. Traditional casino gambling exists only 0n TV and in the movies. Japanese can respect the high-risk behavior, without feeling uncomfortable engaging in it themselves -- just as I can respect a person who parachutes out of planes, without actually doing it myself.

So back to our troubled workplace. What many Americans who work with Japanese supervisors feel is a lack of trust for the Americans' ability to be able to, and want to, work independently. Where the American feels the supervisor is "crowding" him -- asking lots of repetitive questions, visiting his office or cube several times a day, the Japanese supervisor feels like he is showing his support, and participating in the group process. (Some of this was covered in the previous post.)

The two points to keep in mind are that Japanese businesspeople want to work together on everything; everything is a group process, and that avoiding risk, even if it takes more time, is going to be considered the best route in the end.

Friday, September 29, 2006

The Japanese Meeting

One comment from one of the participants at our recent seminars struck me as interesting, and we'll explore it a little today. The subject was meetings, and the person (who works for a Japanese company in the US) said, "I don't understand why our Japanese bosses need to have so many meetings. We are often discussing the same subject over and over. It seems like a real waste of time, and gets in way of us being able to get our work done."

It seems what was going on was a cultural misunderstanding about the use of meetings in the workplace. It seems like sometimes even the most seemingly simple concepts, like a meeting, can have cultural connections once we look a little closely.

In the US, a meeting is a time to make announcements, discuss issues, issue assignments, and often, but not always, to make decisions or decide directions. Votes are often a part of American meetings, as well. This sounds normal, and I think most Americans would expect this overview of the purpose of meetings to be universal. The fact is, it isn't - at least not for Japan.

In Japan, a meeting is more of a place to get everyone on the same page, and to gauge the kuuki of the state of affairs. Before an important company meeting, a detailed agenda will be distributed, and departments will be given time to prepare and discuss internally before-hand. All announcements will be included, and have likely already been discussed beforehand in subcommittees and between individuals. An important thing to point out is that there will be no surprise announcements at the meeting. This is important to remember. The idea that an employee would think "I can't wait to announce we got the ABC account to the company at the meeting!" would be unheard of in Japan. Japanese business people do not like surprises, good or bad. Everyone should be equally armed with the same information before the meeting begins. This is what is needed to keep harmony.

In the meeting a discussion on a certain subject may commence, but it will likely be in the form of sharing and confirming information. The confirmation of information is a repeated process. It is here that we can really see the function of the Japanese meeting, as usually the highest ranking person or people are not active members of the discussion, or so it appears from a foreigners perspective. The highest up in the meeting is the keeper of the kuuki. The kuuki is the mood or atmosphere, and determines the direction of the meeting. If the discussion is going a direction he finds not to his liking, his body language, or a few subtle words will send a clear message that this is not the way he wants it to go. The more talkative lower-ranking participants will understand this message, and will subtly yet quickly move things in a different direction, or table the discussion until more details surface.

Most of the things that Americans do in their meeting happen outside the meeting in Japan. Voting, for instance, is done using the ringi-sho. But even then, consensus rules over opinion in Japan. The desire for harmony far outweighs the individual's need to speak his opinion, especially a dissenting one. Usually the ringi-sho is issued only when consensus is reached, so the ringi-sho is really a formality. In other words, there is no election until everyone knows that everyone is going to vote the same way. A vote to "see where everyone stands" would feel very uncomfortable in a Japanese workplace. Again, harmony, not individualism, is the path taken.

This goes back to all Japanese business persons' school days. Children in Japan are not taught to raise their hands to answer questions. The concept of the teacher asking a question openly to the class is practically unheard of. What happens more often is the teacher will call on a student to answer the question. The student, will then whisper to his neighbor asking for the answer. He will then ask the neighbor on the other side to confirm this answer. To make sure, he may whisper to one more classmate, one in front or behind, to confirm the answer again. The teacher and class waits patiently for this process to finish, and the student tells the answer to the teacher. Here's the interesting part: You can ask a Japanese high-school senior the most elemental arithmetic question, and this process will take place. Even if a student knows the answer to the question the teacher asks, it would be unharmonious to "show off" by saying the answer without including her classmates in the glory of a correct answer. Where in an American classroom hands shoot into the air when teachers ask easy questions, Japanese students would much rather never open their mouths during class time.

Back to our American employee of a Japanese company's comment about meeting after meeting for the same topics, another factor could be involved. Japanese companies are physically laid-out very different than American ones. Large companies in America are often full of cubicles. Each employee usually has at least two walls separating her from her coworkers so she can have even a little privacy and quiet to work. As a culture, Japanese value privacy much less than we do in the US (think public baths and small living quarters). See the picture of a typical looking Japanese office below.

This is the "open office" style. We see desks facing each other in double rows. At the end of the row will be one desk looking down the line. This is where the head of this group of employees sits. In this configuration, he can see and hear everything each employee is doing. This isn't done to check up on the employees or to keep them on task. It's a form of communication, and so the department head can be kept abreast of all information regarding his department as it happens. Sometimes there may be another larger desk behind him, and another higher up can watch all the employees in the room, and be kept informed of changes and events practically in real time. Kuuki plays a part in the work office. If an employee gets a disturbing phone call he can simply glance at his supervisor to tell him something is wrong. The supervisor may discreetly call the employee aside to understand the situation better, but also not embarrass him in front of his colleagues. A glance is sent up to the supervisor's supervisor, and the process is repeated.

As a Japanese supervisor, imagine working under this system, and then being sent to the US to work in a satellite office there. The promotion leads to a beautiful corner office with four walls and a nice view. This is like blindfolding a supervisor from Japan. How can he know what's going on if he can't be in the same room as his workers? He doesn't want an office with four walls (that's reserved for the company head). He can't accept just getting weekly reports from his immediate underlings. As a result, what happens is the supervisor is constantly mulling around the office, to the bother of his American workers. "Why can't he just relax and let us do our jobs?" they think, not realizing that being up to the minute, or really, up to the second on the status of things is his job. Americans often mistake this for a lack of trust, but it is really the problem of too many walls in the workplace, literally.

This may be the reason the Japanese managers call so many meetings (maybe even more than in Japan), it's to be together, without walls, and to let information and kuuki breathe freely.

Next time will talk a little more about independent thinking and working on one's own, as well as how not to put your Japanese boss on the spot.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Hanko and the Ringi-sho: The Sword and Shield of the Japanese Business Person (Part 2)

Earlier this month we talked about the the ringo-sho, the document that is used to guarantee the implimentation of a new policy or change in a department or company. Although the hanko doesn't carry as much cultural baggage as the ringi-sho, it is a key-tool in Japanese business, (and in life, for that matter), and is often a mystery to Western business people.

The hanko is basically a name stamp. It is small, usually about the size of a average pinky finger, but valuable and important.

As a matter of fact, every adult has a hanko, and they essentially act as the Japanese version of ths signature. (Those too young to have hanko just use a fingerprint.) Hanko are used on all official documents, when paying bills, accepting packages, or making deposits at the bank. Anyplace an American would sign her name, or initialize, is hanko-appropriate.

Like we hear about how Japanese take care with their business cards, and hanko can carry a certain level of prestige, as well. Usually they are kept in some sort of case with red ink for stamping. More fancy hanko are self-inking and can come in expensive leather cases.

What appears on the hanko is the owners last name. Common last name hanko can be purchased relatively cheaply, but these won't have a unique, signature-like quality.

Foriegners are usually not expected to have a hanko, but if you plan on living in Japan for any period of time, it will put people you have to work with (bankers, mail carriers, etc.) at ease.
Hanko are also used for the ringi-sho, and if you are living in Japan and working for a Japanese company, you will really want to make your vote count by having a hanko. They can be made at specialized hanko shops, and even customized hanko aren't too expensive.

As you can probably guess, the larger the hanko the more important the seal. The president of a company may sign an important contract with his hanko, and then the "company seal", a larger hanko with the company's name in kanji. Fans of famous traditional painters and calligraphers might notice the artists hanko increasing in size with his popularity (and the price of his works).

Below are some pictures of typical hanko and the seals they make. Notice, the kanji usually is a little hard to read, as it should artistically fill the square or round shape it takes.


In September Pacific Dreams, Inc. hosted a series of seminars intended to help foster relations between Japanese and American business people. In the series there were both English-language workshops as well as workshops held in Japanese. Because of the positive reaction of the participants, PDI has decided to move forward with another seminar series in November. More details about this seminar will be released as speakers and schedules are confirmed.

Two of the English language facilitators were Eileen Foster-Sakai and Shintaro Tominaga. Mrs. Foster-Sakai presented the “Building Bridges Between the USA and Japan” workshop, and Mr. Tominaga gave his presentation entitled “Negotiation with Japanese Business People”. Mr. Tominaga, who came in from Tokyo for this seminar series, also gave presentations in Japanese.

The "Building Bridges” seminar was made up of a relatively small group, which allowed for more focused discussion and questions. All of the participants were American business people working for Japanese-owned companies, so all had experiences of working under a Japanese boss. Mrs. Foster-Sakai was able to concentrate on the special questions and needs of this group of participants. The people that came in feeling frustrated by the communication styles and seemingly bizarre requests of their superiors were able to make sense of Japanese business culture practices. This participants left with not only a better understanding of what the Japanese business people were doing, but also gained new strategies in fostering better communication with their Japanese counterparts. Much of the “Building Bridges” seminar introduces business people to key cultural concepts they are sure to run into when working with Japanese people. The program goes from the very basic concepts, like seating arrangements, to the more complicated, like intricacies in the Japanese social, business and family relationships.

Mr. Tominaga’s presentation was focused on negotiation with Japanese counterparts. This presentation was more directed toward individuals who work with Japanese companies and travel to Japan on business. Negotiation styles are very different in Japan compared to much of Asia and the rest of the world. According to Mr. Tominaga, it the lack of understanding of the Japanese system which often leads to failed business negotiations, or even failed attempts at getting a first meeting arranged. Much of Mr. Tominaga’s presentation was on the concept of reading “kuuki”. Kuuki literally means “air”, or “atmosphere”, but for these purposes it means understanding the subtle body language and communication that Japanese business negotiators engage in to convey important messages. These signals would be obvious to a Japanese counterpart, but may not be so easy for a non-Japanese negotiator. Mr. Tominaga also discussed the issues of conflict and debate in Japanese business negotiations, pointing out that debating should be avoided at all costs. Japanese find debate uncomfortable, and will tend to retreat if there seems to be, what Americans might consider, a healthy tension in a spirited discussion.