Expat Relocation to Japan: Understanding the Japanese Mindset

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Understanding Japan
Understanding Japan

Understanding a country’s customs and culture will help your expats appreciate why others communicate, negotiate or build business relationships the way they do.

A collective consciousness

One of the most important traits of the Japanese mindset is its collective nature. In Japan, we comes before I — a concept that’s taught early on. Unlike Western children, who are taught to be independent self-thinkers, Japanese children are educated in a way that stresses interdependence, and reliance on others.

Many Japanese habits and customs stem from this desire to maintain the group. For example, Japanese companies usually hire workers once a year, forming a ‘class’ similar to a group of students entering school. Employees exhibit strong loyalty to a company, often staying there for an entire career.

Being excluded from the group is serious punishment in Japan. An interesting example of this is that children are sometimes punished by being sent out of the house, whereas comparable punishment for a child in the US would to be “grounded” or kept inside.

A hierarchical society

The Japanese have great respect for fixed hierarchical relationships. They are conscious of the social order and their status relative to others in society. This emphasis on hierarchy is reflected in the writings of Confucius, who taught that each person has a fixed place in the social order, with attendant obligations and responsibilities.

Although the institution of Confucianism has waned in modern day Japan, it exerted significant influence over the country’s cultural development. The Japanese still greet each other by bowing, with the person in the junior hierarchical position always bowing first — and lowest.

Hierarchy is also evident in the Japanese language. For example, there is no simple word for brother and sister as there is in English. Instead, there are more specific words for siblings that indicate whether a brother or sister is older or younger than the speaker.

In school, there are divisions between senior and junior students. The younger students use the polite form of address when addressing older students. This junior-senior relationship continues even after the school years.

The importance of face

Although the concept behind the value of “face” is not new to Americans, who understand the expression “to save face,” it is the key to a deeply held cultural value. The Japanese go to great lengths to avoid calling attention to anything that might cause embarrassment to themselves or others.

As a result, they are less likely to act spontaneously, and will carefully consider all the possible implications of a decision. In the same way, singling out an individual for praise or criticism is also unwise if it separates the individual from the group.

Maintaining harmony

Closely tied to both collectivism and face is the ideal of wa, or harmony. The Japanese are taught to seek a harmonious solution to each situation. Whereas Westerners believe in universal laws regardless of the situation, the Japanese are more particular, and believe that each situation has unique factors. In fact, until their interaction with the West during the past century or so, the Japanese did not have a word for objectivity; from the Japanese point of view, everything is subjective.

Kashi and kari

An important Japanese cultural trait is that of social reciprocity, or kashi and kari — literally loan and debt. When one person does a favor for or assists another it creates an expectation that the person being helped will then provide a favor or gift in return.

At its simplest level, this means that while dining with others one never pours sake or beer for himself; it is always poured by a friend or associate. In business, it means if one person does a favor for another, the recipient of that favor is obliged to return it at some future date.

Indirect communications

When communicating with others, Americans tend to come straight to the point. The Japanese, on the other hand, value ambiguity and tact. They emphasize what someone wants to hear, rather than what is most direct or honest. They tend to distinguish between what they say (tatemae) and what they think (honne). In a culture that values polite, indirect behavior, words do not always express what a person is thinking. Naturally, this increases the importance of nonverbal communication.

Also, as is true with most Asians, the Japanese dislike using the word ‘no’ in direct response to a request. When you hear ‘yes’ from a Japanese, be sure to watch for nonverbal cues that indicate whether the answer is being given with enthusiasm — or caution.