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It is said that the Japanese works in a group.

What does that mean to you?

There is always a risk to take a simple statement on one culture such as this word by word. The statement could help you if you interpret it in each case you may encounter. A simple statement may not help if you interpret it in your own cultural context alone.

Nancy recently had an experience to understand what “the Japanese works in a group” could mean to her.

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Financial District in Geneva

Nancy works for a large travel agency in Switzerland. She is in charge of business travels of large accounts. Her company has travel, and event & entertainment logistic departments. Nancy belongs to the travel department.

One day, she asked me, “Yoshiko, why does my Japanese customer always put me in copy of his messages for the subject which I’m not involved in? I know him well as I take care of his business travels, but this is too much. “

“What happened, Nancy?”

“He asked me a few months ago if my company could organise an important event for his company. I introduced my colleague, Ingrid, who works for the event & entertainment department.

Mr. Suzuki, my customer, and Ingrid started discussion on the event. That is fine. My problem is that he always puts me in copy of his e-mails! I don’t need to be informed on the ongoing discussions. It’s Ingrid who is in charge of the event logistics, not me. I can’t help him.”

I’d understand why Mr. Suzuki always puts Nancy in copy. He trusts Nancy as she has been helpful for him, whereas Ingrid is new to him. He most probably thinks that Nancy should be in the communication loop on his discussions with Ingrid. In his eyes, Nancy introduced Ingrid to him. Therefore if he gets some problem in organizing the event logistics, he’d ask Nancy to help.

Mr. Suzuki’s behavior is popular in Japan.

People share tasks in the workplace in Japan. Each person has his/her assignment but the boundaries of responsibilities are not always clear-cut. People work by sharing responsibilities. The decision-making is largely based on consensus, rather than on decision by one person who is delegated some levels of responsibility.

Under such circumstances, it is not unusual that four or five or even more people are in copy of e-mails exchanged on one subject. If someone is missed out from the loop, he/she would be upset. People are comfortable to be kept in copy, even though the subject matter may be only marginally relevant to them. In such a work culture, it is safe to keep all the people informed, even some may only be remotely involved.

For Nancy, it is on the contrary. Boundaries of responsibilities are clear in Europe, or at least clearer than Japan. In her eyes, the event support for Mr. Suzuki is solely under responsibility of Ingrid. Nancy does not need to know what’s going on with it or can’t help Mr. Suzuki in her position.

That said, Nancy’s emotional intelligence tells her that Mr. Suzuki wants to keep her in copy. “It’s OK”, she thought. She just let the e-mail exchange going without stepping in the discussion.

A few months later, Nancy went to the airport to see-off Mr. Suzuki, who was leaving Switzerland to assume a new position back in Tokyo. Being a travel agent, Nancy usually doesn’t do the same for other customers.

When I asked why she did it, Nancy said, “When Mr. Suzuki had advised me that he was going back to Japan, I read his mind. He wanted me to say ‘Thank you and good bye’ at the airport. He was a good customer, so I thought it’s OK, I’ll do. “

Nancy well assessed her customer’s mind-set!

Assessing what’s in other person’s mind is very important in communication with the Japanese.

 

 

 

 

True, Muriel wrote, “Please just come with empty hands”.

I did read this in the invitation for tea at her home. Then I immediately started thinking of a nice gift that would please Muriel.

On the day of the tea, I brought her a bouquet of tulips grown in a farm house near my home. I like them as they are always cut in the morning and full of fresh energy. It was my pleasure to bring the tulips to thank to her.

The tea started with a warm welcome by Muriel and her husband, Ted. They were happy with the tulips and I was happy to see them happy.

When Muriel left to the kitchen, Ted whispered to me, “Yoshiko, when we say, ‘Please come with empty hands’, it is the warmest expression of welcoming friends. We mean it. “

I was almost startled!

I’ have realized that what I did goes against their kindness!

Muriel and Ted were kind and open-minded to understand my thankfulness. We enjoyed the tea and an apple pie baked by Ted in a sunny salon.

Three days later, I received from Muriel and Ted a photograph of the tulips happily placed in their sunny living room.

 

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Tulips that crossed two cultures.

Lesson 1

I interpreted “Please just come with empty hands” in a Japanese way. In Japan, you are uncivilized if you go to your friend’s home without anything, even though your friend may say so in her/his invitation. In Japanese culture, always think what it is meant by words.

Lesson 2

It is safe and would even please your Japanese friends to bring some small gift, when you are invited. They may tell you beforehand, “Please just come with empty hands”. Do not take it as the words say. Words need to be understood in the Japanese cultural context. They may not expect a nice gift, but it is safe and even better to bring some small gift to express your thankfulness.

 

 

 

 

 

The 84th Geneva International Motor Show was a good opportunity to discover a number of “what’s new”. I’m not particularly a car lover but the show offered many things that satisfied my curiosity.

Please share with me my picks of the day.

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View of Hall4, that hosted major Japanese brands.

1. Electric cars, Audi

I saw for the first time a car that receives the power source from its front nose (photos below). In the car, batteries are laid out under your feet. This signals that the shift of the power source of the car will change its design, structure, drivers’ habit to charge energy, location of energy supply, knowledge needed for garages, and more.

Taking the power source from the front.

Taking the power source from the front.

Loaded with batteries.

Loaded with batteries.

2. Autonomous drive – A half-way through to a robot, Nissan

It’s a dream!

Your car drives itself for you (Photos below). Moreover, the car controls its own movement and position in relation to other cars on the road to ensure the safety.

And this dream is under development in Nissan in Japan.  Market launch is planned in 2020, a bit far from now but it’s OK.

The secrets are a number of small cameras and sensors attached to the car. These are the sources of the car’s intelligence. It’s a robot that moves autonomously, rather than a vehicle operated by huma beings.

Autonomous drive, a near robot car.

Autonomous drive, a near robot car.

A car with sensors and cameras.

A car with sensors and cameras.

3. Home charger, Toyota Prius

That is true! We request CO2 free cars. We welcome electric and hybrid cars as a solution. Our society however must install power supply infrastructure that feed those eco-cars. It’s a big task that requires time & investment.

Toyota’s solution is the “Home charger”, which allows you to supply electricity to your car at home. “Home charger” is sold in a package with Prius.

Home charger packaged with Prius (Toyota).

Home charger packaged with Prius (Toyota).

4. Wheel chair access to the stands, Nissan and Honda

Last but not the least, as far as I saw, only Nissan and Honda’s stands were designed to facilitate visitors on the wheel chair and families with baby buggies. Slopes to step in the exhibition space are sign posted with a wheel chair symbol.

Bravo for attention to diversity of customers!

Nissan. A slope and signpost.

Nissan. A slope and signpost.

Honda. A slope is also prepared and sign posted.

Honda. A slope is also prepared and sign posted.

Author’s pick of the day! = Autonomous Drive, Nissan

Special Prize for customer focus =  Nissan and Honda for slopes for wheel chairs

I’m Japanese and live in Europe for 20+ years. Throughout these years, I worked in an international environment, in business, volunteer activities and off-time.

I sometimes feel Europe and Japan are far from each other. Not only due to the geographical distance, but more importantly people on both sides don’t know each other very well yet, at least. Yes, we have the Internet, Wikipedia, we travel over the globe, but still … something is missing.

I am lucky to have trained eyes to see Europe from Japanese eyes and Japan from European ones. My multifunctional eyes are well trained through variety of experiences piled up day by day in the past over twenty years.

Europe is full of interesting, sometimes funny, interfaces with Japan.

Why don’t I share with you, who are as curious as I am, these interesting topics caught by my Japanese eyes in Europe?

Please enjoy!

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I am a great fan of the municipal library of City of Geneva. The library provides luxury space for endless intellectual interests with quiet study rooms equipped with free wifi. It well represents Swiss devotion to the cultural support for citizens.

That said, I was shocked this week when I opened a booklet prepared by the library. The booklet lists a number of books and DVDs to suggest for future travelers to the countries of Asia and Oceania. The information is well sorted out per country, starting from A — Afghanistan.

For the cover page of the section of Japan, three photos are placed; “Geisha”, “Tokyo by night” and “Mount Fuji” (see the photo below).

What? Geisha and Mount Fuji? Do they represent Japan?

OK for “Tokyo by night”.  Central areas of Tokyo looks like the photo, but I have reservation for the rest of the two.

Mount Fuji was listed as the World Heritage by UNESCO in 2013. In this sense, one can say that a beautiful view of the mountain may symbolizes Japan. The photograph used for the booklet, however, is strange. The mountain is with a temple colored in red. It is obviously an artificial image, that doesn’t exist in reality. It is an old fashioned and stereo type image of Fuji an Japan. The modern appearance of the Mount Fuji would be largely different.

What surprised me more is “Geisha”.

First of all, I’d say that the photograph looks like “Maiko”, not “Geisha”. “Maiko” is a trainee of “Geisha”, and these are two distinctly different status of women entertainers.

More importantly, “Geisha” is a product of a feudal era when women’s human rights were completely neglected. When rich men were having parties with “Geisha”, their wives stayed at home looking after children and housework.

“Geisha” women carried out difficult lives. Usually, they were “sold” by their parents when very young to the houses that keeps “Geisha”, that lease women for parties. These girls were often from poor families in rural Japan, and sold to those houses. They had to work hard as entertainers to pay back the large debt to the houses.

Knowing the history of Japanese women, I’m not comfortable to see Geisha’s photograph as a symbol of Japan. Though their status has largely been changed in the modern society, and they don’t work to pay back debts any more, majority of Japanese women are not Geisha.

Geisha and Fujiyama -- Still a stereotype  of Japan?

Geisha and Fujiyama — Still a stereotype of Japan?

What I saw here is the fact that Japan is not known, even to public libraries, where plenty of knowledge is kept. There must be an extreme short of information about Japan in Europe. It’s pity because there is plenty of interesting things to know, to see and to do in Japan.

I wish to bridge between Europe and Japan. Hence I started a series of blog postings.

PS. if you’d be interested in real life of Japanese women in the modern history, I’d suggest to know a story of “The Gift from Beate”, a documentary film.

No reply to e-mails?

“Japanese don’t reply to my e-mail when they don’t have an answer.” said Mary with a sad face.

She suggested to her colleagues in Tokyo some nice places for the next meeting of global project leaders of her company to be held in Switzerland. Mary lives in the country, so she was excited to offer good ideas.

I understand why she was disappointed. She worked hard to find and list places that had a good access from the airport, offered reasonable price and quality for corporate executives. It’s disappointing to hear no echo responding to her willingness to help and engagement for the success of the meeting.

That said, I was not fully convinced.

I said to Mary,  “I understand your feeling, but the same is true for Europeans. “

Mary was not convinced. “Yes, but Japanese do it more often.”

I didn’t argue further, as I agree with Mary, unfortunately.

I understand that the silence of her Japanese colleagues didn’t mean to dislike or ignore her offer. It is rather a cultural reason than a lack of politeness to respond to e-mails.

It was a nice surprise for me to know that one may say, “I don’t know” in Europe. It was one of the first major cultural differences I noticed when I started working here. Knowing that no one gets upset even if I  say, “I don’t know”, it was freedom from fear for me! I’m not obliged to say “Yes” or “No”, but have the third choice to say, “I don’t know”, meaning I really don’t have an answer.

Japanese unconsciously believe, “We must say yes or no”, especially in a formal occasion like business. There is no answer between “Yes” and “No”. Japanese unconsciously think that they must answer to the question straightforwardly. While this way of thinking signals their honesty, it also tend to push them too much. Such spirit is not far from the “Harakiri” mind-set.

On the contrary, being able to say, “I don’t know” allows a buffer in mind. It does not come from lack of responsibility, but it is merely a status of knowledge. There is no value judgement involved in this answer.

If one creates a buffer in dialogue, it will allow another avenue of communication. For example, one could continue; “I don’t know it now, and will ask the project leader when she comes back from her business travel. Could you wait for a week?”

Thus life continues. No need to rush to commit Harakiri.

My solution is to say, “I don’t have an answer”. Being Japanese, I still have a psychological block to say, “I don’t know”. In Japanese mindset,  “I don’t know” sounds rather unkind. If someone says to me “I don’t know”, I’d naturally utter in my mind, “If you don’t know, why don’t you try to find an answer to my question?”.

 “I don’t have an answer” is a way to say “I don’t know” for me, but implies that I am willing to find an answer.

Thus I build a bridge between European and Japanese in myself.

Thank to gifts

“Japanese people don’t thank to the gifts. They thank when receive it, but no comments on the gift afterwards.” says Mary, a General Director for Europe of a Japanese Company A. She looks sad a little.

She is kind and cares for people’s hearts and minds in business, as much as she does in her private life.

Every time she travels to Japan for business, she brings some gifts. These are not only for senior executives she meets, but for managers and assistants who help her meetings and travels. Gifts are rather simple but carefully selected; for example Swiss cookies which are traditional from the northern region of the country.

Being European, she has difficulty in understanding why her Japanese colleagues do not give her a feed back  of the gifts, though they welcomes them when they receive them. Mary naturally expects comments such as “I liked the Swiss chocolate you gave me. It tasted very special!”

One day, Mary brought to her Japanese boss a bottle of a high quality brandy made at the year of his birth. Knowing her boss’ age, I’d think the gift quite expensive and she had to search it spending time. It is her gift with her heart.

To her disappointment, Mary got no response from him.

“Why??? He is not closed-minded. He is well aware of the international business manners. Nevertheless, why he doesn’t say anything about the brandy?”

I understand both Mary’s sadness and Japanese habit.

I explained her that Japanese don’t have a habit of opening the gift in front of someone who gave it to him/her, and that Japanese do appreciate your caring mind represented by the gifts but that they just don’t have a habit of telling you afterwards how they felt about the gifts.

Mary was not convinced. She said, “We are carrying on international business. Japanese people should follow the international business manner.”

She is right. I however think that it will take years for home-grown Japanese to adapt an international business habit, especially on gifts. It will be one of the last things which Japanese men would absorb and integrate in their mindset. While Japanese women are freer to express their feeling than men, men would still shy off to express their emotion.

I am sorry to Mary, but please rest assured that Japanese do appreciate your caring mind.

Having lived in Europe for 20+ years, and being Japanese myself, I have come to notice a number of hidden gaps in business communication between Europeans and Japanese. In international business, people communicate in English, and they write well. It is ironical that well written English hides essential communication gaps, while there is no problem in the texts.

The gap is not a matter of communicating with foreign languages, but largely a cultural issue. In other words, the context of languages used by both Europeans and Japanese are different. Languages in business need to be understood in line with the way of thinking of your counterpart of communication, not yours.

Such hidden gaps fascinate me, as they offer valuable clues of cross-cultural communications.

I am writing essays on the hidden communication gaps in business from time to time, picking up interesting episodes I come across in my day-to-day business life.

Please share with me a joy and magic of cross-cultural communications!

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Japanese don’t say NO. Understand the answer in the context.

Mr. Suzuki’s case

Mary, a director general for Europe of Company A, plans to meet with Ms Tanaka, a director of a company B, during her next business travel to Japan. Mary has asked Mr. Suzuki, a manager in the Tokyo branch of Company A, to take an appointment with Ms Tanaka. Though Mary knew her in person, she has asked Mr. Suzuki for coordination, as she knows it a Japanese way of working.

During the course of e-mail exchange with Mr. Suzuki, however, Mary has become unsure if she is meeting with Ms Tanaka on Wednesday or Thursday as Mary requested.

To clarify the date, Mary wrote to Mr. Suzuki; “Dear Mr. Suzuki, Please could you seek her confirmation as to the good date for her, Wednesday or Thursday?”

Mr. Suzuki replied: “Dear Mary-san, I already communicate with Ms Tanaka-san. She is so busy from Wednesday to Thursday.”

Mary thought, “Yes or NO??? Mr. Suzuki appears to be still negotiating the date, though Ms Tanaka will be busy during these two days. Will I meet Ms Tanaka?”

Ms Tanaka’s case

Mary has decided to write to Ms Tanaka directly, as Mary didn’t want to push Mr. Suzuki further. Mary is well aware of the delicacy of communications with Japanese people.

“Dear Tanaka-san,

I hope you are well. I understand that you will have engagements on Wednesday and Thursday. Please do not worry, we can organise another time. If you come to Europe, let me know in advance so we can organise lunch or coffee here.”

If Ms Tanaka would reply, “I am so sorry that we can’t meet this time. I look forward to seeing you my next travel to Europe”, there will not be a meeting in Tokyo. If her reply would be, “Yes, we are going to meet. I advised Mr. Suzuki that I was still working on my agenda to spare time to see you.”, Mary will meet Ms Tanaka.

To Mary’s surprise, Ms Tanaka’s reply was beyond her imagination.

“Thanks, Mary-san.

I hope you enjoy Japanese spring and syabu-syabu!!

Best regards, Tanaka (Ms)”

Mary has finally interpreted that Ms Tanaka wanted to say “No”, without saying “No”.

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