Lessons learnt by Swiss business people – Hidden gaps in business with Japan (7)

Do you know an invisible trap in doing business with Japan?

In appearance, Japan is not different from Europe; modern buildings, fancy cars and people dressed like Europeans. In reality at work, however, the country is very different.

What have Swiss business people learnt from their experience with Japan? Europe-Japan Dynamics interviewed fourteen (14) Swiss business people who had the first-hand business experience with the country.

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Tokyo Station (The south entrance)
Tokyo Station (The south entrance)

Overall, all the people interviewed like the Japanese as business partners and in a personal relationship. All think the Japanese reliable, polite, engaged and respectful to others. Many experts appreciated a long-term approach taken by the Japanese as this attitude creates better values in business.

That said, all the experts said that communication and a long time needed in decision-making had been considerably large challenges. Challenges in communication go beyond language issues. Even though both Swiss and Japanese speak good English, Swiss business people were puzzled by the Japanese reaction, as typically expressed by one manager, “I was often not sure if my Japanese business partners understood me.” It often takes a few years for Swiss people to understand how to interpret the Japanese “Yes” in the Japanese business cultural context.

"Ringi sho" - An important process in Japanese decision-making
“Ringi sho” – An important process in Japanese decision-making

A Japanese way of decision-making is another big challenge. The Japanese spend a long time in Swiss standard to reach a conclusion, and it is difficult for the Swiss to find who the decision-maker is.

Swiss business people see a good point in the Japanese decision-making, though. “The strength of Japan is that once agreed, the decision is firm and all the people work exactly as decided”, one interviewee said.

Despite these challenges, many Swiss companies are running successful business with Japan. They have learned through experience many clues for success. For example, it is important to ensure mutual understanding by asking questions step by step, and follow up on important matters. Soft and informal communication is “Must”. Some went out for a drink after work to discuss business matters with his Japanese clients. Or, some other played golf with Japanese business partners in weekends. Yet other visited museums or travelled outside Tokyo in weekends to better understand the country.

The study found that the common success factors are; to respect and accept different values, as one interviewee said, “Japan has its own way of doing things”, to be extremely patient, and to build the mutual trust before pushing business. The interviewees emphasised large advantages of doing business in the Japanese language, or at least, to work with a Japanese person who knows business. The centre of the matter is business culture, more than a language. Understanding the culture and value-set embedded in business is critical, even though it is not as visible as other concrete business matters as finance, products, R&D, or sales & marketing.

Last but not the least, human resource factors are far from negligible. Having a cultural competence is essential to do business with Japan. Underestimating the importance of cultural management in business may cost much.

About the study — From April to July 2014, Europe-Japan Dynamics interviewed fourteen (14) Swiss business people who had first hand experience with Japan. Their industries varied, including legal, financial and human resource services, pharmaceutical, academic and luxury goods sectors. The author is very thankful to the 14 people who were willing to spare time and thoughts for the study.

For a free copy of the synthesis or consultation on your business issues with Japan, please call or write to —

Yoshiko KURISAKI (Ms), Director, Europe-Japan Dynamics

Tel. +41 (0) 76 411 6076, E-mail yoshiko.kurisaki@gmail.com

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Japanese perfectionism in luggage handling — Hidden gaps in business between Europe and Japan (6)

Ten hotels in a tag and delivery without mistake
Ten hotels in a tag and delivery without mistake

The Japanese Art is the finest in the world and so is the service, including luggage handling by the airport limousine.

Arriving from Europe at Narita International Airport, Susan was surprised at the tag attached to her luggage at the bus stop of the airport limousine. It was her first business travel to Japan. (The luggage may look funny but it’s for her business travel.) A man at the stop asked her hotel, and marked a green circle on the name printed to the tag. On the tag, the names of the ten hotels are neatly listed and printed (see photo). These are the hotels at which the bus will stop by along the way in downtown Tokyo.

When the bus arrived at the hotel, Susan’s luggage was taken out without mistake. If it were some other countries, which may include some in Europe, Susan would have had to keep her eyes on her luggage to make sure that it would be taken off at the right hotel. In Japan, Susan had nothing to worry about.

It may be a small experience but gave a strong impression to Susan to understand how much attention is paid to the detail and the Japanese standard of the perfect service.

“Why does my customer put me in copy, though it’s not my job?” — Hidden gaps in business between Europe and Japan (5)

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.

Why no reply? — Hidden gaps you may not notice, Business communications between Europe and Japan (3)

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 — Hidden gaps you may not notice, Business communications between Europe and Japan (2)

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.

Hidden gaps you may not notice — How to better understand cross-cultural communications in business with Japanese (1)

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”.