With Respect to the Japanese

With Respect to the Japanese was published in 1984 as the Japanese economic juggernaut loomed over the US. At that time, Americans eyed Japan with the twin emotions of fear and wonder. What’s happened to American companies? Why don’t we have anything like Sony or Toyota? (This was before Apple, Amazon, and Google.)

This is a cross-cultural guide to explain how our nations’ communication and management styles differ. This slim volume (92 pages including appendices) contains a surprising amount of useful information. What I like about it is that it provides a lot of specific concrete example and looks at them from both points of view, not taking sides. It fulfills its promise to “describe exactly what is encountered, why, and what to do about it. Readers discover what will embarrass, motivate, irritate, and win the respect of the foreign nationals with whom they are trying to work.” (George W. Renwick. Editor, Interact Series).

I’m reminded very much of Myers-Briggs (of course). Simply, there are different styles. Neither is better; they are just different approaches. if you have one style, these are the things that annoy you about the other. If you were to take it a step further and type the two nations according to the communication styles described in With Respect to the Japanese, Japan would be an ENFP and the US would be an ISTJ.

Quotes and Notes

The pun in the title pleases me. “Respect” comes from the Latin “to look back at, regard” but has evolved the connotation of “admire” or “esteem”. I like that these words (admire, regard, respect) have their root in “looking at” something. I do believe that study begets understanding begets respect.

I hope it is not to bold to say that America, which has more often stressed its uniqueness and served as a teacher for other countries and cultures, is now much more open to learning from others. (Kohei Goshi) — Foreword p xxi

I would like to believe this too but it seems less true today in 2011 than it did in 1984. Even though I’ve just read this book, I expressed the same sentiment in my interview for my teaching job in Japan. I wanted to bring my 10-year-old son to Japan because I felt it was just as important for our children to learn about Japan as it was for their children to study English and learn about America.

Contradictions exist in every society…They are even more likely to reflect the outsider’s expectation of what is consistent and contradictory based on his own cultural background. – Introduction p xvi

I’m also frequently surprised at what Americans define as contradictory. The choice here always seems to be either/or. You’re with us or you’re against us. I frequently want to choose both, neither, or look for some possibility not yet discussed. I’m drawn to both old and new, silly and serious, plans and impulses.

In contrast to Americans, who believe that anyone could, and probably would if given half a chance, become an American, the Japanese find it hard to accept that anyone could become Japanese. – Introduction p xvi

I was never more American, specifically Texan, than when I lived in Japan. My national identity swelled to the proportion of caricature. Although I tried to “fit in” in the sense of not doing anything to embarrass my friends or employer and although I was very interested in learning as much about Japan as I could, I never wanted to become Japanese. And I never felt, as so many foreigners apparently do, “shut out”. On the contrary, I sometimes used my foreign-ness to my advantage. It allowed me to say no in situations where my coworkers were bound by expectation and duty.

Japanese are not likely to confuse the outward appearances with the inner reality. – p 4

Me either! Or as Milan Kundera put it, “On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth.”

“If you notice a difference, realize that the difference in itself may not be so important…look for the underlying meanings.” — (an American consultant) p 6

This has always been my approach to whomever–not just one I used in Japan. Hmmm. Maybe that’s why I find ordinary daily interactions with strangers to be exhausting and why I prefer to have a few close friends to a lot of acquaintances. I like puzzling people out but it’s tiring to spend all my time doing it. It’s also probably why people bounce their relationship problems off me even though I’m not perceived as being a “people” person.

Likewise Japanese find some expressions of individualism rude and anti-social. Americans tend to speak in terms of “my opinion” and “I think” and so on, in order to be both personal and cautious about speaking for others. Nevertheless, the impression given can be one of egotism. – p 9

IMHO. Yes, sometimes we are being self-deprecating. So much so that I remember one of my professors (Bro Simon Scribner) becoming exasperated when a student would preface an answer with “I think” or worse “I feel”. He’d shoot back, “Don’t you KNOW?” In the 1980s, women in business (whose speech was filled with disclaimers) were cautioned not to speak so cautiously. Americans are perfectly aware of that this phrase cuts both ways. IMHO also signals sarcasm. “This is always said before someone makes an asshole comment that is not at all humble.”

The funniest thing about this miscommunication is that Japanese itself contains humble and honorific forms. Prefacing something with “I think” is probably the closest English equivalent to Japanese humble forms. And yet somehow it doesn’t translate.

Americans and others who work with Japanese sometimes underestimate the value placed on of doing things “right.” – p 17

I love John C. Condon’s understated tone; it sounds so Japanese. Form, formality, and manners. Whole books could be written on Americans discomfort with formality. We dislike rules. We are stubbornly contrary–to the point of doing the opposite of what we’re told simply because we’re told this is the way to do something.

In Japan, there is always “the way”: chadou, the way of tea; shodou, the way of writing (calligraphy); kendou the way of the sword; bushidou, the way of the Samurai; juudou, the way of the weak (flexible and bending).

Thus behavior that is appropriate within one’s group may be expected to be different from behavior that is appropriate with people outside of one’s group. – p 28

What is considered contradictory, even duplicitous, by some Americans just seems like common sense to me. You don’t act the same way around your boss as you do around your kids. John C. Condon goes onto explain other consequences: once you let someone into the inner circle both of you have acquired a new set of responsibilities and duties.

I remember how the JET administrators tried to “rat us out” to our schools for not attending a seminar’s closing conference session. They wanted us to get in trouble with our bosses. But from the school’s perspective, I was on their team and they felt forced to defend, not punish, me. And from my perspective, I understood that I had caused problems for my school, not just myself.

“…to cause embarrassment or to be embarrassed, disturbs the delicate web of relationships…[in Japan] the primary means of social control [is] shame. Japan is often identified as a “shame culture” where proper behavior is ensured through outside social pressure. This contrasts with the kind of controls identified with American, and Western social societies generally, where it is the internal feelings, guilt, that are said to guide behavior…concern for what others think, most importantly those others who constitute one’s group, is a basic value and fact of life in Japan. – 30

One of the sections that I found most interesting was “Words in and out of context”. John C. Condon explains that “America ranks very high in its trust in words and very low in its reliance on context.” Compared with the Japanese, we want everything spelled out (preferably by lawyers in binding contracts). The Japanese tend not to take words at face value and rely on other clues to understand what’s going on beneath the surface. “For Americans, using words is the means of communication. For Japanese it is a means.” (Masao Kunihiro).

Because JQS and I understood very little Japanese when we lived there, we relied almost entirely on context clues to figure out what was going on around us when no one was there to interpret for us. Luckily we are both intuitive. We didn’t understand the words but we often understood the meaning.

The awase style…is characterized by continuous adjustment to an ever changing environment…one cannot proceed toward a fixed goal but rather must adjust to changing and uncertain condition.” – p 48

This is my personal style even though I’m not Japanese. As I said earlier, I don’t like either/or choices.

Where I come across as typically American is my habit of relating something that someone tells me to my own experience. It is my T-type way of expressing empathy–demonstrating that I understand because I have shared a common experience. I’m sensitive to the fact that other people (not just the Japanese) interpret this as an egotistical attempt to turn the focus of the conversation back to me. This is probably true some of the time. Conversely, if I’m asking you a lot of follow-up questions and not revealing anything about myself, I’m holding you at arm’s length.

Americans simply are not encouraged by their culture to have the kind of reverence for age that Japanese culture instills…American culture looks more to innovation, change, energy–qualities associated with younger people and appropriate to a younger nation. – p 57

The opposite situation occurs for Japanese who work for American companies in New York or elsewhere. They feel frustrated and left out when all of their American colleagues leave work and head for home. They feel there is no chance to get to know these people or to become friends or to hear and say some things that don’t get said at the office. – p 59

Nevertheless, the American makes a mistake if he strictly follows what his culture encourages: “Don’t let personal feelings get in the way.” The American is more likely to be concerned with adhering to certain principles, of being fair and treating people like equals. In speaking of these values, one Japanese said, “Those are fine qualities, but they are qualities of the head. We Japanese react from the heart or the hara, the gut.” Japanese describe themselves as “emotional people” and many view Americans as excessively “rational,” by being logical, analytical and following abstract principles at the expense of personal feelings. – p 71

As a T-type (head rules the heart), I’m the typical American as described. However, I perceive American culture as being increasingly emotional, confessional, and faith-based. We tend to react rather than contemplate. Oprah Winfrey. Reality TV. Rush Limbaugh. Twitter. Glenn Beck. Has there really been such a shift since 1984? Or is it that I now spend more time on the Internet than at the office?

Given the Japanese ability to borrow what is attractive in things foreign and modify them for Japanese use, while rejecting what is not desired, there is no reason to expect Japan to become like a “Western” nation. – p 76

In the decade after this book was written, when Japan’s economic bubble burst, one of its most successful exports became culture.

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The surface and beneath the surface