Categories: Gaikokujin

The power of being a “Gaikokujin” in Japan [Part 4]

by Anna
Published on: February 4, 2021
Categories: Gaikokujin, Uncategorized
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Common Gaikokujin mistakes  – How to not be seen as a jerk
[ Collaborative blog written by Anna Pinsky and David Wagner ]

While the list of “How could I have done that?” is endless, we discuss some common mistakes Gaikokujin make that we have observed in the workplace with Japanese.  

Consensus decision making – it’s not just about what is said in the meeting

It does not take long to learn that many Japanese are most comfortable when working in teams or in a group.  Responsibilities are shared, cooperation is generally smooth, and consensus on decisions thereby achieved.  Yet it is attaining consensus formation where we find many non-Japanese are challenged.  What to do and how to do it?  While there are no standard or simple answers, we know cultural norms dictate the terms.

One such traditional norm is “nemawashi”.  Nemawashii is, in essence, the act of forming a consensus among the various players involved before the actual meeting occurs. Thus, when the actual meeting happens everyone knows what is coming and the process becomes a rubber stamp event.  In other words, nemawashii establishes a consensus through idea exchange so that agreement is reached by a majority of those involved before the meeting even occurs. Conflict is reduced and there are normally few surprises.  

This is not to say that decisions are never actually made in an actual meeting. They are, but many Japanese are not experienced or accustomed to making decisions on the spot. And, in fact, training on how to do so is often needed to be impactful.  However, in face-to-face or internet-based meetings, it is best to be patient, be seen as a team player, and not be too pushy.

Meetings and the value of knowing when not to speak

For many non-Japanese, it is hard not to want to dive in immediately with suggestions or ideas to solve the problem at hand. Doing so in a traditional meeting usually leads to non-Japanese dominating the flow – and many Japanese are happy to sit back and watch it all unfold as it is low risk and entertaining to see.  Instead of jumping in with opinions, you can often play a more valuable role of noticing who is not speaking and invite more voices around the table for their ideas. This not only enables you to embody inclusive behavior and leadership but also helps everyone around the table get a much better sense of what is really going on but not necessarily being said.

And, it would be remiss of us not to share here that there is more than one category of “gaikokujin”.  As outsiders coming from predominantly white, western and English-speaking cultures, we are often treated as VIPs or experts even in situations in which we have no right or experience to be seen as such. Dave Spector*, an icon in the Japanese media for over 30 years, is one case in point.  He often comments on American/global affairs even though he does not have a degree or academic background in foreign policy or political science.  

Even with media darlings such as Mr. Spector, it is well known that non-Japanese on the whole can experience discrimination and obstacles in Japan. Is this discrimination or lack of awareness and what is the difference? Perhaps we can cover this in another article.  The discussion about “gaijin” vs. “gaikokujin” is full of definition debate, but as we noted in an earlier piece in this series, “gaikokujin” or “outside country person” is generally the preferred phrase. We’ll comment more on this later on in this series.

Don’t be led astray by stereotypical Japanese business custom training

Although we do speak in generalizations in order to draw out some trends and patterns, it is good to remember that each organization in Japan, like any organization regardless of location, is unique with its own explicit and implicit rules, expectations and behaviors. 

Just to share one example, we have both worked in organizations which break the norm of so-called typical Japanese cross-cultural business culture. Here is an example of some of the contrasts we have experienced:  Working in a family run business in which polite language was not the norm and in fact the work ethic was only to talk if it was about work. One employee even got verbally reprimanded for talking about the weather!  This same organization had a significant absence of meetings – only met when a decision needed to be made.  This is quite a contrast to other organizations in which we have worked, and to what you might hear in typical Japanese business culture training, which will most likely stress politeness and consensus-building meetings as the norm. 

Thus, one clear take away is to remember that background national culture and history may influence the organizational culture, but as with any organization there are other aspects which can be stronger drivers for culture and behavior such as the industry or historical context of the organization.  

Focus on discovery and learning mode from Day 1

In this respect, we would recommend starting from Day 1 in discovery mode to understand the communication styles of the teams and organization more broadly.  Cross-cultural communication models and frameworks can be helpful to structure and organize the learning curve. 

One such model is the six dimensions of cultural difference (1. Directness, 2. Enthusiasm 3. Formality, 4. Assertiveness, 5.Self-Promotion, 6. Personal Disclosure ) by Professor Andy Molinsky.** 

You can use such a model to conduct a self-assessment and compare it with the existing cultural communication style of a new team that you are joining.  For example, you might evaluate yourself as “high” on the dimension of Enthusiasm, but observations indicate that the team shows up as “low” on the same dimension. This would be a good indicator of where you might need to adjust your own style to be more effective in the team context. Alternatively, this is a useful self-assessment for all team members to do in order to understand and compare their own preferences. They can then work together to see how the team can increase awareness of their own diversity of style, and work together to create a more inclusive team environment.  (You can find a quick and scrappy spreadsheet tool for a self versus team cultural difference assessment here )

In this article we have provided some general hints and tips on how to avoid the mistakes that many of us have made. We hope it will be helpful in understanding how to get the most of your “outsider” gaikokujin status in effecting positive change in Japan regardless of your role, organization and work context.

**  Global dexterity references by Professor A. Molinsky: 

Molinsky, A. (2013). Global dexterity: How to adapt your behavior across cultures without losing yourself in the process. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press
Molinsky, A. (5 September 2017). Want to Boost Your Cultural Intelligence? Do This 1 Thing First.

Anna Pinsky specializes in organizational development and transformation with 15+ years experience advising global organizations in Japan and across Asia. 
David Wagner is a 35 year veteran of achieving behavioral adaptation inside 550+ organizations across Japan, Asia, Europe, North America and the Middle East. 

View from Roppongi Mori Hills Tower towards Tokyo Tower

The power of being a “Gaikokujin” in Japan [Part 3]

by Anna
Published on: January 25, 2021
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How Gaikokujin can help balance tradition and innovation

[ Written by Anna Pinsky and David Wagner ]

In this segment, we feel it is worth calling out an often overlooked benefit of having gaikokujin work alongside Japanese in organizations:  balancing tradition with innovation.

It is precisely because of the “outside” perspective that “gaikokujin” bring that means they can find a way forward by challenging long-held traditional organizational assumptions while unearthing what aspects of the past stories and rituals have untapped potential to help the organization grow and adapt in the future.

Readers who have lived in Japan already know how different the “real Japan” is compared to the image portrayed in the media with segments on sumo wrestlers or geisha.  Indeed, typical Japanese employees these days are more likely to have an interest in football or baseball than sumo wrestling or karate.  

This may seem like a glib point but there is a more serious angle for organizations – for anyone wanting to create a workplace that takes advantage of both tradition and innovation, it may well be the non-Japanese employees who can speak with equal credibility about observed customs.   

Take the sphere of sports or well-being as one example. You will find that it is non-Japanese who are increasingly likely to dedicate themselves and espouse the values of traditional Japanese martial arts.  Then there are individuals, like Alex Kerr with his initiatives to restore traditional Japanese housing, who have played a significant role in revitalizing interest around different aspects of traditional Japanese culture. (In addition, Kerr’s decades of longevity in Japan garner deep respect by many Japanese for his willingness to learn, accept and integrate Japanese tradition. )

Translating this to aspects of tradition in organizations, there is the example of the ritual of the “chorei” or “morning corporate recitation” still practiced by many traditional Japanese firms.  Starting at 9:00 a.m. sharp, it is done not only to remind everyone of the organization’s values but also an opportunity to work together as a team as purpose and meaning are confirmed.  It is an important aspect of unison and commitment and an opportunity to see and be seen.  

It is easy to discount practices such as the “chorei” (reciting the organization’s values together at the start of the day) as outdated or an inefficient use of resources, but the value of rituals has increasingly been recognized as a way to help individuals and organizations handle the challenges of the pandemic – “The Power of Ritual” published this year by Casper Ter Kuile is just one example.  Another is George Kohlrieser who specifically highlights the benefits of ritual in Japanese organizations in his article “The Hidden Perils of Unresolved Grief” (published in the McKinsey Quarterly in September 2020): “Japanese organizations are known for rituals when there are senior-leadership transitions, giving space & time for the organization to recognize the past & move into the future.” 

Patience with change through internal promotion leads to predictable leadership shifts:  As is the norm in many long-standing Japanese organizations, gradual promotion of long-time devotees who know the company deeply is the safe way to go.  Decades of experience among trusted relationships is a safe recipe for continuity.  As a result, “outsiders” are often not the first preference of choice when it comes to top positions of leadership.  This becomes another challenge for non-Japanese in their quest to integrate and become accepted over time.  But this, too, is gradually changing particularly in non-traditional organizations and Japanese companies seeking global growth.

In short, it’s all about adopting and adapting.  This is in line with the cross-cultural communication theory of “style shifting” in order to accommodate cultural norms and also lies at the heart of managing tradition with innovation.  How does a non-Japanese “fit in” to a traditional environment where innovation needs to thrive?  How can non-Japanese integrate tradition and rituals to adapt to different ways of getting things done?   It is precisely because of the “outside” perspective that “gaikokujin” bring that means they can find a way forward by challenging long-held traditional organizational assumptions while unearthing what aspects of the past stories and rituals have untapped potential to help the organization grow and adapt in the future.

Anna Pinsky specializes in organizational development and transformation with 15+ years experience advising global organizations in Japan and across Asia. 

David Wagner is a 35 year veteran of achieving behavioral adaptation inside 550+ organizations across Japan, Asia, Europe, North America and the Middle East.

View from Yamadera (山寺) in Yamagata Prefecture in the autumn

The power of being a “Gaikokujin” in Japan [Part 1]

by Anna
Published on: January 16, 2021
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[ Written by Anna Pinsky and David Wagner ]

The name says it all:  Outside (外 ), Country (国), Person (人) – Outsiders.  That is how non-Japanese are often viewed in Japan.  And that is the mind-set many Japanese have when it comes to non-Japanese. 

People who come from outside Japan are certainly welcome to visit, but even now, with a persistent labor shortage, the idea of non-Japanese as partners in prosperity is challenged by centuries of isolation and doubts about long-term devotion to the country.  Compared to Europe and the United States, immigration numbers speak for themselves.

So how does this play out in the workplace?  How can team synergies develop and grow among people who may not expect “gaikokujin” to stay long-term?  How can organizations achieve long-term targets if relationships are not nurtured at optimal levels?  

In the first in this series, we look at how “gaikokujin” can be catalysts for change towards  more effective workplace environments and working relationships in Japan through the lens of culture and hierarchy.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast…..

There are many desirable aspects of society that make Japan much more attractive as a place to live and work compared to other countries: be it group orientation of “shuudanshugi”, consideration for how one’s behavior impacts others (such as that expressed in the concept of “meiwaku wo kakenai”) or even just the ability to sit with silence and not feel the need to push in with self-promotion.   

However, these aspects of the culture which cultivate a more productive and collaborative working environment can also have the opposite effect when paired with traditionally hierarchical Japanese organizations.

The Japanese language and traditional structures in Japanese society foster organizational structures that are hierarchical and rigid. This creates an environment in which it can be very difficult to challenge assumptions through questions towards those positions of power or higher up the hierarchy.   

This is observable long before one joins a company.  Take, for example, the kohai/sempai concept (“junior”/”senior”) in Japanese education.  Even these terms are difficult to translate into English because they are imbued with assumptions and expectations of what can be done or said depending on your position in the hierarchy.

The same unspoken rules apply in organizations depending on whether you are the boss (“joushi”)  or more senior in position, versus being a subordinate (“buka”) or in a more junior position.  Cultural rules based on position in the hierarchy often mean that a question interrogating an existing approach or disagreeing with an opinion can be seen as attacking or threatening when directed towards someone in a more senior position in the hierarchy.  

Such behavior is the exact opposite of what is required for a productive and effective work environment based on research by Amy Edmondson into psychological safety which describes an environment in which “people feel they can speak up at work without fear that their manager or colleagues will think less of them” *

…. and gaikokujin eat culture for lunch

However, this is where a gaikokujin employee can have magical impact!  Being non-Japanese means that a gaikokujin can sidestep the unspoken expectations of behavior embedded in the hierarchical relationships and ask a question to individuals across the hierarchy more easily than a Japanese colleague. In fact, there are numerous times when we’ve found that as a non-Japanese, we can ask the question to someone senior that might be on everyone’s mind but they are afraid to ask. This is because as non-Japanese, we are not necessarily held to the same cultural expectations as Japanese.  Thus, there are less assumptions and fewer expectations made about how we should or should not behave.

In addition to the hierarchy of relationships there is also the minefield of saving face (mentsu wo tamotsu).  For anyone who has taught classes or run meetings and conferences in Japan, you’ll relate to being met with silence when you ask if there are any questions. Then as soon as you step out of the room, you are bombarded with questions from people who were too afraid to ask for fear of “losing face” in front of colleagues. 

Gaikokujin – a license to cultivate effective organizations 

While saving face may be a universal human trait, asking questions through assertive initiative is not the norm for many in Japan.  Yet using what we call “gaikokujin menkyo” – a “foreigner license” – permits us to do many things Japanese either cannot or will not do freely or unconstrained.

The ultimate question faced by long-term non-Japanese in the workplace, whether Japanese or non-Japanese owned and operated, is how well the organization promotes integration.   That is a leadership issue.  We have both worked in Japanese traditional and non-traditional firms as well as non-Japanese companies.  What is clear is the corporate culture varies.  Being a “gaikokujin” is no different than Japanese in so many organizations.  Where the rubber meets the road is company leadership, values and role-modeling of behaviors that support a culture of clear, open and inclusive communication for all employees.


Anna Pinsky specializes in organizational development and transformation with 15+ years experience advising global organizations in Japan and across Asia.  

David Wagner is a 35 year veteran of achieving behavioral adaptation inside 550+ organizations across Japan, Asia, Europe, North America and the Middle East. 

Early morning at Dentsuin Temple
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