Ambiguity in traditional Japanese culture and why it can be an obstacle for companies trying to internationalize

by Anna
Published on: September 30, 2012
Categories: Japan
Comments: Comments Off on Ambiguity in traditional Japanese culture and why it can be an obstacle for companies trying to internationalize

Following on from my previous post, I’ll be highlighting here one aspect of Japanese culture that can work against the conditions necessary to become a learning organization.

Learning organizations and psychological safety
As outlined in last week’s post, learning organizations comprise three basic components, one of which is a Supportive Learning Environment.  A supportive learning environment can be described as an environment with the characteristics of psychological safety, appreciation of differences, openness to new ideas and time for reflection (*1).

The first element, psychological safety, as described by Professor Amy Edmondson, is an environment in which team members “feel free to express relevant thoughts and feelings”; individuals feel that it is safe to ask questions, request help and share ideas without fear of humiliation (*2).  This, in turn, means that for psychological safety to exist, there must be the conditions to support mutual clarity and clear communication.  In other words, in such an environment it is safe to ask direct questions and exchange opinions in order to check assumptions or expectations and reduce the occurrence of misunderstandings.
However, in contrast, if we look at traditional Japanese culture, we see that ambiguous communication is often encouraged, making it difficult to take a directly inquiring approach to gain clarity.

“Reading the Air” and ambiguity in traditional Japanese culture
On a visit to a city such as Tokyo, Japanese culture superficially appears to be have become westernized but in reality it has adapted certain western concepts while still retaining aspects of the traditional culture.  In a similar vein, Japanese organizations may appear western on the surface, but are said to have comparatively less-developed mechanisms in place to encourage diversity as a result of the historical company structures based on guaranteed lifetime employment, intra-company unions and age-based remuneration.

Japan is commonly known as having a high-context culture. This means that there is an emphasis on implicit, indirect and ambiguous communication. The Japanese language itself points to the emphasis on ambiguous communication with expressions such as “kuuki wo yomu” which literally means “to read the air” and refers to the ability to understand a situation from the atmosphere without access to explicit information.  Another expression “ichi wo kiite, juu wo shiru” literally means “know one from hearing ten” and refers to the ability to infer details when only given part of the story.

A further Japanese concept, “sasshi” also reflects the emphasis on developing knowledge without inquiring to gain further detail: One academic, Haru Yamada, interprets the concept of sasshi as “The process of anticipatory guesswork required to fill out each other’s communication … a strategy where players try to understand as much as possible from the little that is said”. (*3)

Psychological safety, clear communication and globalization
For Japanese organizations trying to expand globally in order to survive, a culture based on “reading the air” is no longer an efficient way to help employees work together to respond to the increasingly frequent and unpredictable changes in the international marketplace.

In particular, for Japanese organizations hiring more non-Japanese people in their main offices in Japan, conditions supporting psychological safety and clear communication make new employees feel that it is safe to inquire in order to better understand the company culture and ways of working. It also facilitates the open discussion of mutual expectations and, hence, reduces inefficiency arising from misunderstandings.

Psychological safety as an approach to reduce high turnover rates
Given that some Japanese organizations are reporting concerns about the low retention rate of non-Japanese employees, one solution may be to start from the point of increasing psychological safety and encouraging open and clear communication.

If you are interested in finding out how well your team scores in terms of psychological safety and other characteristics of a learning organization, why not try the free and anonymous Learning Organization Survey developed by Harvard Business School?  You can access it here:

The next post will provide some examples of Japanese companies that have come up with some simple ways to overcome the problems of ambiguity in traditional Japanese culture.


(*1) Garvin, D. A., Edmondson, A. C. & Gino, F. (2008). Is yours a learning organization? (Interview with David A. Garvin & Amy C. Edmondson) Harvard Business Review Magazine March 2008. Link to original article can be found here:
(*2) Edmondson, A. C. (2012). Teaming: How organizations learn, innovate and compete in the knowledge economy. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Link to this book on
(*3) Yamada, H. (1997). Different games, different rules: Why Americans and Japanese misunderstand each other. Cary, NC: Oxford University Press.  Link to this book on

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