Tags: Japanese Language

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

Working From Home as the “new normal”: how “emotional granularity” could help with self management. [Today’s Kizuki 1*]

by Anna
Published on: April 4, 2020
Categories: Japan, Self-management
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Emotional granularity had caught my attention from before we had even heard of COVID19 having recently read  “How emotions are made” by Lisa Feldman Barrett and it seems particularly pertinent and timely as so many people adjust to working from home on a daily basis.  Reflecting on her Theory of Constructed Emotion and the concept of “emotional granularity”, emotional granularity “isn’t just about having a rich vocabulary. It’s about experiencing the world, and yourself, more precisely” as Feldman writes in her 2016 article from The New York Times 

Decreasing emotional granularity and a diminishing connection with self

Feldman stresses the benefits of emotional granularity on psychological and physical health. Specifically, how email and the short interactions that social media channels, such as Twitter, encourage and nudge us into using a more restricted and limited list of vocabulary over time.  Also, the extent to which there is a tendency to use more words that inflate meaning. This resonates with my thinking and seems a skill that is more important than ever as “Working From Home” demands us to develop a more highly attuned ability to self-manage.

How often have you sent a response to someone in email and, instead of responding “thank you, that response was (useful/helpful/informative/interesting), you simply wrote “perfect” or “awesome”? Really? Can a simple response to a question truly be said to be “awesome” or “perfect”?

Reading Dr Feldman’s work leads me to consider what the unintended consequences could be of this more limited and repeatedly used set of phrases. Yes, one could argue that by using similar terms or vocabulary, we are creating some connection with the reader, some way to signal we are in the same group or kinship. However, Feldman’s argument also helped me understand that we are also diminished along the way.  For instance, if our granularity in expression declines then so does our ability to be more attuned to our emotions with a finer degree of clarity (e.g. awesome/great/good/fine).  Aren’t we then also losing a connection with ourselves? Isn’t our ability to understand and translate in finer distinctions about how we are really feeling or responding to a situation also affected?

Emotional granularity in high-context cultures

Such questions may also be asked in multicultural work environments.  When, for example, the only common language is Japanese, the concept of emotional granularity and the difference between working in languages and communication in a low context culture or high context culture is stark: Japanese is a high context culture – hence in many situations what we say is not actually about how we are interpreting our feelings or thoughts about a situation, but what the situation dictates. For example, when you visit someone’s home for the first time, the expected response as you walk in the door is “ojamashimasu”** not, “hey, I like your shoes” or “wow, that’s a lot of umbrellas you’ve collected”.

Does this high-context aspect of the culture disconnect me momentarily from what I really think or feel and could this be a good thing – in the same way that being on autopilot can help us conserve energy so that we can use our thinking energy on low context situations?  Or could it be detrimental because we skim through interactions and become less aware of ourselves and others and less able to pick up on indicators. 

A few years ago I was visiting a Japanese friend with small children. I hadn’t seen my friend for almost a year and so when I visited my mind was on making sure I brought an appropriate gift for her children, and that I followed the usual protocol on arriving – especially on spending the time to say “ojamashimasu” and the usual pleasantries although I really wanted to get to the bit where i could just sit down with her and hear her news.

However, in my effort to follow the “process” dictated by the culture I barely looked at her on entering her home and it was not until several minutes later that I realized there were tears in her eyes and that something upsetting had happened that morning. Thankfully we were able to find some quiet time before the end of the visit so that she was able to share what was really going on for her.
It made me wonder if not only am I missing these important opportunities to see and sense what is really going on, but also if in some way, the more I am in these interactions, that I am dulling my senses and losing emotional granularity.

At the same time, I think about if the opposite could be true: maybe the high-context process of following the expectations felt like an extra mental load to me and depleted my energy and focus because Japanese culture and language are not my “native” culture: If I been been raised in a high context environment from a young age would the process have taken up less mental load and freed up my energy to focus on what was not being said in the ritual interaction of entering someone’s home?

There is added irony to this as I think of the Japanese phrase “reading the air” (kuuki wo yomu which refers to the finely tuned skill of being able to perceive what is not said).  Is ‘reading the air’ simply a result of the high context culture in which so many situations dictate what can or cannot be said, or is it the other way around?  Or is the focus perhaps on being able to “read the air” that allows the high context formal interactions to persist in the first place?

  • What is your experience? Do you think certain cultural contexts make it easier or more difficult to connect with what you and others are feeling?
  • And, more importantly,  whether you’re working in a high-context or low-context culture, what strategies are you experimenting with to stay attuned to your own emotional state while working from home as the “new normal”?

Sources & Endnotes
Feldman Barrett, L (2016)  : The theory of constructed emotion: an active inference account of interoception and categorization.Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 12, Issue 1, January 2017, Pages 1–23. https://academic.oup.com/scan/article/12/1/1/2823712?inf_contact_key=50e37481c31399c8dfafa5200768fca0680f8914173f9191b1c0223e68310bb1
Feldman Barrett, L (3 June 2016) The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/05/opinion/sunday/are-you-in-despair-thats-good.html
Feldman Barrett, L (2018). How emotions are made: the secret life of the brain.London: Pan Books 
Feldman Barrett, L (2020). Interview with Ezra Klein: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/vox/the-ezra-klein-show/e/64657463

* “kizuki” (気付き) is a noun in Japanese which means something you notice or become aware of.
**a formal greeting which has a literal meaning of excuse me for being a bother, or getting in the way

Bunkyo-ku in April
A calm and quiet spring morning perfect for new “Kizuki” or “noticings”

Learning Japanese: “Must Have” texts for Japanese language learners

by Anna
Published on: December 14, 2014
Categories: Uncategorized
Comments: 1 Comment

“Must have” texts for Japanese language learners

I was going through my library of books recently and came across some of my old Japanese language textbooks. It got me to thinking about what I would see as some of the “must have” texts for serious learners of Japanese language. Some books look quite worn but this testifies to how useful I found them.


Japanese Grammar:

(1) A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar  – Publisher: The Japan Times

(2) A Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar – Publisher: The Japan Times

(3) A Dictionary of Advanced Japanese Grammar – Publisher: The Japan Times


(1) Essential Kanji – Author: P.G. O’Neill

(2) Illustrated Japanese Characters – Author/Publisher: Japan Travel Bureau


(1) Effective Japanese Usage Guide – Author: Masayoshi Hirose






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