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

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