It’s a difficult habit to resist. We want to put the best spin on our company’s talents and resources and present everything in as positive a light as possible. We want to make a good first impression. We want the other side to fall in love at first sight and sign a deal ASAP. Then, we go home, celebrate, pop the champagne, and look forward to the next challenge.
It’s not about what we want to say. It’s about what the other side, the Japanese business culture side, wants to hear.
Facts Vs. Opinions
In Japanese society, people never really gave up on the idea of objective facts. In other words, in spite of Western philosophy having made heavy inroads in establishing that “there are no objective facts” – which in practice tends to mean, you have no objective facts that you can use to counter my amazing logic – Japan simply doesn’t, well, care.
In Japan, there is a vast gulf between your opinion (iken, 意見), what you think you know, and an objective fact (jijitsu, 事実). In the first case, “iken” is formed with “i,” representing idea, and “ken,” representing view. In other word, an idea from your perspective. In the second case, “jijitsu” is formed “ji,” representing an intangible thing, and “jitsu,” representing fruit.
In Japan, a “fact” is the fruit of an intangible thing. By their fruits will you know them; similarly, by their facts will you know them.
Now, a Japanese businessman will very politely listen to your opinion. He will nod his head. He will appear attentive. He will make every effort to demonstrate that your opinion is important.
Yet, your opinion is not what he wants to hear.
He wants to hear facts.
The Substance Behind The Politeness
Japan’s strict educational system serves to accomplish two things:
- Prepare people for a hierarchal corporate world
- Instill a rigorous appreciation of facts and technicalities
Very often, what will make or break a business proposal is not the spin, not the gloss, but the facts underlying the presentation. It will be the express, explicit job of the note-takers and studiers of your presentation to rigorously analyze your presentation, both “objectively” (to identify jijitsu, facts) and from their own company’s standpoint (tachiba, 立場, lit. stand + ground, the ground on which you stand).
Killing With Kindness
There is a strategy used by Japanese companies that goes like this: respond very favorably, nod your head, look like you’re considering something, and wait until the other side understands this isn’t going anywhere and gives up.
Still, you have to understand that this isn’t meant as deception so much as putting you down gently. When a rejection must be done, they believe that doing it politely is an obligation, not an option. As much as Western culture wants to a) get informal, b) get to the point quickly, in Japan, that is showing disrespect to the other party and making yourself look like an ass. Japanese businessmen do not make themselves look like asses lightly.
An additional problem is that the put-downs tend to be more direct, that is, polite but firm with the subtext clearly understandable, when in Japanese.
This is for a couple of rather valid reasons.
First, even if a Japanese person can speak the words of English fluently, they will lack the confidence to send a lot of subtle subtext with the English language, a well-founded concern, and given this, will favor towards polite language rather than risk coming off as rude.
Second, English has less nuance and complexity than Japanese does. (I speak from a great deal of translation experience: yes, Japanese has more complexity and is capable of greater nuance, which comes across well in Japanese but even with the best intentioned translators and interpreters, must necessarily lose nuance when transformed into English.) So, there’s that.
Totally besides this, there’s probably the concern that Westerners don’t like rejection and don’t take it very well. This, too, is well founded.
What You Can Do: Building Trust
Trust is all-important in Japanese business.
Besides being important in general, put simply, Japanese business relies on being able to fulfill obligations a long time in advance, on being reliable, on being trustworthy, and on not pulling a fast one for a quick buck.
It is important to note that this didn’t happen yesterday. This is a product of many centuries of Japanese business culture, dating back to the merchant caste during the Edo period. It was not a “samurai businessman” invention; it was common sense over hundreds of years by “commoner” merchants who could very easily lose everything if things went bad.
A hundred years ago, the United Kingdom would have been considered much the same. In modern America, bankruptcy is common enough and isn’t really held against people. Not so in Japan. Not so at all. (And not so in the U.K. of 100 years ago; you’d be barred from holding political office for life.)
So, it’s all about trust.
Do you want an honest answer, not a polite one? Do you want to find out what the other side’s really thinking? Do you want extra details that won’t be revealed at first blush?
The answer is to get the other side to trust you.
Have Some Fist In Your Glove
The best way to accomplish this is to have real, solid substance behind your gloss.
Be prepared to back up anything you say with something from the real world. Not everything can have an objective fact behind it, but the more, the merrier.
Demonstrate that you are taking the first step towards trust by being honest. That doesn’t mean broadcasting your weaknesses; it means being pragmatic about the challenges that must be faced to get the job done, and showing you are prepared to overcome setbacks.
Don’t just be willing; be able.
This will show that you are reliable, and that you are worthy of being trusted.
All else flows from this.