6 Ways to Build Harmony With Japanese Customers

Insights Into Developing a Market in Japan

Smiling female designer leading project discussion
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When we Americans negotiate with other Americans, we generally think we can read the other party. Over time, we learn to pick up on firm handshakes and sincere eye contact, and on shiftiness, nervousness, and indifference. We have our own instincts about harmony and conflict. But when we cross the ocean, conflicts and conflict resolution look very, very different.

Insights Into the Japanese Culture

For Westerners, the first step toward building group harmony is conflict resolution. The Japanese, however, typically refuse to confront conflict, or even to acknowledge that it exists. Imagine the consequences when these two different interpersonal styles collide: Your frank initiative to lay all the cards on the table and work out all your differences, so commendable among your American associates, might be seen as the height of rudeness in Japan.

Besides conflict avoidance, the Japanese strive for relationships in which obligations are minimized. If they must incur obligations, they like a lot of slack within which to fulfill them. This is because obligations and their fulfillment are very important in Japanese culture. Any interpersonal interaction is likely to result in some degree of obligation, and the consequence of not fulfilling it is the loss of trust and support, not only from the party involved but from any observers as well.

This culture of obligation, interestingly enough, has been a prime opportunity for Japanese business. The Japanese confectionery industry got hold of our Valentine's Day and successfully promoted it in Japan. Market surveys showed that most of the candy gifts sold that day were given by women to men. Knowing that gifts received must be repaid in Japan, the candy makers launched a second holiday a few days after Valentine's Day, which they call "White Day." They billed it as the day on which men could (indeed, had to) buy white chocolate and give it to all those from whom they received chocolate on Valentine's Day. Most Japanese executives now dread this time of year because they may receive Valentine's Day chocolate from 10 to 15 office ladies, each of whom must be given a chocolate gift of greater value than the one she gave the boss. For the average male executive, the total chocolate purchases for White Day can exceed a hundred dollars.

The culture of obligation also ties into conflict resolution. In America, when we're getting ready to square off with our opponent over the bargaining table, we anticipate a win/lose situation. In Japan, conflict can be an opportunity to create an obligation. For example, if two Japanese businessmen are negotiating a distributorship and one gives in on how many units must be sold in a year, he hasn't lost ground. By giving in, he has put the other party in his debt, and he can call in the obligation later.

Guidelines for Doing Business in Japan

Two important guidelines for doing business in Japan are: honor all of your own obligations scrupulously and help your associates avoid incurring them. Here are six ways to put these principles to work:

  1. Manipulate the context. In a group situation, be sensitive to the relationships between your Japanese associates and alter the circumstances and environment until you get the reaction you are looking for. For example, if you are in a group meeting and you are having trouble communicating, find a way to talk to the Japanese group leader away from everybody else so that you can create a private situation. This removes the pressure of his obligations to his group members so that he can develop trust in you and be assured of a manageable limit to the obligations he will incur.
  2. Don't lose your nerve. When negotiating, Americans ask direct questions and expect direct answers. The Japanese will typically give a vague reply or pause indefinitely. You know what happens in these situations: you get rattled and give away too much. Say you're reviewing a contract with a cautious American. After a brief discussion, you ask, "Is this agreeable to you?" The party sits silently, eyes glued to the paper. Anxious to wrap up the deal, you blurt out, "How about if we reduce the projected volume by 15 percent, will that help?" Before you know it, you've been played into making a concession that may not have been necessary. In Japan, this situation is the rule rather than the exception.
  3. Take your time. Instead of jumping in to fill the pause, acknowledge your potential client's need for time and simply back off. Try a "Would you like to take the time to think it over and get back to me?" Or, more ingratiatingly, "Is there something in the contract that doesn't meet with your wholehearted approval? Because it's important that it does." The trick is to invite them to take the next initiative.
  4. Eliminate surprises before meetings. Parties to a negotiation should try to resolve as many differences as possible in private so that they do not surface during negotiations. The Japanese are very uncomfortable with resolving major conflicts in the public context of a meeting, and might never return to the table if they are "surprised" in this way.
  5. Use a third party. An independent mediator can help reduce substantive conflicts over time, so that, by the time the two parties sit down for a meeting, only minor differences are left unresolved. Choose your third party wisely. Your Japanese client will have to know and trust this person and believe that their culture will be understood and their values will be served.
  6. Move slowly and talk softly. Don't push for rapid advances in negotiations. Be patient and make small changes and compromises, whether you're in the boardroom or on the golf course. If you must raise questions or concerns, do so in a whisper. Your Japanese clients don't want the proverbial cook in the kitchen to overhear.