I recently spoke on a Radio 4 programme called “Misunderstanding Japan”, where I wanted to convey that Japan will naturally seem quirky and incomprehensible to people who have no understanding of its cultural context. People wanting to do business or engage with Japan need to understand the complexities of the cultural context to avoid misunderstandings. However, things are not always as they seem. At a recent UKTI seminar on Business Japanese for Beginners that I delivered to local businesses looking at working with Japan, we covered many interesting contrasts in Japan that can sometimes muddy the waters nad indeed revealed some interesting pre-conceptions. Some examples include:
- The clutter of outdoor advertising and information vs the order and Zen like calm attributed to Japanese lifestyles
- Hierarchical company structures vs an emphasis on a very Japanese style of consensus within decision making
- The status and importance of Japanese business leaders vs their fairly anonymous presence in marketing campaigns/PR about the company (although this is changing with entrepreneurs such as Rakuten’s Hiroshi Mikitani and Masayoshi Son)
- The bureaucracy and seriousness of Japanese government institutions vs the cute mascots they take very seriously to promote them
- The seemingly submissive role of women within one of the most masculine societies on earth vs the relative dominance of women within the home/ child rearing and control over finances.
- The infantile behaviour and use of childish, cute objects on TV adverts/reality shows and the drunken fairly inhibition free after karaoke-session vs the conservative behaviour within traditional Japanese corporate life.
- The immense need for detail contrasted with the indirect vagueness of Japanese oral communication
- The garish packaging of the “kawaii” culture vs Japanese minimalism
- Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, J pop idol- a grown woman who dresses and acts like a 10 year old vs kimono -clad, demure enka singers
- The hidden emotions and public masks vs the immense emotional outpouring at national competitions and the general irony-free sentimentality of the Japanese
- The sensuality and open acceptance of sexual desires and practices vs the low birth rate and reported lack of interest in sex amongst the younger generation.
- The peace of a Japanese temple vs the onslaught of noise and announcements within Japanese everyday life.
- The expectation of convenience and high levels of politeness & hospitality displayed in the service industry vs inefficiencies and a lack of flexibility within this industry
- The high-tech nature of Japan and their use of the latest gadgets vs the fax machines still used in most Japanese offices and the emphasis on written communication.
The list could go on-do you have any more?