Consensus and Protest in Japan

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Consensus and Protest in Japan

Posted on 24 November 2014 in Cultural Awareness, News -

Japan’s recent mid-term election announcement has been widely discussed. Questions being asked include: “Why is Abe calling a mid-term election given the lack of viable opposition within Japanese politics and the need for decisive action?”  Other comments in the press suggest that he is stalling for time and diverting attention away from important issues.

Regardless of what prompted this decision, it has thrown up some interesting reactions towards the style of consensual style of decision making that comes naturally to the Japanese, especially since Abe has acted in a very decisive and individualised manner prior to this. Anyone who has worked within a Japanese environment will know that getting consensus can be time consuming and can seem fairly inactive and diversionary in comparison to other styles of decision making. It is, however, a mistake to assume that consensus means agreement-more likely an acceptance or approval that some things need to happen to keep the group-in this case Japan-functioning.

Of course, in Japan’s current political and economical environment, there are going to be voices of dissent and dissatisfaction. Protest and disagreement can be difficult in Japan, where open criticism is not the norm and keeping the harmony is important sometimes to the extent that people are expected to keep individual opinions suppressed and think of the effects on the group-in this case society as a whole. I often think how difficult it must be for those faced with the devastating effects of the nuclear fallout in Fukushima where thousands of people are still displaced from their homes resigned to the fact that without restarting nuclear power, Japan as a whole will face ever increasing energy bills and reliance on imports for their energy.

Demonstrations traditionally have a bad public image with scant press coverage in Japan-two recent acts of self immolation protesting against the decision to change the constitution towards self-defence brought criticism upon NHK, Japan’s broadcaster, for not reporting them in their main news coverage! In more individualised cultures, this would be seen as “sweeping negative things under the carpet”-something that is not tolerated in our cultures of open criticisms. More on this in my next blog…

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Adapting to Cultural Differences-Abe’s Visit to the UK and Australia

Posted on 25 July 2014 in Cultural Awareness -

I was interested to see how Prime Minister Abe’s recent trip to Australia differed from his visit to the UK in May. Political agenda and geographical differences aside, there were some interesting moments where Abe had to adapt accordingly to different cultural expectations of behaviour. In the UK, I saw him at an “Invest in Japan” seminar and also at a Dinner hosted by the City of London Corporation at the Guildhall-both very formal and business orientated. The Guildhall was grand and historical and the correct formalities were followed with great pomp and circumstance. Abe mirrored this with a fairly formal Japanese speech introduced with the required humourous reference to alcohol we Brits seem to appreciate plus a mention of our traditions and our long, shared history. He then opened the floor to questions, one of which I thought was slightly inappropriate and indicative of our ” need to be heard” individualistic culture. Finally, he was presented with a “made in Britain” silver horse statue, representing his birth year in the Japanese Zodiac.

Now skip to Australia, where he gave a warm speech in Parliament in English honouring their ancestors, used a rugby scrum analogy and even mentioned WWII. On the subsequent tour with their Prime Minister Tony Abbott, he engaged in jocular banter and drank Australian wine. He was presented with a gift of Australian made RM Williams boots-proudly displayed by both men in a pose that caused consternation in some quarters about the overt display of machismo. I thought Abe looked slightly uncomfortable in this pose- the Japanese representation of macho-ness is very different-but he was certainly able to adapt to this more relaxed attitude to state visits.

In both contexts, the tone of his speeches engaged their audiences well using cultural assumptions of what would appeal to them. Stereotypes are never true across the board in such diverse societies. However, when operating in different cultures, it is essential to have a general overview and understanding, so that presentations and behaviour can be tailored accordingly. Naturally Abe had the support of briefings and PR machines, which I am sure, for a seemingly introverted man, helped him immensely on these visits.

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