Japanese and Western Cultural Tendencies

The following article is intended to give an overview of cultural parameters that have been identified by social-anthropologists such as Geert Hofstede, Fons Trompenaars and Edward Hall in order to examine the differences in values between Westerners and Japanese that are the cause of potential culture gaps and communication difficulties.


Of course, this analysis requires delving into the world of stereotypes and generalizations so caution must be taken not to assume that these characteristics exist in all members of a culture equally; they do not. It is hoped that by identifying these cultural parameters there may be more effective and efficient communication on a personal level in order to facilitate more productive working relationships.

Communication style


Western tendency

-Meaning conveyed by explicit, direct and clear verbal messages.

-Vagueness and ambiguity viewed as poor communication. Silence is uncomfortable.

-Emphasis placed on expressive ability, particularly speaking skill with writing skill having secondary importance.

-Grammatically, the key point expressed at the beginning of a sentence. Logically, tends to prefer a "conclusion first" style.


Japanese tendency

-Meaning conveyed by recognizing the context and understanding implicit non-verbal messages.

-Vagueness used to allow for different viewpoints to co-exist in order to avoid conflict. Silence has meaning.

-Emphasis placed on perceptive skills, particularly the ability to observe and listen in order to "read between the lines".

-Grammatically, the key point expressed at the end of a sentence. Logic style favors starting with the background and then leading towards the conclusion.


First meetings


Western tendency

Shake hands confidently with a friendly and light-hearted atmosphere.


Japanese tendency

Bow politely with a formal and respectful atmosphere.


Showing emotions


Western tendency

Outward expression of emotion expected. Hiding of true feelings seen as being weak or insincere.


Japanese tendency

Restraint of strong emotions indicates maturity and stability. Emotional people viewed as immature and untrustworthy.


Decision-making


Western tendency

Usually top-down, occasionally apply a democratic voting system. Consensus appreciated but not usually expected or pursued.


Japanese tendency

Upward, starting from lower or middle-levels. Consensus building through a long and slow process, known as Nemawashi expected and necessary to gain buy-in for a decision.


Personal identification


Western tendency

Primarily as an individual, and then as a member of a group.


Japanese tendency

Always as part of a group (e.g. family, company, school).


Attitude towards risk and uncertainty


Western tendency

Accept that change and risk are normal and feel comfortable with some level of risk. Do not impose rules or structure unless necessary. Admire the ideals of the pioneer; innovation and creativity.


Japanese tendency

Feel uncomfortable with risk and seek ways to protect against it; emphasis placed on preparation, rules and procedures. Take a skeptical approach to change and experimentation.


Nature of interpersonal relationships


Western tendency

Clear separation of work relationships and personal relationships.


Japanese tendency

Overlap of workplace and personal relationships that are maintained in both formal and informal settings.


Social interaction


Western tendency

Individuals work together based on explicitly defined roles (e.g. job positions and responsibilities). Conflict viewed as inevitable and necessary to find solutions to problems efficiently.


Japanese tendency

As part of a group (e.g. family, company, school) with clearly defined relationships to the other members (often based on age). Conflict to be avoided. Harmony in interpersonal relationships as the primary goal.


Family and work loyalties


Western tendency

Often put family first if in conflict with work. Task or responsibility area may take precedence over company goals.


Japanese tendency

Loyalty to group may take precedence over family if in conflict. Organizational goals take precedence over tasks.


Power distance


Western tendency

Preference for a flat organization structure, which tries to minimize unequal power distribution and hierarchies. More individual input expected with less strict obedience to superiors. Subordinates and superiors consider each other to be essentially equals, though with different roles assigned to them.


Japanese tendency

Each member expected to maintain their proper position in the group and those who hold higher status are allowed to exercise their power over the members of lower status. The hierarchy considered as being similar to a family situation where senior members take on roles to support and train the junior members.


Time orientation


Western tendency

Present and immediate future. Time is money! Time is linear, like water that goes down the drain.


Japanese tendency

Past, present and future are interrelated. Time is cyclical. Learn from the lessons from the past.


Societal rules


Western tendency

Universalist society believes in fairness for all and following the rules of law. Dislike for anything that seems like favoritism or a "double standard". Contracts used as a basis for making agreements.


Japanese tendency

Particularist society believes that rules should be applied based on the particular situation. Feel that reality can be viewed from different viewpoints. Contracts viewed as a guideline, not as an absolute.


Status


Western tendency

Status determined by performance and accomplishments. Valued qualities: talent, experience; specialists are admired.


Japanese tendency

Status given by belonging to a respected group (University, family). Valued qualities: sense of propriety, ability to get along with others and to instill trust; generalists are respected.


Focus of achievement


Western tendency

Performance measured based on the result achieved for a targeted goal.


Japanese tendency

Performance rated based on the ability to follow proper processes and the effort exerted to reach a goal.


Diversity


Western tendency

Differences in age, gender, role and rank should not be emphasized outwardly. Status barriers between people are limited and people tend to address others informally, using first names, even when there are clear differences in rank.


Japanese tendency

Differences in age, gender, race, role and rank are outwardly acknowledged in interpersonal relationships, especially through the use of honorifics (parts of speech used to identify social distance, intimacy or similarity).


Bibliography:

Condon, J. C. With respect to the Japanese: A guide for Americans. Intercultural Press.

Hall, E. T., Associates. Hidden differences: Doing business with the Japanese. Garden City, NJ: Anchor Press/Doubleday.

Hofstede, G. Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Trompenaars, F. and C. Hampden-Turner. Riding the waves of culture: understanding cultural diversity in business. London, Nicholas Brearley.

Shelley, R. Culture Shock!: Japan, Singapore: Times Books International.

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