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THE Leadership Japan Series by Dale Carnegie Training Tokyo Japan

Jun 5, 2018

Face Is Very Important In Business In Japan


If you enjoy a good debate, well Japan is not the place for you then. In Western culture debating is part of the education system.  You may have been on the debating team in High School or may have participated in debates during English class.  But what is a debate?  It is an argument, where one team tries to outsmart the other, one-up them, show they are intellectually superior, more intelligent and more persuasive. It is a smarty pants culture. Our love of oratory goes right back to the Greeks and continues today.  We admire people who are articulate, witty, clever and are amused when someone successfully one-ups the other party. 


I was raised in Australia and it is a macho culture where boys are constantly trying to one up each other. We do this in sports, especially extreme sports or seeing who can jump off the highest riverbank into the muddy river with all the dangers there of submerged tree trunks and hidden rocks, etc.  We do this in banter.  Always trying to have the last word, the best comment, the cleverest comeback, the most cutting profanity.


This culture of being bigger, better, bolder, brassier than someone else is completely different to Japan. Japan will never fully embrace debating because it basically an argument. Some say that the world of science is different and there are fevered debates.  Not in Japan I would say.  Everyone will be tip toeing around on eggshells, not to have the other side embarrassed.  They will proffer counter views, but in the most opaque means possible.  This is a land of harmony, cohesion, calm - no arguments. The Japanese have been living on top of each other in highly dense societies for thousands of years.  They have learnt how to get on with one another and how to avoid arguments.


We know this, but in business we sometimes forget.  We may be very strong in a meeting, driving our point home to the audience be they buyers, suppliers or our staff.  We may be the smartest person in the room, the most experienced the most knowledgeable, the most technically adept. In a Western context, all good stuff.  When we hit unexpected barriers, we try and storm through.  We use the force of will and argument to blast a hole in the wall.  We become adamant in order to force a result or secure a direction we favour.


In Japan, this being strong or overpowering, however can be interpreted as bullying. They feel we are trying to put them down, that we are being arrogant toward them.  Being too strong shows no empathy to the Japanese buyer. They want people who will understand their needs, restrictions, difficulties, etc. If they are forced into a position they don’t favour, it is usually because they perceive it as risky. They know if they approve it and something goes wrong, they get the blame. Preserving face is very important, especially when it comes to dealing with mistakes.  Japan is a country of perfectionists, so a mistake is a big deal and represents a loss of face.  So how we handle mistakes including our own, becomes very, very important. 


We have to remember that our buyers, suppliers and staff are very concerned with their face. The worst thing you can do is criticise someone publicly.  This is a big no, no.  They see this as an attack and affront.  You may be 100% correct, but bully for you.  They don't want to lose face in public, to be one-upped, to be argued with.  You might outsmart their logic in the meeting, but they won’t love you for it. You might win the battle, but you will lose the war in Japan.


We always have to consider the other person's face.  We had a case with a client, a multinational company whose team are all Japanese. They had a very strict and robust legal contract, which we had to sign.  It had all of these very detailed provisions and various penalties.  It also said that if they cancelled the training within a certain time frame we could invoice them for the full amount of the training.  Sure enough, that is exactly what happened.  According to the provisions of the  signed agreement, I could have sent them an invoice and they would have been legally bound to pay it.  After all it was their own robust contract we are talking about here. I gave up receiving the money and didn't send that invoice, because I knew this would cause a big loss of face for the HR team with whom we were working. 


Someone inside the company would ask why this invoice has to be paid, when no training had been delivered. HR would have to admit their error and therefore lose face internally.  By not pursuing the matter, I saved them face.  This is where we have to think cleverly to how we can have a great relationship with our client. 


It is the same in the case of my own staff.  I am a driver type personality style, which means I am a go, go, go person, with no patience, who wants everything yesterday.  I can be demanding, but I have to be careful not to allow this to result in a loss of face for my team.  I am not perfect at it by the way, but I am thinking like that all the time. I don't debate.  We have discussions, we trade ideas, but we don't argue. 


Being persuasive yes, but don’t try to win the argument.  If I win, that means you lose - this is not the best way to approach Japan.  I win, I get what I want, but in the process you lose face is very bad idea here.  Make the buyer look good instead and be tremendously empathetic to how things are done in Japan. They had been managing fine before you turned up by the way. They might know something that you don’t, so study first, before firing off some salvos on how things should be around here.  Face it, face the reality, face counts in Japan.