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A monthly column from the Asia Pacific Management Forum

Review focus: The politeness and the decorum for which the Japanese are famous does not come cheaply. Both require extraordinary amount of effort, of psychic energy, and either the suppression of emotions or their generous application.

Asian Business Code Words

Boye Lafayette de Mente is one of our regular monthly columnists at the Asia Pacific Management Forum. A noted author with over 30 years of experience in China, Japan, Korea and other Asian countries, Boye's tips on doing business in the region are both pragmatic and enlightening. Some material is taken from Boye's many books exploring Asian cultural and business Code Words, business etiquette, customs, and language.

Asian Business Code Words Index
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Settai (Set-tie)November 2001

Partying with an Ulterior Motive

Japan's traditional culture continues to be both a blessing and a curse, depending on the circumstances. There are virtually no situations involving interpersonal relationships, whether they are with other Japanese or with outsiders, in which duality of the culture does not come into play and require special consideration.

The politeness and the decorum for which the Japanese are famous do not come cheaply. Both require extraordinary amount of effort, of psychic energy, and either the suppression of emotions or their generous application. A meeting that is very ordinary by Western standards is typically a major production in Japan. Knowing your lines and your cues it's very important..

It is especially trying for most Japanese to meet and deal with Westerners, who behave according to a different set of rules that keep the Japanese guessing and on edge. There's nothing more upsetting, or tiring, to the Japanese than not being able to predict what other people are going to.

Because of this factor, one of the most useful things foreign businessmen can do to ensure smoother and more efficient relations with their Japanese counterparts is to prepare very detailed agendas for their meetings, make them available to the Japanese well in advance, and adhere to them as strictly as possible.

Japan's traditional etiquette system was so comprehensive and pervasive that it did not provide for a time-out, when people could just be themselves, during informal and private periods. A westerner, for example, may conduct himself in a very controlled and rigid manner in a formal setting, but will invariably revert to a relaxed, casual mode once the ceremonies is over.

There was, in fact, only one specific occasion when it was permissible for the Japanese to break their rigid rules of hierarchical etiquette and behave in the free-for-all manner that is favored in the West - and that was when they were out drinking after-hours.

This is one of the reasons why it became customary in Japan to hold meetings at geisha houses and restaurant-inns - and why such meeting places have flourished in huge numbers during most of Japan's history. The Japanese learned very early that they simply could not conduct their business and political affairs within the constraints of the etiquette system.

In modern times, the infrastructure of eating and drinking places has kept pace with the enormous growth of the economy, and continues to play a vital role in the way the Japanese conduct all of their affairs, particularly business and politics.

Eating and drinking together, subsumed in the word settai (set-tie), which is generally translated as "entertainment" is, in fact, the oil of life in Japan. At one time or another, virtually all relationships in Japan involve drinking an alcoholic beverage, and more so in the world of business than anywhere else.

Managers take their subordinates out for drinking sessions as part o their communication and bonding process. Managers hold casual as well as key meetings among themselves in bars, clubs and restaurants as part of their approach to management.

Manufacturers routinely provide settai to their suppliers, distributors and retailers. Suppliers and distributors routinely entertain their customers. Salesmen entertain clients, partners entertain each other, and everyone entertains guests.

There is, of course, a precise etiquette in the world of settai having to do with seating, pouring and receiving drinks, and, in fact, the degree of drunkenness that is necessary to excuse certain kinds of behavior. Learning and following these rules is one of the challenges, as well as one of the pleasures, of living and working in Japan.

This month's column is excerpted from Japan's Cultural Code Words, by Boye Lafayette De Mente available from NTC/Contemporary Publishing Company


© Boye Lafayette De Mente & the Asia Pacific Management Forum 2001

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