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Review focus: It is not unusual for both Japanese and Western executives to accuse each other of being insincere - and sometimes dishonest. What neither side appreciates is that in most cases they are referring to entirely different concepts of sincerity and honesty

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.

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MakotoFebruary 2002

Sincerity, Japanese Style

It is not unusual for both Japanese and Western executives to accuse each other of being insincere - and sometimes dishonest. What neither side appreciates is that in most cases they are referring to entirely different concepts of sincerity and honesty. In many situations, the Japanese idea of right and wrong is quite different from the Western idea. To they typical Japanese, right or wrong is not so much based on an unvarying, universal code of ethics or principles as it is upon time, place, the people involved, and other circumstances. The Japanese concept of justice is subsequently not as abstract as the Western idea.

I once attended a large reception staged in Tokyo by the importing division of an American company for Hitachi Ltd., one of their suppliers, and several guests of note. There were a number of speeches by Hitachi executives, and in every case the speaker not only began and ended his talk with an appeal to the Americans to be sincere in their dealings with them but also harped on this point throughout his speech.

Catching the spirit of the thing, some Americans speakers countered and asked the Japanese to also be sincere. An outsider would probably have thought these were spontaneous demonstrations of goodwill in which both parties were talking about the same thing and were really communicating with one another. But sincerity as used by the Japanese has altogether a different meaning than it does to Westerners. And it is of course vitally important to understand this difference when doing business with Japanese.

Sincerity to most Westerners means free from pretense or deceit; in other words, honest and truthful without reservations. But the typical Japanese, being Makoto (mah-koe-toe) means to properly discharge all of one's obligations so that every thing will flow smoothly and harmony will be maintained. It also means being careful not to say or do anything that would cause loss of face. By extension, it further means that mokoto people will not be self-seeking; will not get excited or provoke others to excitement; will not reveal their innermost thoughts if they are negative; will not, in fact, do anything disruptive.

This, obviously, does not necessarily include or require strict adherence to what Westerners like to call honesty and frankness, since harmony of a kind can be maintained indefinitely as long as both sides play according to the same rules. And the Japanese, just like the Westerners, tend to think and behave as if their rules were the ones being used.

Japanese business people, as mentioned earlier, often seem to be more concerned with form and manner than they are with the end results of any effort - although results are, of course, important to them. Since this attitude is nearly opposite to typical Western thinking, it naturally causes varying degrees of misunderstanding and friction between the parties involved.

Japanese still tend to think in terms of personal relationships and subjective circumstances in their business dealings. Thus an agreement between Japanese and foreign business people should be reduced to its basic elements, and each point should be thoroughly discussed to make sure each side understands and actually agrees to what the other side is saying.

But reaching an agreement with a Japanese company does not mean the foreign company is home free. From the instant the agreement is made or signed, the interests of the two parties will begin to diverge. The agreement will be interpreted differently by the two sides, and unless there is ongoing "root binding" and nurturing of the agreement by face-to-face dialogue and adjustments, the interests of the two parties are likely to be so far apart within two or three years that the relationship goes sour.

This usually happens, not because of dishonesty or deviousness on the part of either party, but simply because the differences in the perceptions and reactions of the two parties. Among other things, it is the Japanese position that since circumstances change regularly, it is natural that contractual relationships between companies also change regularly.

One of the major weakness of American executives dealing with Japan, particularly in joint ventures, is their failure to recognize and react positively to the constant need to nurture and adjust their relationships with their Japanese partners.

This month's column is excerpted from Japanese Etiquette & Ethics in Business, by Boye Lafayette De Mente available from NTC/Contemporary Publishing Company


© Boye Lafayette De Mente & the Asia Pacific Management Forum 2002

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