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Characteristics of Japanese Communication

by Sanae Kobayashi
HISTORICALLY SPEAKING, the word "communication," much less "corporate communication," in the Western sense, did not exist in Japan until some 30 to 40 years ago. It appeared when we started to establish public relations or public affairs divisions in both the public and private sectors. In Japan's feudal era, the ruling principle had been, "Let people obey and keep them ignorant." Even after the modernization and democratization of Japan, we did not recognize the need to "communicate" with each other. This is mainly because the Japanese belong to single race, culture and religion. Therefore, Japanese people are expected to understand each others' thoughts without verbalizing them. We have a symbolic saying in Japan: Ishin-Denshin. This expression, according to the Japanese Business Glossary edited by Mitsubishi Corporation in 1983, is defined in this way: "The communication of thought without the medium of words. The expression literally means `what the mind thinks, the heart transmits."' In other societies, particularly Western, communication generally has to be expressed in specific words to be thoroughly understood. To the Westerner, therefore, the Japanese sometimes seem to have telepathic powers because so often communication among themselves is achieved without the use of words. This is because the many formalities, conventions and common standards developed in a society that gives priority to harmonious relations make it easy to understand what goes on in the mind of the other person. The younger generation of Japanese, who have become more individualistic, are losing the Ishin-Denshin faculty. Today, however, especially after environmental pollution and corporate scandals were made public, some organizations recognize the need to build and maintain a sound relationship with society through good communication. This means doing it not only in a defensive way, but also in a preventative way, knowing well that corporate prosperity in the future cannot be expected without positive communication. Comparing Four Traits of Japanese Culture with the West's Let's look at the social and cultural structures in Japanese organizations. Four essential characteristics influence the Japanese way of organizational and, accordingly, internal communication.

I will explain these communication traits in comparison with those of the West. It is not my intention, however, to emphasize the differences as factors of conflict. On the contrary, I want to mention common points as factors that can lead to mutual understanding and respect. We are, after all, human races living on the same globe. The four characteristics are: structure, process, culture and customs. First, with structure, it's "collectivism" in Japan versus "individualism" in the West. Or I might call it the "quasi-family society" versus the "contractual society." The social structure in Japan is best described by the "Vertical Society" (Tate Shakai in Japanese) theory developed in 1967 by a well-known cultural anthropologist, Professor Chie Nakane. "Vertical" or Tate means, for example, the human relations between parent and child in a family or between leader and follower in a group. This kind of human and orderly relation, in many cases, is considered inherent and not to be questioned. Probably influenced by the elderly order in Confucianism, it is supported and strengthened by a kind of give-and-take behavior. The superior takes care of the subordinate, who repays the obligation. The Tate relation is reflected not only in private or public organizations, but also in political, religious and academic circles. Japanese corporations, for example, in many cases pay for housing, recreational trips or parties and athletic meetings for employees and their families. In return, they get employees' tacit acceptance of life employment. Such employees or followers are in conflict with their "horizontal" or Yoko counterparts outside their organization. Thus, human relations in Japan between management and employees are not mere contractual ones as in the Western sense. This partially explains why life employment has been the accepted labor custom for more than a century. The second characteristic is process - "bottom up" in Japan versus "top down" in the West. Generally in Japan, decisions within the company first start as suggestions prepared by subordinates or middle management. After coordinating different opinions with the other middle managers involved (called Nemawashi), the top management or board of directors makes its decision. This process enables the group to avoid heated discussions or debates in the official meeting. As a result, decision making in Japanese organizations usually takes more time than it does in the West. However, as compensation, in Japan the execution is made with more speed and completeness. Nemawashi, in the Japanese Business Glossary literally means "to dig around the root of a tree to prepare it for transplanting." Adapted from this, the word refers to the groundwork to enlist support or to secure informal consent from the people concerned prior to a formal decision. Japanese society operates on group decisions or consensus and Nemawashi is an indispensable process in achieving consensus. It also avoids open confrontation.

In the United States, a similar process exists, known as preselling, but a decision may be taken regardless of whether or not everyone concerned is in agreement. In Japan, a proposal will be revised in the process of Nemawashi until it is molded into a form that is acceptable to all. So much time is spent in Nemawashi that foreign businessmen often become exasperated waiting for a lapanese company to make a decision. Now let's turn to the third characteristic, culture - "implicit culture" in Japan versus "explicit culture" in the West. The Japanese prefer an indirect narration to a direct narration, especially when they must say "No." This is mainly because they respect traditional Japanese Wa, or purity or harmony, in official discussions to avoid heated debates. Raising voices and showing one's anger is generally considered a lack of politeness or courtesy. For this reason, Japanese need Nemawashi to gather consensus and to reach an agreement, prior to official discussions. So while the implicit expression is an unspoken accepted practice among friends or family members, many times it causes misunderstanding and confusion in official corporate communication and political negotiations. A critic once said that the Japanese "yes" is not a "yes" in the Western sense. Years ago a Japanese novelist and congressman wrote a book, "The Japan that Can Say 'No'," insisting it was necessary to say "no" directly on some occasions, instead of saying "yes in an ambiguous way...but [meaning] no". The fourth characteristic has to do with customs - in this case, labor customs. This is seen in "seniority" and "life employment" versus the West's merit system. The Japanese labor customs, especially life employment, have been useful and valid for both management and the employee. These customs have enabled organizations to secure stable labor resources, to maintain stable lives and to preserve order. Seniority especially has been the easiest way for management to avoid personnel troubles with promotions, for example, and to get internal consensus on the assumption that no differences exist in people's abilities. Among the four characteristics described, this last one, the custom of seniority and life employment, has been considered a mainstay of economic growth for about a century. This system started to change in the 1990s toward one that is merit-based. This is primarily because Japanese management found it difficult to maintain a salary scale for older employees to enjoy automatically higher pay under the seniority system. Also, an aging society and the long recession after the collapse of the bubble economy in Japan accelerated this trend. However, the first three characteristics, in my opinion, will not transform Japan toward the Western way. The first three characteristics have been part of Japanese society for thousands of years. I hope that professional communicators around the world can accept and respect cultures that differ from their own. Wouldn't it be rewarding if our current age became known as an "Age of Co-Learning?"

Internal Communication in Japan Having reviewed these characteristics that influence corporate communication, let's briefly consider internal communication. I believe that in Japan, internal communication is the most important of all corporate communication. In my experience, without exception, if a company has effective internal communication, its external communication will be successful, too. Successful internal communication depends on three basics. The first is getting top management's support and trust. This requires direct contact with communicators. It is essential to create better internal communication, Tate and Yoko, which will help to avoid the lack of, and distortion of, communication between management and employees. Second, communicators must be fully knowledgeable in both management and labor affairs, always keeping in mind what issues are most important to top management inside the corporation as well as outside. Business communicators must always think strategically in their contact with management. The third requirement is to use two-way and symmetrical [balanced] communication, as described by James Grunig, Ph.D., in the IABC Research Foundation "Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management" study. This includes disclosure of management information and employees' participation in the corporate communication process.

Publication Information: Article Title: Characteristics of Japanese Communication. Contributors: Sanae Kobayashi - author. Magazine Title: Communication World. Volume: 14. Issue: 1. Publication Date: December/January 1996