Pre-meeting meetings sound like bureaucracy gone mad to Westerners, but the Japanese method of decision-making means everyone is brought along together.
From the moment you first arrive in Japan you realise that your conceptions, whatever they are, need to be thrown aside. I ended up living for a total of five years in Osaka and Tokyo, and Japan is not a place, it’s an experience. Anyone who has spent time there cannot help but be affected by that experience and will usually be looking for any chance to return, because it really gets into your blood.
I knew nothing about Japanese language and culture before I went there. I clearly remember opening my “teach yourself Japanese” book as the plane took off.
It is a country that somehow manages to weave together an extremely long history with the instant adoption of world leading technology. A place where baseball is incredibly popular, despite being the sport of conquering forces, but the news will next show an item about the latest Sumo tournament. I loved the quirkiness of the sub cultures and anime, the beauty of mountains and abundant nature, the thorough washing before you immerse yourself in the serenity of a relaxing hot onsen pool.
In Japan people are more conscious and aware of the changing seasons. I remember going out to have parties under the cherry blossoms of Spring (called ‘Hanami’) or enjoying a day trip to look at the changing leaf colours in Autumn (called ‘Koyo’). In the West we often take these simple things for granted.
Another ‘experience’ of being in Japan which struck me was how a meal itself took on the nature of an experience. Westerners will often pile a single plate high with food, with the meat, veges, potatoes, salad and bread all there in one place. In Japan the most elegant and colourful meals can create 15 or more different dishes to be cleaned up afterwards. This is because the pickles are separate to the meat, which is separate to the rice, which is separate to the . . . you get the point. Food in Japan is more often something to be enjoyed communally and you take time over its preparation, presentation and the experience of eating it. Chopsticks actually aid that as you are forced to pick out items to savour rather than shovelling it all in with a spoon or fork.
The experience of working in the Japanese business world is no less unique. I still remember my first day shuffling along with the crowds through the underground network from the subway directly into the basement of a very large building overlooking the Imperial Palace in Tokyo which housed one of the largest Japanese ‘trading house’ companies.
Trading houses get that name because they deal and trade in virtually every commodity product, and are massive – I was at one that had 40,000 employees worldwide. The security guards stood on each side of the entrance and said “Ohio Gozaimasu” with a slight bow, over and over again. There were 5,000 employees streaming into that building that they needed to greet. Their white gloves and crisp uniforms showed they were ready for action, although that greeting and dealing with lost security passes were probably the most onerous parts of their day. We would stand quietly waiting on the ground floor in front of more than a dozen lifts allocated to different levels of the high rise, and wait for our chance to squeeze into one that would suck us up through the middle of the building.
Music played from loudspeakers to start and finish the day as well as at lunch time. That music would tell you when you should be seated at your desk, and if you were late you needed to apologise (‘Sumimasen’) to the head of your team who would sit at the end of a long table overseeing their staff.
So what did I learn about doing business in Japan that we could benefit from in New Zealand? The main thing was that in Japan there are few ‘hard edges’ when it comes to relationships. Instead, communication is measured and built through creating safe spaces where a key goal is to stop others from losing face.
The practical side of this that I saw was threefold. First, questions are rarely asked that lead to a binary ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response. To frame them in that way could cause an awkward interaction and demand an immediate answer when others might need to be consulted first. As an example, if I wanted to attend a conference it would be phrased to my boss as, ‘I’ve heard there is a conference coming up about social enterprise and I wondered if we should consider someone attending’. It’s much easier to respond to that exploring question with a softer response and save face instead of a harsh ‘no’ that might result from the more direct, ‘can I go?’. Not understanding this can cause issues if you don’t know about this more subtle, indirect but ultimately very powerful way of asking questions that also influence the response.
Second, if a Western person does ask a ‘yes/no’ question then the answer will generally be a ‘let me check’, or a ‘maybe’. This can be frustrating for the Westerner who expects the person to have the authority to make what may be a simple decision, but it gives the person being asked the chance to go and check with others in the group before reverting with a response. That answer is also seldom phrased as a ‘no’ and is more likely to be a ‘not at this time’ to avoid causing offence or awkwardness.
Finally, if a decision were to be made in a meeting there would inevitably have been pre-meeting meetings. This can happen informally or be more overt. The goal is to gauge everyone’s views before actually floating an idea in a meeting. That way the chances of controversy are lower because everyone had already had the issue discussed with them in advance.
While from a Western perspective all of this may take more time the positive thing is that generally decisions are understood and endorsed by everyone, rather than becoming the crusade of a certain individual with the nominal support of others. In another piece I might explain what the ‘ringi’ system is as it embodies the principles set out above.
Japanese culture is very good at adopting the best bits from other places. My time in Japan was profoundly influential on my way of being and thinking. Perhaps the method of Japanese decision-making in business is one example of a principle that New Zealanders could learn from.
Steven Moe is a Christchurch lawyer and hosts the weekly podcast seeds.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.