Why does Japanese get misunderstood? A simple explanation would be because of its cultural differences. But since every country can lay claim to a unique culture, why, many people wonder, is Japan misunderstood so much more than other nations of the world? [CONTINUE]

That there are as many different cultures as there are nations and races in the world, and that different customs, behaviors, and patterns of thought have evolved in each of these environments is easy to understand on a theoretical level. But when one encounters a person from another country in real life, trying to see how that person`s attitudes and behavior relate to his or her cultural background is an activity that is fraught with difficulties. And because of the human tendency to make instantaneous judgments of others, there is ample opportunity for misinterpretations to arise.

Japan is not part of a continent, and neither does it have much experience of dynamic interaction with other countries of the world on a large scale. However, today Japan is linked irreversibly with the other nations of the world, and its culture and society is becoming affected by them.

Any country with a particular culture that receives strong influence or pressure from outside will inevitably have to suffer friction and misunderstandings will inevitable arise. And this is just what Japan is going through at the present time. This is what gives rise to the impression that Japan is particularly misunderstood by other countries. From now on, however, Japan must take the discord created by the influx of outside influences in its stride, in order to get along harmoniously with other nations in the world. To refuse to do so will simply mean that Japan will continue in stubborn isolation.

This site describe the mechanism operating behind Japanese behaivoir in instances where misunderstanding with other cultures occur. It also provides hints on how to explain Japanese behavior, as well as the cultural background behind such behavior, to people from other nations.

When foreigners sense strangeness in their interactions with Japanese, or grow suspicious and then, regrettable, angry, it is useful to know how to explain aspects of Japan that might help to straighten out their misconceptions. It is also useful to know how to get people from other countries to develop some sympathy for Japan, prepare themselves mentally for interaction with Japanese people, and adapt their behavior accordingly. What is needed in Japan today is the opportunity for both sides to relate their positions to each other. We hope that this site can be used as a preparation and indeed as a means for people to carry out such mutual relating.

However, we do not want the observations in this site to be use as ways to excuse Japan to people from other nations.

When misunderstandings due to cultural differences arise, responsibility usually lies 50/50 with each side. But the original intention was probably good on both sides. In order to respect the good intentions we both have, we should consider how best to approach each other, trying our very best to understand the differences in our cultural backgrounds.

Let us convey a message of mutual respect and shared responsibility from Japan. We would be delighted if this site can play a role in promoting real international exchange from the heart.


It has been that Japanese avoid making direct eye contact during conversations. When compared to other nationalities, especially Americans, this is probably true. Japanese tend to feel that eye contact is rude and signifies an attempt to intimidate or challenge the other person. [CONTINUE]

If a Japanese child look a parent in the eye when he or she is scalded, the parent will berate the child for that, saying, why are you looking at me that way? Consequently, most children learn to keep their heads down in front of an angry parent.

In United States, avoidance of eye contact is taken as indicating disinterest in what is being said. At worst, it is seen as a sign of lack of self-confidence. Sometimes it can even be viewed as showing that the listener is hiding something or engaged in something immoral. If an American child look down when scolded, the parent will say, Look at me when I`m talking to you!

Given these differences, even Japanese who speak English fluently may still invite misunderstanding due to lack of eye contact.

Why Japanese avoid eye contact? One answer may lie in Japan`s feudal history. Until just 130 years ago, when it opened its doors to the outside world and began to modernize, Japan had a strict class system. Every aspect of Japanese society was affected by this system, which reached its height during the EDO era 1600-1867. Commoners were forbidden to speak or have contact with the samurai warrior class, and inter marriage was quite unthinkable. Not only was eye contact with a person of higher social status considered very rude, it could cost the offender his life.

Although this system ended with the EDO era itself, its psychological and emotional impact on the Japanese psycho remains. Japanese still unconsciously avoid making eye contact as a way of being polite.

What about Americans? American children are raised in a society with democratic ideals, where individual opinions are greatly valued. Direct eye contact is seen as proof of self-confidence and trustworthiness, and has traditionally been a good thing.

However, when an American makes eye contact with Japanese, there is a good possibility that the Japanese will be uncomfortable or embarrassed and look away during conversations. Some Japanese focus in the distance when speaking, as if talking to themselve. This is what is most comfortable for them.

Therefore, Americans would be well advised to limit their direct eye contact when speaking to Japanese clients. This will help the client relax and trust them, and business will proceed more smoothly.


Westerners are often confused by the Japanese use of YES in English conversation. YES seem to be said so often, it becomes hard to judge whether the Japanese has really understand what has been said or not. [CONTINUE]

In Japanese, YES is HAI(はい). It signifies affirmation, but it is also a signal that the listener is playing attention to the speaker. When conversing in English, Japanese people will frequently interject the word YES while somebody is speaking, to convey that they are playing attention.

However, the problem is that while HAI has room for ambiguity and can be used in many situations, the English YES is much less ambiguous. Therefore, if Japanese vary their responses according to the situation, with Uh-huh, I see or Hmm, instead of automatically saying YES the possibility of misunderstandings arising should be somewhat decreased.

Japanese dislike stopping someone in conversation to ask questions or to ascertain meaning. Parents teach their children to listen to a person until he or she has finishied speaking. Interrupting someone in mid-speech is called breaking the conversation`s back. In Japan, one listens until the speaker is finished and then asks questions.

During English conversation, even if something is unclear, Japanese may the conversation along by saying YES YES because he or she assumes that interrupting the speaker would be rude.

In the English-speaking world in general, and the American English-speaking world in particular, the listener interrupts the speaker and ask for clarification when needed. So when a listener does not interrupt, the American assumes he is understood and simply continues talking. The Japanese listener, however, may well be having difficulty – even though he has probably grasped only 30% of what was said.

It is not uncommon for work projects to get held up by these type of communication problems, or because Japanese ask about details that have already been explained.

This simple difference in listening style gives rise to the criticism that Japanese say YES when they don`t really mean it. How can this problem be solved? If Japanese do not understand, they should avoid saying YES and not hesitate to interrupt a discussion and ask for clarification.

Japanese would also be well advised to ask American to speak slowly and to avoid difficult words and slang. Americans believe that speaking slowly to an adult is condescending, and they want to avoid seeming impolite or insulting. But if Japanese explain that they`re comfortable with slow enunciation, Americans will happily comply.

It is good idea to get down the mail points of a complex discussion in writing. You can also ask the speaker to repeat his ideas in a simpler way, or to spell out words you don`t understand. The important thing is to clarify things by interrupting rather than waiting until the conversation is over. As long as an American knows you are listening to what he is saying, he or she will make an effort to help you understand.


There is a common belief among Westerners that Japanese can`t say no, but this is not really the case. They do say no. It`s just that Westerners often don`t understand it. Japanese consider it rude to say no directly, so it tends to be said indirectly. The problem is that many Westerners are insensitive to these subtle nuances. [CONTINUE]

In Japan, there is a strong taboo against directly refusing or saying something negative about someone else`s ideas. While it may be tolerated among close friends or from superior to subordinate, it is still considered inappropriate to disagree with one`s superior or business associate.

Traditionally, Japanese have a tendency to avoid confrontation. When absolutely necessary, however, they use indirect expressions and try to communicate their disagreement as mildly as possible.

This sometimes difficult for foreigners to understand. Also, since Japanese tend not to distinguish between the opinion and the person stating it, there is a danger that the speaker may feel personally attacked if the listener disagrees.

Therefore, Japanese often express no ambiguously with MAYBE.

In contract, Americans are more likely to view what a person says as distinct from who he is. They exchange opposing opinions objectively, as if tossing a ball back and forth. A direct refutation or contradiction is not usually taken as a personal affront.

Another English expression favored by Japanese is Hmm, I think it is difficult. An American hearing this probably thinks, Okay, I understand it`s difficult for him, but let`s see how we can expand the possibilities, and continues working on the problem. In such a situation, however, the Japanese is probably saying no in an indirect way.

How can an American tell when Japanese means no? Certainly, it is an acquired skill. One way is to pay attention to body language and other non-verbal communication. An even more important way is for business partners to get to know each other after work in social settings, where Japanese will feel freer to express honest opinions. If you do this, it will be possible to discover what they really feel.


In order to understand the Japanese concept of TANIN(他人), it is important to understand the Japanese concept of UCHI(内) and SOTO(外). [CONTINUE]

Uchi refers to one`s inner social circle. Soto refers to those people outside that inner circle. The uchi circle gets larger or smaller depending upon the situation. For example, colleages in the same company are UCHI but anybody outside the company is soto. Customers or suppliers connected to the company through interaction become uchi, while all others are treated as SOTO.

In most interactions with foreigners, Japanese consider themselves uchi and foreigners soto. This is underlined by the words GAIKOKU and GAIJIN, which are constructed with the kanji character for SOTO.

Unfortunately, Japanese tend to pay a lot of attention to UCHI, but they pay much less attention to SOTO. In some ways, paying too much attention to UCHI causes one to ignore the benefits of SOTO. The more one gives priority to UCHI the more insentive to SOTO one becomes.

It`s probably true to say that the behavior of Japanese tour groups abroad – careless that they`re bothering others by talking loudly or taking pictures everywhere, even in restaurants – has its basis in this particular psychology.

For the Japanese tour group, the travel group is uchi while the foreign country is soto. Although usually careful about what others think if them, the people in these group end up behaving in a rude, insensitive way.

In this global age, the UCHI/SOTO mindset is a minus for Japan. Japanese themselves should reflect on the UCHI/SOTO mechanism and engage more evenly with the world.

There is also, however, a plus side of this mindset. For example, once on the inside of a business relationship, a person will be listened to even if he or she asks a big favor. Somebody on the inside will get special consideration and service.

Once a person is recognized as being UCHI there is mutual cooperation and aid within a context of unspoken trust.

Foreigners in Japan may be conscious of being treated as outsiders and feel victimized as a result. They often end up leaving Japan unable to enjoy the benefits of being an insider.

However, there are ways for foreigners to be seen as insiders in the context of doing business and forging relationships. One way to gain access to the inside is through the introduction of a good Japanese friend. It is also possible to gain access by a repeated process of give and take. It important not to view business just as business, but to understand the circumstances of your associates and make an effort to get to know them as individuals.

To do well in Japan foreigners should observe the behavior of Japanese. Learn how they greet people and entertain them and bring them into their inner circles. This requires a lot of patience, but Japanese respect those who make this kind of effort. Foreigners can build close business relationship once they gain respect from the Japanese side.


In Japan, when someone makes a mistake, his colleagues often refrain from correcting him directly – even though they may be aware of it. Instead, they alert him to his mistake through a friend or acquaintance. This method is reflected in the expression through others which Japanese often use. [CONTINUE]

This irritates Americans, who often wonder, Why won`t they speak to me directly? Does he dislike me or distrust me? Or they may be offended and think, What a back-handed person!

In most cases, the Japanese does care about the other person, and is trying to convey the message gently. But why Japanese resort to this kind of behavior? As we have seen, Japanese have had a tradition of avoiding confrontation where possible. As a result of this, a variety of communication approaches have developed with the objective of maintaining harmony, or WA(和).

Japanese worry that it they point out someone`s mistake directly, misunderstandings could arise and produce conflict. If the message is delivered through someone else, however, its effect will be softened and conflict avoided. Thus the help of a third party is preferred. By contrast, an American usually welcomes constructive conflict, and if he is told about a problem through a third party, he will not necessarily trust the conveyer of the message.

Japanese have their own constructive way of resolving conflict. Once the person has received the message via a third party, in a while he will often be invited out to eat and drink with the concerned party. A warmer, more congenial atmosphere will be achieved between them. This way, a more constructive relationship is built, and previous conflict or misunderstanding resolved. This allows for time to revised various issues and to create a basis for understanding while passions are cooling off. In japan, conflicts are usually resolved without risk by working towards maintaining a sense of harmony or WA.

This can be frustrating to Americans, who tend to prefer direct communication, and even confrontation when necessary. They may be irritated by the long and complicated process of Japanese conflict resolution, but for people who traditionally accept WA as the most basic and important aspect of their social structure this is the best method. It is often considered by Americans as evidence of sneaky or untrustworthy behavior, however.

In Japan, the best way in most situations is usually he indirect way. Even in face-to-face situations, Japanese won`t go directly to the main point. Instead, they try to convey their true intent indirectly. If you ignore this custom and are too direct in your needs and assertions, you run the risk of being considered childish or insensitive. You may even be viewed with contempt or hatred. For Americans, who prefer clarity and a confrontational style, this is probably the most difficult Japanese custom to accept.


Why Japanese place such a high value in WA? [CONTINUE]

Modern Japan`s image is that of a highly industrialized capitalist nation, but historically its society was agricultural and village-based, with people cultivating tiny plots of land side by side. Cooperation in the village was essential in order to construct rice paddies, grow the rice, and cultivate the limited available land. One day one villager would needs help planting rice, and the next day his neighbor would need his help in return. It was necessary to operate as a group.

Furthermore, Japan is a crowded country whose entire population is half that of the United States squeezed into a land mass about the size of California states.

Different values were fostered from those of Americans, who could claim a larger piece of land for themselves, or from Europeans or North Asians, who hunted animals for survival. In Japan, maintaining group harmony and restricting individual demands and sideres were highly regarded. This explains why individualism has a negative connotation there, and can sometimes be interpreted as simple egoism.

Among Japanese, a display of modesty is considered a sign of virtue. When people have a problem or need to ask a favor, they frequently begin the conversation or MOSHIWAKE ARIMASEN(申しわけありません), both of which can be translated as I`m sorry. There expressions case and prepare the atmosphere and promote interaction. Foreigners are often puzzled by why Japanese apologize so much. From an American point of view, apologizing means you`ve made a mistake. In extreme cases it means defeat.

Japanese, on the other hand, feel that Americans rarely apologize and that they always justify themselves, even when they are wrong. Apologizing is very basic for Japanese. Sometimes they begin a conversation by apologizing for the bad weather, or for the problems another person may be having.

It may be good to realize that Japanese are not necessarily admitting fault when they say I am sorry or I apologize. An apology is simply a way of starting the process of getting to the main discussion topic. If people don`t know this, negotiations with Japanese can become deadlocked, because an apology doesn`t necessarily indicate a readiness to compromise or to give in.


Japanese who are dealing with superior or customers usually don`t argue with what someone says to them. Rather, they say GOMEN NASAI (I`m sorry) when they get a warning from heir boss or receive a complaint from a client, even if they are not at fault. In Japan, if you argue back at someone, you run the risk of it being taken as a character assault. [CONTINUE]

Most people choose to apologize first, instead of arguing back and being antagonistic. If necessary, they explain things at a later opportunity. If you argue back at that moment, the person will think, Oh, he is a narrow-minded person who makes excuses.

I once heard this comment from a Japanese who woks with Americans: Dearing with Americans is so difficult. They`ve got ten to twenty excuses for anything I point out to them. Americans believe it is a natural human right to justify themselves if necessary. They see nothing wrong with explaining or defending their actions if they feel they are not to blame. From a Japanese perspective, however, such behavior is inappropriate self-promotion. In a context where long-term relationships are the norm, there is a basic sense of continuity and trust between people. Even when one side has a complaint that the other feels is unjustified, it is far better to let the truth come out later than to fuel an argument by defending oneself on the spot.

In addition, remember the Japanese sense of MA or interval. It`s important to take plenty of time before voicing opposition, no matter what the subject or situation. It is not good to quickly offer an opposing opinion. In reality, MA is not just a few seconds or minutes. Sometimes it can take several days or weeks to bring up the topic again after the initial conversation.

Just what are Japanese doing during this period of MA? They make adjustments, either by working through a third party to get themselves understood or by going out drinking with the parties involved to exchange ideas and build consensus.

Since this unofficial adjusting is done behind the scenes, Westerners think, The Japanese must be hiding something, talking amongst themselves… But if you take these steps and leave enough time to elaspse, you will avoid giving the idea of being too self-justifying or making excuses. Your message will have already been conveyed.

Conveying a message indirectly through MA is an important technique by which Japanese maintain WA.


In Japan, being ambiguous is intelligent and savvy. Ambiguity is a weapon which enables one to co-exist harmoniously with others and to enjoy the benefits of insider status. A ambiguity avoids or smooths over conflicts and promotes teamwork, allowing one to modesty blend into the group. [CONTINUE]

People from countries such as America who value strong individual self-expression pose a challenge to this commonsensical Japanese notion. For Americans, ambigiguity is illogical, irrational, and even unintelligent.

It can also be seen as very rude.

When people from different countries or cultural backgrounds interact, it is unwise to judge others only from the point of view of one`s own common sense and values. However, even open-minded people often continue to judge others from one`s own standpoint, without noticing differences in common sense and values. They wind up turning their backs on each other at the end of the day.

If Japanese are troubled by Americans who communicate strongly and directly, I suggest that they step back from their own values and observe the other culture objectively. The reverse holds true as well-for-behavior of their Japanese colleagues by learning a little about their culture. Then, however awkward it may be, both sides should make efforts to adapt their ways of behaving. Through repeated trial and error misunderstanding can be resolved.

Of course, you won`t have as much trouble to go through if have an acquaintance of the other culture or someone knowledgeable who can explain differences to you objectively.

If you dislike what the other person is saying or doing, try not to conclude that you are the only one who is right, since the other person is probably feeling uneasy too.

One more thing. It`s unwise to think that everything can be resolved through words alone. Remembering the words but forgetting the cultural differences behind them invites all sorts of misunderstandings.


Why don`t Japanese get to the point more quickly? Actually, they usually try to get to the core of the matter by first understanding the background and context of the problem. [CONTINUE]

For example, when giving an overview of a company, Japanese will first explain how the business arrived at the present situation. Next, he will explain the company`s current affairs and future outlook.

It is often said that Japanese value the past over the future. The worth of something is understood by first clarifying its history, and only then considering the future. For example, they might look a person`s background. What is his status? How far back does his family`s history go? This is one method of determining a person`s worth. Therefore, it seems natural for a Japanese to arrive at the main subject after putting it in context.

Americans tend to do the opposite. The criteria for valuating a person`s worth are based on merit. When settlers logged the native forests and defended themselves from attack, they didin`t have the luxury of worrying about the background of the people they worked with, since they had no choise. The main standard for judging others was based on practical results.

America is a country of immigrants who come from very different backgrounds. The key to getting acceptance of one`s views is the ability to persuade and state one`s mesaage clearly. Therefore, the main point or conclusion is emphasized at the beginning of a statement.

In the western tradition, you state your mind point, give supporting reasons and examples, and then re-state your core message in the conclusion. Americas are puzzled by the Japanese use of KISHOUTENKETSU, a style of logic used in speeches and in relating accounts. This style presents the background of the event and gives related examples, and only test, ten Americans with no knowledge of Japan were spoken to in the KISHOUTENKETSU style, and less than half understood the conclusion.

When the conclusion is not stated initially, things can go from bad to worse. Americans get bored or interrupt the speaker in anticipation of the conclusion. When this happens, Americans wind up even more frustrated, since the Japanese speaker usually just starts from the beginning again.

When a Japanese intends to give a speech to Americans in a more Japanese style, it is best to inform the listeners that they should listen patiently until the end, at which time the conclusion will become clear. Also, it may be a good idea for Japanese to indicate their main point at the beginning, if possible.


Foreigners are often bewildered by the Japanese way of speaking, which conveys atmosphere but lacks concreteness.

For example, a Japanese boss may say to his subordinates, Let`s hang in there for the future! What he is really saying is clear to his Japanese staff, but Westerners may wonder, What exactly is he saying we should hang in there for? [CONTINUE]

The Japanese would answer, You should know what I`m talking talking about. We should all do our best for the company`s future success. Even so, the messages remains ambiguous. The foreigner still has no idea of the concrete measures he should take on behalf of the company.

It is often said that Japanese convey messages containing unspoken meanings. The proverb Say one, know ten illustrates the belief that if the whole message is given all at once, a person can give the impression of being too pushy or patronizing to the other party.

If the listener is smart and can grasp ten things when only one is spoken, it follows that a good speaker should use expressions with implied meanings. By saying one things, then things will be communicated.

In other countries such as America, which is a melting pot of many nationalities, and Europe, where countries battled each other and people of many nations were mixed together, history shows the consequences of misunderstandings. A message needs to be conveyed clearly and logically, and people who communicate perfectly are respected as intelligent speakers and leaders.

Foreigners who come from this cultural background feel that the way Japanese explain things is insufficient and confusing. An American will ask Japanese why? And the Japanese explanation will simply get more and more ambiguous – because he thinks that the American is disagreeing with his explanation.

Unfortunately, there are cases in which a Japanese may explain five points to get ten across, thinking that this is enough. But the Westrener may still only understand half of his explanation.

Obviously, this leads to problem in business and may give rise to conflict. The American may complain, NO, what you said isn`t what I heard.

To avoid misunderstandings like this, Japanese need to convey the content clearly until everything is understood. They should ask themselves why and make an effort to convey their points concretely.

Japanese should also prepare themselves to be asked why by foreigners, particularly Americans.

Additionally, it`s important for both parties to be aware of body language or gestures. When Japanese puts his hand behind his head, or hangs his head and sucks air through his teeth, he is trying to communicate that the situation is difficult. The Westerners tends to view this as strange behavior and does not consider what it might mean.

Messages are usually given both verbally and through body language – but different cultures have different styles. Japanese gestures tend to be subtle, while Americans are more exaggerated. We should always keep this difference in mind.


Facial expressions are of the most important aspects of body languages. Successful cooperation in joint business endeavors requires trust. Facial expressions convey honest and open feelings, and are a very important tool in establishing trust. [CONTINUE]

Japanese facial expressions can be mysterious. As we have seen, it is difficult for foreigners to tell what Japanese are thinking from the look in their eyes. This ambiguity is compounded by the Japanese smile itself.

Japanese are afraid to disturb the WA of those around them by expressing themselves too strongly. Therefore, they try to communicate subconsciously through mild or unemotive facial expressions. They may even smile when they are unhappy or in the midst of a tragic situation. Such incomprehensible smiles become sources of misunderstanding.

At worst, the foreigner may feel, This Japanese is making a fool of me. This reaction is not limited to Americans. It is also felt among Latin Americans and Russians who like to express their feelings more openly.

Also, Japanese don`t move their hands or bodies much, preferring closed body movement like folding their arms across their chests. Some even close their eyes during meetings.

Japanese interpret folded armd and closed eyes to mean the person is thinking carefully. But foreigners can`t be blamed for wondering if the person is sleeping.

When Americans speak, they think it`s best to smile and speak with an open body posture. Even when considering something, they may put their hands on their chins and explain, Well, what can I say… as an indication that they are thinking. Therefore, it`s hard for them to understand it when some one simply closes his eyes and says nothing.

When Japanese talk to foreigners, they should refrain from keeping a habital smile, and practice expressing their feelings more in their facial expressions. They should also evaluate whether the other person likes or dislikes something, is angry or respectful, sympathetic or worried. It`s important to have a serious face for something serious, and a happy face for something happy. Furthermore, try to keep a relaxed and open posture whenever possible.

Try to make direct eye contact and to speak with confidence – even in front of Westerners, who generally are much taller and bigger and use more exaggerated gestures. If you express yourself with hand gestures, body language, and emotive facial expressions, Westerners probably will respond and listen better to you when talking.


In Japanese society, which values hierarchical relationships, one thing that confuses foreigners is the extremely reserved way Japanese present themselves. [CONTINUE]

Japanese respect modesty. Someone who puts himself below others and who speaks modestly is admired. Those in higher positions who respond politely when they are shown respect by their subcordinates are admired. Ironically, the more accomplished someone is, the more modest he should be.

In fact, when presidents of large Japanese companies of famous artists make speeches, they often begin with comment: I`m still learning and I`m embarrassed to be standing here in front of you.

The Japanese proverb The wise hawk hides his talons signifies that cleaver people don`t have to show off their cleverness. In a society where maintaining group harmony is a top priority, not showing of one`s abilities is the most appropriate behavior.

For example, when Japanese give a gift, they usually say, It`s just a useless little thing. Even though the gift may be expensive, Japanese present it in a modest way.

Furthermore, when interviewing for a job, many applicants say, I still have so much to learn. Please help me.

If the same thing was said in an interview at an American company, you can imagine what would happen. The interviewers would ask themselves, Why didi he bother to come? This must be a bad joke. At worst, he would be dismissed as someone who knows nothing and lacks initiative.

Americans feel that the ability to promote oneself is a valuable skill. It would probably be difficult for many of them to accept the paradoxical Japanese style of self-promotion. There are a number of examples of Japanese who have given presentations this way and were completely misunderstood.

In realty, Japanese proudly display their ability by speaking with humility. No one interprets are words I don`t know anything literally. If you speak in this way, people will think, He seems like a competent worker.

Conversely, promoting yourself by saying how much you can accomplish is seen as unnatural. In fact, you run the risk of giving the impression that This person is all talk and can`t be trusted. If you humble and ask Please teach me, most Japanese will open up to you, and relationships and business negotiations will proceed more smoothly.

This Japanese tendency toward humililty in building relationships also lies behind the tendency constantly to express appreciation.


Many Japanese have a reserved attitude, which is probably best represented by their mutually yielding behavior.

Japanese can often be seen making polite concession to one another. For example, often when entering a building or a room, they insist that the other person go first. Please, please, one says. No you first. Go ahead, the other responds. [CONTINUE]

When Japanese have after-work drinks with colleagues or clients, they pick up the bottle and pour beer for the other person forst. Then, that person pours beer in return for the first person, and so on.

Beer bottle in Japanese bars or IZAKAYA(居酒屋)are big and glasses are small. Pouring beer frequently for others illustrates the Japanese cultural value of give-and-take. When you want more beer, forst you should pour beer into your partner`s glass. He will understand this subtle message and immediately pour beer for you. This is a natural ritual for Japanese. Most Japanese are surprised when they go abroad and see that everyone pours their own beer.

Another typical example of yielding is that of old people repeatedly bowing to each other in the street. In the West, greetings end with a single handshake. In Japan, it`s common to offer appreciation, which will be met with a bow, at each part of the exchange, and to respond in kind. A conversation during a visit to someone`s house might go like this:

I`m sorry to put you to this trouble.

No, no. I`m sorry that I was of no help to you at all last time.

What are you saying? I`m so grateful to you for what you`ve done.

I`m afraid you`re exaggerating. It`s making me embarrassed.

This kind of conversation os repeated over and over without really going anywhere.

In the West, it`s much simpler:

Thank you very much for inviting me.

Don`t mention it. I appreciate your coming.

The greeting ends there. In Japan, the conversation won`t progress without repeating this process two or three times.

Behind this custom lies the desire to be part of a group. Japanese value group harmony, and they don`t like to stand out. In business situations, etiquette requires one first to listen to the opinion of the other person, then modestly add his or her own comment, just as one first pours beer for one`s companion.

Also, if one doesn`t accept another person`s opinion, one does best by first looking to the boss, colleagues or surbordinates within one`s group, and ask, Well, what do you think? In this way the opinions of others can be determined before one proceeds indirectly or ambiguously to refute the speaker`s comment.

There is a downside to this yielding, however. For example, often during some crisis or major world event, the Japanese government will be seen on TV saying, We`re observing the responses of other countries first. When foreigners see they may feel, This country is unreliable. They lack the will or the capacity to make their own independent judgments. We can`t trust their government. Mutual yielding is not necessarily viewed as a good thing outside Japan.


Most Japanese don`t express their point of view strongly to other people. They refer to this as ENRYO(遠慮). [CONTINUE]

Although this word is difficult to translate into English, it roughly means to hesitate, to act or express oneself modestly, or to be careful not to impose on others. Additional meanings include to restrain oneself and to put off taking any specific action.

An example of this type of behavior is the following: When a Japanese is invited to someone`s home, the host offers green tea. The guest typically answers, Please don`t go to any trouble.

This expression best demonstrates the Japanese concept of ENRYO. The guest`s main concern is that the host doesn`t go to the trouble of preparing and serving tea. However, saying this doesn`t literally mean the guest doesn`t want tea, or that the host won`t in fact serve it. This formality is a type of ritual formula used when visiting someone`s house. Not waiting to impose on other is the first step in interaction between Japanese.

What about in the United States? When invited to someone`s home you will probably be asked, Can I get you something drink? Most Americans would either ask directly, Sure, what do you have? or go ahead and request something specific. For example, they might ask, may I have a coke? or Do you have a beer? or Is there coffee?

When Japanese unaware of this difference in custom are invited to an American`s house, their behavior appears odds. Their response to the question Can I get you something to drink? is Don`t go to any trouble for me.

The situation can even become as extreme as the following incident. A Japanese student home-staying with an American family was told, Please help yourself to anything in the refrigerator, but she held herself back even when she was in fact hungry. Japanese feel that helping yourself to what`s in someone else`s refrigerator is rather brazen. The parents in the home – stay family both worked and weren`t always able to prepare dinner, though the refrigerator was always kept well stocked. The young student went to bed hungry several times and had bitter memories of her homestay parents, who themselves were concerned about her apparent lack of appetite.

Japanese embrace ENRYO and refrain from putting themselves first, especially with outsiders. As the expression Show your best manners even with people close to you reveals, being reserved with others in common sense when the person is older, your boss, or your senior – even if he or she is part of your inner group.

Japanese don`t express their true feelings entirely, but often put only 20% of what they want to say into words. Westerners end up thinking that Japanese are incapable of expressing themselves clearly. They tend to take Japanese reserve at face value. ENRYO has thus been the cause of considerable misunderstanding for Westerners, who favor more open and outgoing behavior.

In Japan, when others are holding back, it is important to understand that their reserved behavior is simly good manners. You can find out what they want by politely offering what you think they might want and, then observing their response. It may take more than one offer before they are willing to accept, but with practice you can learn the difference between a refusal out of modesty and one based on a genuine lack of interest.


Foreigners who spend some time with Japanese probably notice a great deal of pride hidden beneath their modest exteriors.

Japanese are particularly concerned with what people of other nations think of them. The degree to which the Japanese media focuses on foreign criticism and perception also reveals the pride of Japanese. [CONTINUE]

Historically, Japan closed its borders in the 17th century and was isolated for 200 years. When Admiral Perry came to Japan in 1853, Japanese realized how much the world had changed over the course of those years and how far behind they had fallen.

In 1868, Japan opened its doors to the West and was reborn as a modern country. The entire nation devoted itself to catching up with international standards, and to surpassing them. As a result of those efforts, Japan joined the ranks of the powerful nations of the world within a few decades.

Japanese developed an unusual curiosity about how they fared compared to foreigners. They also wanted to make their country look good to the world so that foreigners could not make fools of them.

These trends are probably a reflection of Japanese pride. In the latter half of the 19th century, Foreign Minister Inoue Kaoru(井上馨)built Rokumeikan(鹿鳴館), a Tokyo guest house for dignitaries. He often invited foreign diplomats there for parties and reportedly boasted, You see, Japan is not so different from the West after all. However, certain Japanese through Inoue was humiliating Japan in mimicking Western styles and customs, and they attempted to assassinate him.

Inoue Kaoru and the people who attempted to assassinate him were exhibiting the two extremes of Japanese pride.

After World War 2, Japan had to rebuild itself again, just as it had done in 1868. It made a concened effort to catch up, and became one of the most influential countries in the world.

But many Japanese are still of two minds – that of Inoue Kaoru, and that of his assassins.

In the 1980`s, Japan received worldwide attention for its economic success. At that time, the ghost of Inoue Kaoru might have said, Well, Japan is now as good or better than the Western industrial nations. The ghosts of his would-be assassins would have responded, This great success is a result of the fact that historically Japanese were delight, had proper manners, and preserved the values of Japan`s unique culture. Japanese culture is richer than foreign cultures, and the Japanese are a superior people.

Does this sound familiar?

If you want to have a close relationship with Japanese, it is wise to be aware of this complex Japanese psychology and adapt your topics of conversation when doing business.


A great many Japanese feel that Japan is a safe and clean country. Just after the fatal bombing at Olympic Park during Atlanta Olympics, an American journalist went to Nagano, the site of the 1998 winter Olympics. He asked people their opinions about Japanese security policies. Practically every one asked responded, That sort of thing would never happen in Japan. [CONTINUE]

The world is becoming smaller and more dynamic. These days, it is no longer possible to say that one particular country is safer than another. This is an age where we have to work together globally to issue individual safety. We should get beyond assuming that Japan is protected and special.

Behind Japan`s myth of safety is another myth: that this safety is due to Japan`s superior police force. As explained earlier, the notion also exists that since Japanese are a homogeneous people, leadership is easier there than in foreign countries.

Japanese need to know that this way of thinking is fast becoming obsolete.

This myth about safety has been around since the 1980`s, when Japan`s economic power was growing rapidly and greatly influencing the world. Many Japanese were proud of their success and offered a variety of reasons for it. Conversely, America was plagued by a myriad of social problems and surprised by Japan`s prosperity. It took a great interest in Japan`s success, and the American media reported on the secrets of this success from many angles.

The image of Japanese as a safe county emerged under the glare of all this attention. Actually, the Japanese were pleased with their successes and boasted about them. However, this their sense of superiority continued to have a deep impact on Japanese thinking even after the so-called bubble burst and the Japanese economy and society began to experience major upheavals.

Another source of Japanese pride is the myth of extraordinary cleanliness. Various public health disasters, such as the AIDS infection spread to haemophiliacs through tainted blood supply, and the food poisoning in the town of Sakai, have dispelled this myth.

AIDS was originally brought to Japan from abroad, and cases of food poising similar to that of Sakai were reported several years prior in America. It is clear that neither public health issues nor safety issues can be solved by one country alone. But comments like Japan is totally safe and Japan is totally clean only serve to isolate Japan further. Nothing good comes from them.

When foreigners hear comments like this, they are mostly amazed that Japanese consider themselves immune to natural or manmade disasters that plague the rest of humanity. Many Japanese have started to reevaluate their previous sense of security in the light of incidents such as the devastating earthquake in TOHOKU(東北)or the FUKUSHIMA nuclear accident only in TOHOKU area.

I hope that Japanese will stop withdrawing into their shell of pride and work more closely with the rest of the world to address common safety and public health issues.


If Japan has become intergrated with the rest of the world and suffers from many of the same problems as other advanced nations, why do some Japanese still insist on claiming that they are unique? [CONTINUE]

Many Japanese believe that they can convey their thoughts to each other via ISHIN-DENSHIN(以心伝心), or non-verbal communication, and don`t need to explain things logically and systematically. They run into problems when foreigners tell them that if they want to say ten things, they should explain all ten. This is when Japanese start saying Japan is different as a last resort. The Westerners feels he pr she can`t get a straight answer, and wishes the Japanese would explain calmly and logically exactly how Japanese practices are different in a particular situation.

If the conversation is English, this is a handicap for the Japanese. When pressed, it becomes more difficult to respond, so he or she replies, What I mean is that Japan has a unique culture. This only further confuses the foreigner.

It would be better for the Japanese to give a concrete example: In Japan, for instance, we show up at our customer`s company for no particular reason. By doing this, relationships are gradually strengthened and business can take great initial leaps.

However, if the Westerners continues to dispute his logical and keeps rebutting him, the Japanese may give up, thinking, Oh, this doesn`t understand. Then there is a risk that the Westerners will misconstrue this attitude as crude nationalism.

Consequently, it stands to reason that foreigners get offended and misconstrue the Japanese as narrow-minded and proud.

Once again, it is important that Japanese don`t communicate with foreigners only according to Japanese ideas of common sense. Rather, they should try to adapt their methods in order to get foreigners to understand.

When vocabulary or language ability is a problem, it helps to use concrete examples wherever possible. Concrete examples have persuasive power. It is also important to learn how to move a conversation along through an awareness of the expressivity of facial expressions and gestures, and a positive attitude.

It is much better for Japanese to try to convey a concrete and clear message, even in imperfect English, than to wrap things up with a patronizing smile and the words, That being said, Japan is a unique homogeneous nation. This is an important thing to remember when doing business with Westerners.

In truth, there is only one way to prevent statements that smack of chauvinism and lead to unproductive confrontations: each side must try putting themselves in the other`s shoes.