To understand Japanese business culture, it's essential that you first appreciate Japanese cultural values.
Why? If you don't understand the underlying values, then it's very difficult to understand Japanese culture.
What do we mean by values? Cultural values are essentially the beliefs and principles within a culture which shape that culture's behaviours. As such, if you're doing business in Japan, then appreciating the cultural values that underpin Japanese society will ensure you interact meaningfully wtih your Japanese peers and drive better outcomes when interacting within this market.
Ganbaru, Gaman and Konjou
First let’s start with Ganbaru, Gaman and Konjou. These can be translated as persistence, endurance and willpower.
Japan’s isolated and inhospitable landscapes have over time resulted in these qualities being seen as essential to life. In Japanese culture, one must strive, make effort and overcome.
It is these values perhaps that drive much of the innovation that comes out of Japan in sectors such as robotics, software and IT. Japanese society stresses collective achievement, which holds that anything is possible when everyone pulls together with a shared vision and works as a group.
Another value that has its roots in the sometimes brutal experiences the Japanese have faced at the hands of natural and man made disasters, is that of Shoganai.
Shoganai can roughly be translated as, ‘it can’t be helped’. It is an acceptance of fate and that sometimes things are just out of your control.
The Japanese mentality therefore is that when something is, or appears to be, out of your control, then you must accept it and move on.
In some ways contradictory to the values of persistence and endurance, however shoganai is more a belief that in life there are greater powers at work. Rather than complaining about things out of your control, you should channel your energies elsewhere.
Our next value is Mottainai which means something along the lines of ‘what a waste’.
Again, closely tied to the Japanese experience of living on an island with limited resources, the Japanese feel regret towards waste of any kind.
It expresses guilt when wasting something considered worthy. This might be wasted food, wasted time or a piano that hasn’t been played in a long time. All are mottainai.
Our next two values are perhaps the most important in understanding the Japanese culture. Both are interrelated and dependent upon one another but for the sake of simplicity lets start with Wa – which means harmony.
Harmony was essential for the Japanese throughout history as a way of maintaining stability. The teachings of Buddhism and Shinto beliefs also came together to stress peaceful unity with others.
At its core, Wa dictates that the harmony and needs of society take priority over personal opinions or interests. This value heavily influences much of the Japanese mindset.
Honne to Tatemae
This is especially so when we consider the next values of Honne to Tatemae.
Honne can be roughly translated as ‘meaning the truth’ in that people say what they really think about something. Tatemae on the other hand is about what you need to say to maintain face, or group harmony or when you represent a group. Tatemae is more about what you say in public as opposed to private. The two can contradict one another.
Honne and Tatemae are often core themes in Japanese TV soaps, films and novels showing it’s central importance in day to day life. For foreigners this behaviour can be interpreted negatively and some cultures might even perceive it as lying or deceitful because people aren’t saying what they think. However, for the Japanese it is tightly connected with the need to maintain harmony and seeing the bigger picture.
Japanese Values and Doing Business
Stressing peace and harmony, stability and the need to sacrifice personal truths and ambitions for the collective good, the Japanese have developed a whole way of thinking, being and behaving that is geared towards making things happen for the group.
This is a key learning point for anyone wanting to do business successfully in Japan or with the Japanese.
If you need to take your understanding of Japanese Business Culture one step further, then enrol on our fantastically comprehensive Online / eLearning Japan Cultural Awareness Course. Developed by Japanese cultural experts for professionals working in Japan, this course will ensure you make a great reputation, build trusting relationships with your Japanese peers and drive productive outcomes.
Prefer to take part in a live cultural training webinar with one of our Japan Cultural Training specialists? Then you're in the right place! Our Japanese cultural training webinars are tailored to meet the unique needs of you and your team.
If it's reading material you're looking for then click here for our comprehensive Japanese Culture Guide.