Published: 09.09.11

Japan’s particularities

Not always easy: Japan has numerous behavioural norms and customs that western visitors or companies are not familiar with. Globetrotter Thomas Geissmann describes how he experienced them during his exchange semester – sometimes with a chuckle, sometimes astonishment.

Thomas Geissmann
Dining on good food is one of the favourite pastimes in Japan. The dishes on offer are displayed in the restaurant windows with the help of plastic replicas.
Dining on good food is one of the favourite pastimes in Japan. The dishes on offer are displayed in the restaurant windows with the help of plastic replicas. (large view)

There are a number of differences between Japanese culture and the western culture I’m used to in Switzerland. In my last Globetrotter report, I described some extremely pleasant aspects of these differences, such as the extraordinary friendliness, restraint and consideration. Whilst it is these very traits that make it possible to live together in a decent, orderly manner in such a densely populated region as Tokyo, others make me smile – and sometimes even gape.

Still one of the few industrialised nations in Asia, Japan was deliberately isolated from the rest of the world for centuries by one of the rulers of the time. Back then, anything that got anywhere near the 6,800 plus islands that make up the archipelago was driven away. Fortunately, this stopped over 150 years ago, but the proportion of foreigners among the Japanese population is still only 1.5 %, the majority of which are Chinese, Koreans or Southeast Asians. Only a fraction of the population is European and American. So the Japanese are essentially left to their own devices. After all, unless they’ve worked at an internationally oriented university or company, many of them hardly have any direct contact with people from the West. You especially notice the local population’s surprise when meeting a foreigner out in rural areas.

On the whole, workdays at Japanese universities and especially companies are longer than in Switzerland. At my lab, it was regarded as a particular expression of dedication if a student spent the night before the fortnightly presentation of his or her research activities at the lab – either on a little mat rolled out on the floor or on two office chairs pushed together. And only living a ten-minute walk from the lab is no excuse, either.

Long working hours are the social norm in Japan. The work output, however, is often more or less the same, which begs the question about efficiency. Legally, 2,000 working hours are permitted (fifty-two weeks a year at forty hours apiece), minus a minimum entitlement to ten days holiday. This regulation, however, is one of the few to which little value is attached. That said, one company I know offers a token of its good will every Wednesday evening by playing a tune at five-thirty in the evening to let everyone know it’s time to go home, which everyone promptly ignores. Sick days are often taken as holiday as sick pay only begins after four days. In order to even be able to claim the few days of holiday, which is generally fourteen days in companies, employees do their utmost to avoid falling ill – let alone pass it on to someone else. That’s why the Japanese wear filter masks; not because of the smog, since the air quality in Tokyo is very good for a city of its size. There is an unwritten rule that holidays are to be staggered so as not to be too much of a burden to your colleagues through your absence. This leaves little time for longer trips.

In Japan, numerous aspects of social interaction are wrapped in cotton wool. This especially goes for communication, where a lot is conveyed in a roundabout way and politeness plays a key role. People say ‘thank you’ and apologise much more often than I’m used to in Switzerland. Direct statements are often avoided so as not to come across as too brisk and impolite. This leaves room for interpretation and also reduces risk of false statements.

Direct criticism should be avoided where possible and is mostly made indirectly or quizzically. Politicians, however, are often criticised unusually plainly – perhaps one reason why the Prime Minister of Japan has changed about as often as I change my socks in the last five years. Another reason could be the masses of interest groups and overlaps between the Japanese economy and politics. Each group tries to get their candidates into power and oust the one currently in office as quickly as possible.

Rules, norms and well-coordinated processes are woven into all aspects of everyday social and economic life in Japan. They make it possible to live together in an orderly manner and in industrial processes they are vital for efficiency. One example of these precisely coordinated processes is the mountains of forms you are often confronted with in Japan. Each has several little boxes in the top right-hand corner, which the people responsible are supposed to stamp. There is a strict order of who is to stamp where.

Although Japan is an island, its citizens don’t feel particularly drawn to the sea, preferring to head inland instead. The numerous tsunamis in the past are bound to have had some influence on this. Sailing, for instance, is a sport that’s hardly practiced at all in Japan. Spending the day at the beach is also comparatively unpopular. One reason for this is also the fact that light skin is seen as a symbol of beauty among Japanese women in particular. When I went to a beach outside Tokyo, I was baffled to discover that, although the beach was very long, everyone was huddled into a relatively small area. When I asked why they had all laid out their towels in that spot, I was told that the lifeguard only watched over that particular section. When the lifeguard went home at five in the afternoon, everyone else packed up their things and left, too.

The implicit and explicit rules, norms and the way you’re expected to behave make it difficult for many western companies to break into the Japanese market, the third largest national economy in the world. Moreover, the numerous interest groups are very influential in both politics and economics: if an energy concern wants to lay a cable on the seabed, for instance, the fishermen’s lobby steps in and demands compensation for the fishermen since the magnetic fields of the cables might influence the fish stocks. Apart from causing numerous earthquakes, Japan’s geographic location at the point where several tectonic plates meet also harbours a lot of potential for the production of geothermal energy. However, the onsen lobby often successfully manages to block such economically useful projects as the onsen (hot springs) might be affected by the geothermal projects. Onsen are as popular in Japan as the sauna is in Finland.

Besides the interest groups and behaviour patterns that western companies are often unfamiliar with, other aspects also hamper their market entrance: Japan isolates the domestic market through numerous standards that almost exclusively serve Japanese firms. It is especially difficult for western companies to do business in the energy sector, for example: the ten Electrical Power Companies (EPCOS) control the electricity market in Japan. Up until Fukushima, these companies were literally swimming in money and even if a Japanese supplier was ten times more expensive than its foreign competitors for the same quality, the Japanese product was favoured. This includes an implicitly expected, lifelong guarantee on the part of the manufacturer for the product supplied, which in some cases has proved extremely costly in the wake of Fukushima. What’s more, if a Japanese firm decides on a (Japanese) supplier after a long process of evaluation, it won’t change without good reason.

The Japanese who have been to or lived in the West themselves are well aware of the cultural differences, which gives rise to some enjoyable conversations. Even if the characteristics outlined here might have seemed a bit cliché at times, they made my time in Tokyo all the more educational and worthwhile.

About the author

Thomas Geissmann studied at the Department of Management, Technology and Economics (D-MTEC). He is currently doing a semester abroad at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and an internship at ABB K.K. (Japan) in the smart grid sector. He received a Kikin Scholarship from Tokyo Tech and a travel grant from ETH Zurich.

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