If you’re American and your company has asked you to relocate to Japan for your job, you’ll likely want to try to prepare yourself for the culture shock. If you already work with Japanese in your current office in the US, then maybe living in Japan won’t be as much as a shock. But if most of your exposure to the Japanese has been mainly on conference calls, then you’ll want to learn a bit about the culture before going to live there.

In this article we will be discussing some of the more startling, and challenging, differences between the 2 cultures. We hope to prepare you for your new life in Japan by discussing some of the more difficult aspects of the culture (for an American).

Finding it Hard to Connect with Japanese

One woman we learned about went to Japan to serve on a religious mission. According to her, the most difficult thing was making connections with the other members of the church. As Americans, we are generally quite expressive, and it can be offputting not to see emotion from people. She knew that it was a form of respect, and that the culture was more private, but she wasn’t quite prepared for how dramatic the difference would be. Although it took her some time to make deeper connections, when she looks back on her time there, she says that the people were her favorite part. She also admits that not knowing the language made it incredibly hard to connect to others, as no one there knew English in the town where she was living.

As I always say, just because people express themselves differently than you do, does not mean they do not feel it. Take the time to get to know the different nuances in expression. Americans’ range might be from -2 up to 12 on a scale of 0 to 10. The French might be from -2 up to 6. The Japanese might be from 3 up to 4; they are not expressing extreme happiness or extreme displeasure to you (in the way that you express it! For example, jumping up and down, screaming, etc). It doesn’t mean the French do not feel great excitement since they do not go up to a 12, but they might not show it the exact same way you do, if you are from the USA. And of course, there are many variations of people and personalities in the USA as well. We can never completely generalize.

Being Illiterate in Japan

This doesn’t have to do with culture, but everyone I spoke to felt completely illiterate in Japan. No one anticipates just how little English is used in Japan, especially for getting around, street signs, maps, stores, and menus. To go from being able to read everything, to being in a sea of confusion, can really get you down. And it’s not as if you can quickly learn the 2000 most common kanji very quickly.

What we can suggest, if you’re going to be there for a month or more, is learning at least 50 vital ones, like restroom, man, woman, various stores (bread, meat, pharmacy, bank, etc), map words, the train system, and important places for you. If you know that you’ll want a massage once a week, make sure to learn that kanji. If you’re a serial expat, and you move to a new country every few years, then you’re likely used to figuring out words in a language you don’t know, but typically they’re using the alphabet, and so it’s much easier to figure out, or at least look up in the dictionary, words that you do not know. But how do you look up a kanji? It’s not impossible, but harder.

Eating in Japan

It’s not that eating in Japan is a challenge. Absolutely not. No one is going to be upset with the foreigner for NOT knowing all the rules about chopsticks, but not know what you’re eating, now THAT’S a problem for me. Chopsticks, noisy eaters, and questionable foods is why we found it challenging there.

My mother always told me to close my mouth when I eat, and do not ever make noise. It’s considered gross, disrespectful, and rude to others eating around you. But to each his own when you have relocated to Japan.

When eating noodles, you are welcome to slurp away. It’s no big deal at all. And if this bothers you, well, then get used to it, because you will most definitely hear it at restaurants. If most definitely bothered me, and well, I just had to get used to it, or steer clear of noodle restaurants.

Having trouble with those chopsticks? Eat sushi at a sushi bar and you can use your hands! If you’re tired of the roll falling apart in the soy sauce, just lay the sticks down and go at it with your fingers. This is okay to do.

While eating with Japanese clients (English learners) from Hitachi, they told me to never set my chopsticks straight up in the rice. This is how a bowl of rice is offered to the spirit of a dead person, so you might not want to do this at dinner. Also, don’t leave chopsticks crossed on plate, bowl or table. 

Do not use one chopstick at a time, like a weird fork. And do not pass food to your buddy with your chopstick.

And the list of rules goes on and on…. But remember, you are a foreigner, so they do not expect you to know all of these rules.

And the most challenging thing for me personally was not knowing what you were ordering. By the end of my 1-month stay, I was going to the same restaurants each weekend; the ones with menus with pictures! Before that, I was getting a lot of slimy food that my stomach just couldn’t handle. It’s not that the food was gross, but it’s just so different from the textures that I’m used to, that I just couldn’t eat it.

So ordering at restaurants can be very challenging. And the food can, sometimes, be very slimy. Or simply something that this Oklahoma/Boston girl simply isn’t used to. Natto, for one, is a slimy bean food that I cannot stomach. You may like it, but it’s definitely not for me.

How to Behave During Business Meetings in Japan

In the USA, we have formal business meetings… but not really super formal. Most times we come in, plop ourselves in any chair we see, grab some food from the buffet bar, eat, laugh with others about the weekend or a sports game, and then it’s a pretty free place to say your opinions and speak freely. Compared to most of the world’s cultures, ours is pretty, well, relaxed. We’re chill, yo!

Yet, if you’re doing business in Japan…

Watch, then do. This is how we always suggest to do things if you’re in a new country. And when you’re doing business with a new country, and you have money on the line, watch even more.

If you’re going to have a conference in person in Japan, make sure not to sit down right when you walk in the room. Allow the Japanese businessmen/women to show you were to sit and when to sit. There is a hierarchy in Japan when it comes to senior directors, junior directors, and employees, and you’ll want to make sure you do not sit down before the big boss. We recommend just watch, and then sit where you’re told.

Also, make sure to take great care of business cards. Whereas business cards might be declining with the youth of America, they are still important in doing business, and especially in Japan. It’s like holding someone’s name in your hands, not just paper. Make sure to use two hands when you exchange it, and don’t just stuff it in your back pocket. Take a look at it, read it, keep it flat on the table or put it in a carrying case specific for business cards.

We suggest taking notes during the meeting. Not only will it help you focus, but it will show how interested you are in doing business with them. Even in the US, if someone takes notes, I know that this meeting is important to them, and they do not want to miss a word.

Even though the Japanese company you’re meeting with may speak English well, there are nuances that will likely be lost. This is alright if you’re simply making friends with a Japanese person you met in the park, but you need to understand every ounce of meaning and syllable when it comes to a big business deal. Make sure you’ve hired an interpreter well in advance, no matter how fluent either side says they are. And please do not allow an employee to interpret. You need a third party and a professional. Just because you speak 2 languages, does not make you a professional interpreter.

Overall, I would say that the image of the Japanese in mainstream media is a bit more formal than they actually are. And every person and personality is completely different. I had one Japanese friend that I would not dare be touchy with. She just gave off that vibe. While another Japanese friend was touching me all the time while she spoke to me.

One thing we know is important, not to generalize a country or its people. On average, Japanese meetings are much more formal than American meetings. Correct. On average, Japanese people have a way of doing business that is more formal than in the USA. And it’s important to learn the above ideas and customs before going. But the main thing is to watch, listen, try to mimic what you see, and soak it all in. And remember, even your 1 trip is just a tiny glimpse into a country. I personally lived in Mexico for a year and a half, and I wouldn’t say that I know the Mexican people, still. I know a tiny aspect of them, but who am I to say I know more with so little time there?

If you would like language training (Japanese, Spanish, English, etc) in your office, or with a live instructor on Skype or Zoom, then reach out to us! Also, if you’re interested in a communication and culture consultation to bring together two groups at your company, we love to bring people together.