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May 31, 2012

By Rochelle Kopp, Managing Principal, Japan Intercultural Consulting


This article is part of a series on effective meetings between Japanese and non-Japanese, that originally appeared in the Japan Times


Meetings top the list of pet peeves held by both Japanese businesspeople and the non-Japanese who interact with them.  Meetings are obviously essential for business, and in fact are a primary way that business gets done.  Billions of dollars are spent each year on transportation bringing people together for meetings, technology to support meetings, and the facilities that meetings are held in.  The fate of a business deal often rests on the outcome of a meeting. 


Even within a culture, meetings are often inefficient and unproductive.  When cultural differences and the language barrier are added, the challenges are compounded.  This leads to a lot of frustration for both the Japanese and non-Japanese involved.


This series of articles will take a look at how cross-cultural meetings can be made more effective.  It will highlight both issues of cultural difference and linguistic expression.  The aim is to provide practical information, and all the topics presented are based on my observations working with companies as a management consultant.


In this first article, before delving into the specifics of meeting techniques that will be the focus of future articles, I would like to look at how the very concept of a meeting differs between Japanese and non-Japanese.  It is this different set of assumptions about the purpose of a meeting that underlies many of the difficulties that plague cross-cultural meetings.


The primary purpose of a meeting, as viewed by people from western countries, is to reconcile a conflict, reach a group judgment or decision, or solve a problem.  These are activities which require discussion and debate.  Thus, it is assumed that the main activity during a meeting will be the sharing of opinions, and the attempt to reconcile differing ones. 


In contrast, the Japanese idea of a meeting is that it is a place to confirm things that have already been decided elsewhere, and to report and share information.  This conception of a meeting has little room for discussion or debate.  The participants in the meeting are not required to actively participate or share their opinions.  There are few surprises. 


Clearly, Japanese and non-Japanese who come together for a meeting holding these different expectations are bound to be disappointed.  For example, for one joint venture between a Japanese company and a German company, board meetings are always extremely stressful.  The Japanese side views the meeting as more of a ceremony, to be carefully orchestrated.  However, the German side views the meeting as a rare opportunity for discussion.  Each topic that comes up they insist on delving into with a variety of questions, including challenging statements made by the Japanese attendees.   The organizers on the Japanese side find themselves dreading what topics might be brought up by the Germans, while the Germans wonder why Japanese would want to hold a meeting that is a merely a ritual.


In the Japanese context, discussion and debate are something that happens offline, not in the meeting itself.  This is due to the Japanese cultural preference for harmony and the importance placed on face.  To disagree with someone during a meeting would cause loss of face for both parties, and could negatively impact their relationship later.  Thus, Japanese tend to use one-on-one discussions and even “pre-meetings” with a smaller number of people in order to hash things out beforehand.  This process is often referred to using the term nemawashi, which means consensus-building discussions.  There is no need for debate in a meeting when all issues have been addressed in the preparation phase.


Recognizing this different approach to meetings is the first step towards aligning expectations and making meetings more satisfying for all parties. 



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