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Lost in Translation? Negotiating in Japan

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Lost in Translation? Negotiating in Japan

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WORLD LEADERS at the G8 Summit in June 2013 praised the Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe’s “Abenomics”, his proposals for relaunching the Japanese economy and opening up Japan to more foreign investment.

This sounds great — for Japan’s ageing population and for its underemployed young people, for the Japanese consumer, and for foreign companies and investors. After all, Japan’s nominal GDP is still larger than that of the UK and Germany combined.

However, a word of caution is necessary. The Japanese market is notoriously difficult for Westerners to penetrate, and does not provide an easy platform on which to build long-term success.


Sometimes even people who have lived and worked in the country complain that doing business in Japan is like trying to read emoticons without knowing what they mean.

You’re never quite sure what’s going on in a business meeting, presentation or negotiation, and you aren’t allowed to ask because you won’t get a straight answer. You might not get an answer at all.

Personal dignity or ‘face’ is very important to the Japanese and this has particular relevance to decision-making. Face-saving tactics are often used in business to avoid giving a clear, logical response to proposals. This gives the Japanese side time to consider proposals and to wait until a personal relationship is established.

Non-verbal techniques to avoid responses include a hissing sound made by indrawn breath, vaguely worded and evasive questions, and a love of paradox. There is even a Japanese word for this: haragei (literally, the ‘art of the stomach’).

This oblique, and largely instinctive behaviour is a way of buying time in negotiations and also of avoiding the disharmony created by giving straight yes/no replies to proposals or questions.

This respect for order and harmony is also reflected in the way that the Japanese come to decisions. There’s also a special word for this: nemawashi.


Nemawashi (loosely translated as ‘spade work’) is a gardening term meaning literally ‘washing round’ or ‘uncovering’ the roots before transplanting a tree. In the process, each part of the root system is cared for individually and made ready for the upcoming change.

In the corporate world, nemawashi means that each part of the organization can express itself and have it needs addressed through direct consultations and one-on-one meetings. In other words, consensus is reached at small meetings before the larger meeting when the final decision is made.

Foreign companies operating in the Japanese market, whether for the first time or in long-term partnership with a Japanese counterpart, must understand the nemawashi process that usually takes place before a formal meeting of after a proposal. They must also be prepared for the process to be time-consuming and not always easy to follow.


A further refinement is provided by the Japanese respect for hierarchy. Senior Japanese executives expect to be informed of new proposals before an official meeting. If they only learn about a proposal for the first time at the meeting, they may feel that they have been left out. Almost inevitably, they will reject the proposal for that reason alone.

It is therefore vitally important for foreign businesspeople to approach senior executives individually or through their Japanese partners in the company before the meeting takes place. This will provide an opportunity for them to introduce the proposal beforehand, and above all personally. They can then estimate the Japanese boss’s possible reaction. and perhaps obtain some input. This process is all part of the great nemawashi enterprise!

With cultural conundrums like this, it’s no wonder many foreign business people in Japan feel their efforts are lost in translation. But they shouldn’t be downhearted. With a little effort and some lateral thinking, they too can take part in these time-honoured processes and achieve satisfactory results.

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