Interpreting Japanese Communication

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is from Dick Locke, Sourcing Innovation’s resident expert on International Sourcing and Procurement. (His previous guest posts are still archived.)

Note to readers of the Purchasing Certification Blog: most of this post appeared in this morning’s post on Japan’s Supply Chain Recovery: Interpreting The Estimates.

I’ve been watching and reading the various sources of information coming out of Japan and trying to interpret it after filtering it through the cultural differences that can impede communication and sometimes action. I see one apparent difference and am concerned about another potential difference.

One consistent complaint is that the various spokespeople in Japan seem to be understating the seriousness of the radiation hazards. It’s very likely that this is due to a cultural difference that strongly affects communication. The difference goes by various names, and I call it a “need for harmony”. It could also be called a “low score on a frankness scale”. A strong cultural need for harmony can make it difficult for people in that culture to deliver bad news directly. They will often resort to various expressions such as the Japanese “honto ni muzukashii“. That literally means “truly difficult” in English. However, people in Japan will correctly take it to be a very frank statement that something will not happen.

A classic example is in the Japanese Emperor’s speech to the nation announcing the surrender at the end of World War II. It included “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage”. This was after two nuclear bombs and a total collapse of manufacturing and logistics.

While Japan is especially strong in this need for harmony, it’s a fairly widespread characteristic among Asian and some Latin American cultures. Keep in mind that Japanese may be perceiving the messages differently than Westerners.

The second difference is just a concern at this point. There’s a well known cultural difference called “Uncertainty Avoidance”. It influences the willingness of people to make decisions without being sure of the outcome. It makes people much more comfortable with routine situations and incremental improvements than they are with dealing with the unexpected. While Japan is extremely high on the “Uncertainty Avoidance” scale, I really haven’t seen any indication of lack of creativity in solving the problems.

Now, for those of you who are trying to gauge potential supply disruptions:

If you can manage face to face meetings that’s clearly the best way to handle it. You’ll have to judge the danger of traveling to a particular Japanese supplier of course. Second best is video conferencing, so you can watch facial expressions and body language. Third best is telephone. In all cases, send some questions ahead of time by email. In questioning, be sure to probe assurances of continuing supply more deeply than you would with people from a frank culture such as Germany or the US. It’s best to ask open ended questions such as “how are the roads to the airport” or “how are your suppliers in the affected area” than questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no such as “is everything OK”.

You should also keep in mind that Japanese communicators are usually not being dishonest when they seem overly reassuring. It’s just that their culture makes it difficult to say some things too directly and they are seeing themselves as courteous.

Dick Locke, Global Procurement Group.