Unravelling social norms of Japan and integrating as a foreigner (Part 1)

There are many observations made regarding Japan and its people - typically modest and indirect, polite and fastidious with cleanliness. These are oft-quoted stereotypes of Japanese society which have some basis in reality, but of course come with many exceptions, as in any culture.

It's an obvious disclaimer to state that Japanese people vary widely and do not fit into an easily determined type of person. In addition, there can be excessive focus and attribution to "cultural differences" when misunderstandings or difficulties occur, when this can sometimes be in fact simply due to individual differences or other factors.

Nonetheless, cultures and societies do have certain overarching social norms and tendencies which influence the people that grow up in it. It is for this very reason and the difference to Western culture that draws some people to Japan. This article attempts to highlight some of the observations of how Japanese people think and their rationale for this, beyond the most well known stereotypes.

To cover this subject in complete depth is beyond the scope of one or even two articles, but hopefully this article will give you some food for thought when going about interactions in Japan and observing people in Japan. This article is split into two parts, so be sure to check out part 2 as well!

Subtlety and "reading the air"

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One of the most significant social norms is the tendency for more subtle communication among the Japanese. Depending on one's own culture, this may be more or less of a culture shock. For example, British society also tends to have indirect communication which should not be taken on face value, but may be more of a stumbling block with American cultures where direct, to-the-point communication is more prevalent.

Japan's society has a tendency to avoid or reduce conflict and situations where people's feelings could be openly hurt in front of others. This gives rise to a style of communication where words may communicate the base message, but the emotional undertones or the real intention should be read from the individual's tone, actions or particular choice of words. This can seem intimidating for a non-native to navigate, but if one has this idea in mind, with increased experience with Japanese people and also observing how Japanese people interact with one another, one can start to see the typical ways of communicating certain ideas and emotions, beyond taking the words at face value. This is a key difference between somebody who is proficient in a language, and somebody who has mastered communication in Japanese - the former can understand the words, syntax and grammatical structures, but the latter can understand how to communicate one's message effectively, understand the intentions of others and have some understanding of the emotional connection to certain words and phrases, even if it may not be in exactly the same way as a native speaker.

Even the Japanese themselves have communication difficulties, and can say that effective communication between each other in Japanese is "difficult", which can be an unusual concept for native English speakers, who often don't perceive their native language as "difficult". In particular as a foreigner, especially if you are non-asian, you will not be held to the same social expectations as Japanese people. Nonetheless, an understanding of the typical communication patterns of Japanese people, to feel at ease and less of a "barrier" between your interactions, starts from a mindset of curiosity and active learning of the communication patterns - which you will absorb over time.

Modesty isn't just restricted to oneself

A well known social norm of the Japanese is modesty, and this is not uncommon in certain other cultures as well. However, Japan can typically be more collective in its sense of modesty. It is quite common if an individual is complimented on their ability or appearance, the person will play this down and not attempt to be too boastful. This is probably a concept that is not too foreign to most non-Japanese. However, this sense of modesty can also extend to people close to them, so it is common for one person not to openly praise their spouse or family in front of others, and would play down their strengths, in the same way one would do for themselves. This is likely due to seeing those close to them as an extension of themselves. Therefore, it is not common for someone to be openly singing the praises of their partner in front of others, reserving it instead for in between themselves. This can be the cause of misunderstanding in some international relationships, where it is much more positive and encouraged for people to be openly affectionate about their partner, and is a sign that they are proud to be with that person.

This collectivism also extends to business communication as well. For example, it is commonly known that one addresses colleagues by their surname with the suffix of "san". However, when mentioning your colleague's names to a client, the "san" is dropped and referred to by their name only, regardless of whether that person is a similar level or the CEO of the company. This is because when you speak to the client, you and all of your colleagues are one entity - the company, and you present this entity as yourself, and present with the according modesty.

Rules, rules, rules

Japan is often said to have a strong adherence to rules and structure, sometimes unnecessarily so. While this can sometimes result in lack of adaptability, it is likely also to be the main reason why Japan's organisation and operation of services such as public transport have almost metronomic precision.

You will often find that there are rules and detailed procedures for even relatively basic operations. Ordering from websites, reserving tickets and filling in forms can often go into seemingly unnecessary levels of detail, and often, business communications will have beginning, middle and end structures with meticulous detail even with relatively straightforward enquiries, and can end up obscuring the goal that needs to be achieved at times. This can sometimes be the antithesis to western style communication, where short concise communication is considered more effective, and clear points, with a focus on the end goal or prioritised. Each approach has its relative advantages and disadvantages, where the detail oriented approach can be favourable to ensure fewer errors and less ambiguity by covering all of the eventualities. A person with effective knowledge from both styles and combine and employ different approaches where relevant.

One can also see the favouring of structure in the typical presentation styles of Japanese people in public settings. While in some instances in Western culture, there is an emphasis on spontaneous discussion, or presentations where the presenter talks while vaguely following points on a presentation, Japanese people have a lesser tendency towards spontaneity, and tend to follow presentation content to the letter. Of course, this is not always the case, and in particular communication styles are changing with increasing internationalisation, but is something can be observed in "conservative" Japanese companies.

For more on how the Japanese tend to express themselves and how one can start to navigate this effectively as someone who has not grown up in the culture, be sure to read part 2!