The relations between America and Japan started when the black ships under the command of the Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japan in 1853 with the following signing of Treaty of Peace and Amity next year. Since that time, two nations have built long-term cooperation and strengthened economic ties. Though the people of old generations still remember the awful events of the World War II, and economic hardships have had a negative affect on bilateral relationships, two nations will only benefit from the joint efforts. Unfortunately, there is still little contact between the American and Japanese people due to the major cultural gap between the cultures. Moreover, Japan is a solar, homogeneous nation. The Japanese do not prefer to have much contact with foreign people; marriages to foreigners are discouraged (Wood). Thus, the knowledge about the Japanese culture is limited, and Americans are often baffled when they visit Japan. The lack of information about the Japanese and dramatic cultural differences have produced a number of stereotypes about this oriental country and its people. It is a common belief that the Japanese eat only sushi and drink sake every day. They all love anime and everyone sings karaoke. Indeed, these examples are a cultural peculiarity of Japan. Yet, these beliefs are not true to the degree that tastes differ with everyone individually. The Japanese are always portrayed as short and skinny. However, globalization has caused a change in the physical appearance of average Japanese, as well as the fondness of McDonald’s and Christmas. The Americans think that the Japanese are obsessed with cleanliness and avoiding germs. Indeed, their streets are so clean that there is no fear to become dirty. They avoid hand shaking too much, because it is unhygienic. In general, the Americans view the Japanese in a positive light as industrious, traditional, and loyal to family people.
However, if an American would like to visit Japan and start international business, he/she should have a thorough understanding of the Japanese culture core values. In order to meet the customers’ needs there and build long-term relationships, Americans should take into consideration a number of aspects that characterize cultural behavior and social norms of the Japanese and distinguish them from the American ones: communication style differences and language peculiarities, gender and family roles, religious beliefs, and education system. America is an individualistic culture where everyone aims to be distinguished in society; personal achievement is highly important. Japan, on the contrary, is a collectivist culture where an individual is identified by a group. The Americans strongly support freedom of rights; they are self-centered, while the Japanese people are dependent on the community. They show loyalty and obedience to the group, family, or company to which they belong.
Communication Difference Between USA and Japan
Communication style in Japan is characterized by less speaking and more silence; verbal communication of the Japanese is opposite to the one of the Americans. The Japanese consider too much talking to be an attribute of light-headedness and immaturity (Wood). Speaking loud and evocatively is rude. In their opinion, silent understanding means more than words, which distract from the main idea. For the Americans, silence during a conversation is frustrating, because they feel that something is going wrong. Unlike the Americans, who express themselves explicitly, the communication style of the Japanese is indirect: they manifest their wishes and requests through evading straightforwardness, because it will disturb harmonious relationships with a companion. The Japanese avoid saying a direct “no” to express their rejection or disagreement. For example, if the Japanese are asked to do something unrealistic for them, they will answer “it will be difficult” or “yes”, though it won’t mean that they will actually do it (Nyman). In such a manner, they do not want to offend their companion with an open refusal. Therefore, the mode of interaction clearly differs from the one in the USA, where the Americans prefer direct criticism and frankness. Vague answers, long pauses between words, and unfinished sentences will confuse Americans, who speak straight to the point. Since harmony and smooth interaction is more important for the Japanese, they are more likely to give an answer that will please the conversation partner.
Having a conversation with a Japanese, one should pay more attention to the non-verbal communication behavior, because a simple gesture that is common for the American culture may be considered unacceptable in Japan. For example, the Japanese find direct eye-contact intensely rude. They avoid looking straight in the eyes and shift the gaze on the neck or a tie (Nyman). Japan is a reserved culture, so one should avoid pointing and physical touching; physical distance during a conversation is greater than that of the Americans. Therefore, Americans, who like to give a hug or put an arm around the shoulder of the companion in order to show amiability should be more reserved with the Japanese. Moreover, the Japanese will find handshakes unsanitary if they happen more times than necessary. In order to show respect to the Japanese, a foreigner should keep in mind such significant ritual of communication as bowing. The lower a person bows, the more respect he/she shows to the partner. Bowing is an indication of humbleness and the fact that other people and their interests are more important than one’s own. Therefore, it is preferred to bow as low as possible and in any occasion such as greeting, congratulating, offering help, apologizing, or requesting something. Greeting customs of the Americans and Japanese differ significantly, so one or the other of the two nations may be confused and frustrated in a foreign country. For example, while in America, it is polite to introduce elderly people first, in Japan such greeting manner is rude. Moreover, the Japanese are always baffled with the American question “How are you?” or “How is it going?” and do not know what to answer. Usually, the Japanese will make a bow at greeting or parting. Understanding social customs of communication is essential for giving a good impression of oneself.
It is difficult to master the Japanese language for Western countries, because even native speakers find it sometimes difficult to understand the kanji (Chinese characters). In order to read a Japanese newspaper, a foreigner should learn three alphabets. Japanese politeness is an indispensable part of their language. The Japanese have created a honorific language keigo (specific nouns, adjectives, or verbs) that is used to show respect to a person being spoken to and humility of the speaker (Hays 1). There is no other nation that says more often “I am sorry”, “excuse me”, and ‘thank you”, than the Japanese one. Another peculiarity of the Japanese language in communication is that the Japanese seldom use the pronoun “I” in sentences. It illustrates that harmonious relationships are always taken into consideration, and a person who is being spoken to is more important for a Japanese speaker.
Japan is the country, where social norms concerning gender roles are still maintained, while they are constantly changing in the rest of the world. The Japanese are very shy in romantic relationships and do not show affection in public. Comparing to them, the Americans are over passionate, because it is common for a couple to hold hands when walking and slightly kiss each other. While a husband and a wife are equal partners and there is no strict gender differentiation in American culture, in Japan, a woman is in a more subordinate situation. In America, a family structure is more flexible, which means that partners are free to choose their roles in the household according to their tastes. In Japanese households, the family roles are traditionally differentiated: a man is a breadwinner, while an apron is a “symbol of power and independence” for a woman. Women are responsible for taking care of children and the household; they are not expected to earn much. Men are responsible for bringing money and decision making, because the man is in charge of the family, and his wife must obey him. Therefore, the workplace has traditionally been a male domain. Gender inequality concerning employment is higher than in the USA; women in Japan are highly discouraged from career development.
Like the Chinese, the Japanese worship Buddhism. However, the major religion is Shinto, or “the way of the Gods”. Religious beliefs of the Shinto worshippers determine how the Japanese behave during their daily life. According to Shinto, the Japanese should observe four principles: family (there is a high emphasis on the value of family), cleanliness (certain deeds are regarded as clean or dirty), nature worship (nature is a sacred thing), and matsuri (a festival of worshipping kami, or the gods) (“Shinto Religion”). Many Japanese people observe religious rituals and ceremonies. However, religious feelings are not deeply rooted in the mentality of the Japanese. In general, the Japanese regard religion as a part of culture and tradition, “a matter of social cohesion, or “a sense that one’s life is not one’s own”. For many Japanese, religion is associated with moral discipline.
According to Harry Wray, Japan has achieved a higher standard of educating its citizens comparing to the USA, because its system of education is more efficient and effective. Though both countries place a considerable emphasis on education, each of them has a different approach towards its implementation. The most significant difference is that the government in Japan determines a national curriculum for education. Thus, every student in every school receives the same amount of education, and a nationalized system prevents from any gaps in knowledge of every individual. In the USA, where each federal government determines the educational structure, the quality of education varies within every state or district. Another major difference is the amount of days that are spent in school. Students spend 175-180 school day in the American school, while in Japan a school year runs 210-225 day. Such regular academic study of the Japanese students ensures that no skills or knowledge will be lost during the vacation time. The Japanese education system focuses more on academic excellence of the students, while in the American schools, nonacademic subjects and extra-curricular activities play a major role.
Business in a foreign country will not be successful without learning that particular culture and what is needed to establish both business and friendly relations there. For the Japanese, business should be slow, harmonious, and not aggressive. Japanese people are group-oriented; they focus on company’s success rather than personal achievement. However, they value interpersonal relationships more than work and try to maintain harmony. One should take into consideration that Japan is a highly hierarchic society; there is strict subordination to the employer and discipline at the workplace. At the meetings or business discussions, one should avoid jokes and expressive gesticulation. The Japanese may not understand American jokes; they value modest speech without boasting. The Japanese regard business negotiations as a type of conflict; they do not appreciate the American style of contracts and detailed agendas. Thus, one should be ready for many questions, long silent pauses and a time consuming decision-making process of the entire Japanese group until they reach a consensus. As soon as the contract is signed, it is obligatory to attend a “contract signing ceremony”, where gifts are expected. It is crucial to avoid talking about money and not to make the Japanese admit their failure.
Japan is still an exotic country for Western cultures. In order to adjust in this country and start international business, an individual should undertake a thorough research about cultural values, communication patterns, and traditions of the foreign country. More importantly is to take cultural differences in consideration, observe social customs, and respect traditions. Learning to maintain harmony, respect others, and value interpersonal relationships is an essential factor for successful business in Japan.