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Recruiting & Candidate Development

Stories of a Mexican recruiter negotiating with Japanese professionals & executives.

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I studied Japanese for a few years. I had the opportunity to live in Japan and I have "negotiated' with them in many different ways since 1992.

I would like to share my 2 cents regarding my learning experience and observations over the years. I am going to divide my comments on 2 or maybe 3 contributions due to the length of the information to be shared.

“When a Japanese say yes, he means maybe; if he says maybe he means no; but if he says no he stops being Japanese” (Hisanori Isumura. President of the Japan House of Culture in Paris).


It is very difficult to try to define the way Japanese or any other nationals of other countries negotiate without understanding the cultural aspects that support a certain behavior.
In my experience, the best way to understand how the Japanese negotiate is through contact with their language and culture because there are the codes, the symbols and the keys to understand their success as a commercial nation/company.

1.- A society of Groups

 I see Japan as a “homogeneous society” and among the few societies that most strongly rely on social rather than supernatural sanctions and that emphasizes as a central guiding principle the benefits of harmony. Japanese children learn from their earliest days that human fulfillment comes from close association with others working as a team. Children learn early to recognize that they are part of an interdependent society, beginning in the family and later extending to larger groups such as neighborhood, school, playground, community, and company. Dependence on others is a natural part of the human condition.

Therefore, Japan is a society formed of groups and factions such that to succeed it is important to become part of a group. The concept of loyalty to the group and the notions of duty and obligation to the group are present in everyday life in Japan. To abandon or betray the group is equivalent to committing social “hara-kiri”.

The group is privileged above the interests of an individual. (“Deru kugi wa utareru”, Literally: The stake that sticks up gets hammered down. Meaning: If you stand out individually, you will be subject to criticism by the group).

Therefore Japanese behavior revolves around groups not individuals. When the Japanese sit down to negotiate they are not interested in their personal achievements but only in what is best for the image and prestige of the group.

2.- Decision making

In Japan, the typical Decision making process combines the elements of Consensus and autocracy. In other words, there are Top-Down aspects as well as Down-Top.

a) The consensus element (“Hiza tomo dangoo”, Literally: Consult anyone, even your knees) is represented by the employee’s actions that follow that General Direction and propose the details about how to implement it.

The employees use the “Ringi-sho” as a signature document to get approval for projects, expenses or even changes in processes. This document is presented for signature to all parties in ascending hierarchical order. A well written “Ringi-sho” contains and adequate description of the problem at hand, an explanation of the proposed action, and an analysis of the cost and benefits involved. Then the “Nemawashi” starts. A lobbying process to all decision makers involved to obtain their approval

b) The autocratic element is provided by Top Management. This vision of the hierarchical social order comes with the influence of Confucianism because prior to the advent of Chinese influence in the sixth century, Japan did not have a stratified society. Confucianism emphasizes harmony among heaven, nature, and human society achieved through each person's accepting his or her social role and contributing to the social order by proper behavior. An often quoted phrase from the Confucian essay "Da Xue" (The Great Learning) explains, "Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole kingdom was made tranquil and happy."
This view implies that hierarchy is natural. The father, the boss, the Emperor, they also represent the Autocracy.

The Japanese language is another means of expressing status differences, and it contributes to the assumption that hierarchy is natural. Verb endings, choice of words and honorific prefixes express relationships of superiority or inferiority. Japanese has a rich vocabulary of honorific and humble terms that indicate a person's status or may be manipulated to express what the speaker desires the relationship to be. Men and women employ somewhat different speech patterns, with women making greater use of polite forms.

Status in Japan is based on specific relationships between individuals, often relationships of social dependency between those of unequal status. Rules of hierarchy are tempered by the relationship itself. This tempering is known as “ninjo” (human emotion or compassion).

As a result, it is not easy for the Japanese to trust other Japanese, their descendants or foreigners if they don’t belong to their primary groups. This insecurity and lack of trust was summarized by Doi Takeo a famous Japanese psychologist that talked about the concept of “Amae no Koozoo” or “Anatomy of Dependence” Doi describes “Amae” as a uniquely Japanese need to be in good favor with, and be able to depend on, the people around oneself. He likens this to behaving childishly in the assumption that parents will indulge you and claims that the ideal relationship is that of the parent-child, and all other relationships should strive for this degree of closeness.

Therefore, when relating to the Japanese one must take into account these types of ambiguities of their character. When the Japanese sit down to negotiate they generally do so loaded with conditioning and prejudices against the non-Japanese which is something intrinsic to their culture. This is as a result of the influence of several factors such as the strong impact of their island character and the historical background they carry as a product of being isolated themselves of all exterior contact for more than 200 years, as well as the effect of the educational system that privileges the group orientation versus the individual, and the impact of what might be called their “religious beliefs”.

3.- Educational System

In Japan, the Educational system and the religious beliefs serve well to produce human resources strongly devoted to accumulate and process lots of detailed information. The educational system is very uniform and at times stereotypical and produces professionals very focused on data gathering and processing.

The Japanese children, at a very early age are submitted to an educational discipline that demands from them long hours of study and memorization along with extra classes on weekends and holidays. At each stage of their education, these children have to go through rigorous examinations to prepare them to be eligible for the best schools and Universities. At the end, the expected result is a professional used to spend long hours studying or working.

Therefore, when the Japanese sit down to negotiate they have already prepared themselves with lots of information that they gathered and they have digested and analyzed to the smallest possible detail. They have all this information at hand and use it in their advantage. It should not be surprising that the Japanese usually know more about their counterparts than what they know about the Japanese.

The religious life of the Japanese is not a question of choice, its importance lies in the fact that is not important. Even though a big percentage the Japanese nationals subscribe to some religious beliefs, very few consider themselves as part of a religion. More than religion, the Japanese follow a system of traditional thinking that encompasses beliefs in Shinto, Confucianism and Buddhism. They assume without any guilt and with natural ambiguity different rites throughout their life. It is important to point out once again the ambiguity in the character of Japanese people. It is said that the Japanese face is a mask “Tatemae” that hides many times the true essence “Honne”. Tatemae (literally "façade,") is the behavior and opinions a Japanese shows in public. Tatemae is what is expected by society and required according to one's position and circumstances, and these may or may not match one's honne. Honne refers to a person's true feelings and desires. These may be contrary to what is expected by society or what is required according to one's position and circumstances, and they are often kept hidden, except with one's closest friends.

The honne/tatemae divide is considered to be of paramount importance in Japanese culture. “Honne” and “Tatemae” are arguably a cultural necessity resulting from a large number of people living in a comparatively small island nation. Even with modern farming techniques, Japan today domestically produces less than half of the food needed to feed its people so, before the modern era, close-knit co-operation and the avoidance of conflict of vital importance in everyday life. For this reason, the Japanese tend to go to great lengths to avoid conflict, especially within the context of large groups.

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Growth in women's share of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) occupations declined to 27% in 2011from a high of 34% in 1990. While women make up nearly half of the workforce, they were 26% of the STEM workforce in 2011.

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