2.2. Sociocultural elements of the Japanese culture and coaching
Now that some frameworks have paved the way, let us look in closer detail at sociocultural elements of the Japanese culture that may impact the coaching process.
Based on the paradigm that any reality is socially constructed, relationships shape perceived realities. Relationship again occur through communication and language. If language is the cement of reality, then values, beliefs, emotions and finally behavior are conditioned by language. How about the Japanese language? Japanese has unique features. Some characteristics are interesting for coaching to consider. For instance, verbs are conjugated primarily for tense but not person, personal pronouns are hardly used. No wonder then that individualism is so low, as seen before. Japanese has a complex system of honorifics with verb forms and vocabulary to indicate the relative status of the speaker, the listener, and persons mentioned. There again, with a culture of ascription, where status and hierarchies are important, no wonder. In addition, the language is highly implicit, so that important grammatical elements for indoeuropean languages like a subject or object may just be omitted, if the context is clear. Japan has a high-context culture. Emotions and negation are not directly given by the language: indirect and neutral (free from emotions) language is generally preferred. How challenging for coaching!
The Japanese culture is grounded in Confucianism, which among others promotes humaneness, justice, proper rules, knowledge, integrity, loyalty, filial piety, continency and righteousness. Social harmony results in part from the yearning that every individual knows his or her place in the natural order, and plays his or her part well. Shinto is the native Japanese religion centered around respect for nature and the spirit of past great souls elevated to the status of a god (kami). Relationship with nature and spirits, purity and protection from bad fate are important here and influence behavior until today. Buddhism has also a long tradition in Japan and gave birth to many Buddhist movements; the most famous in the Western world is probably Japanese Zen Buddhism, where meditation is a central element. The environment is changed to enable meditation, an interesting approach for coaching.
Japan is an archipelago and over more than a thousand years, only limited contact with overseas has happened. During the 265 years of the Edo period especially (1603-1868), the country was hermetically closed to foreign influence, enabling the flourishing of a unique culture still deeply anchored today. As a result, the Japanese population is also ethnically highly homogenous. Even nowadays, 95 to 98% of the population is made up by ethnic Japanese. Homogeneity, harmony, conformity and implicit communication are not challenged by diversity. Non-elitist public education promotes similar values (Tanaka 2013). As a result, individual considerations and opinion making are not regularly practiced in schools. Opinion making and emotionality are not valued in public and sometimes synonym of losing face. Again, how challenging for coaching!
Following Dreyer (2012), we will now build three themes grounded in Japanese spirituality as seen above to get deeper in the analysis of sociocultural elements of the Japanese culture: relationships, hierarchy, and harmony.
Japan has a culture where common good prevails over individual interest. In any context, individuals define themselves according to the group they belong to. These groups may be the own family, friendships, school., university, the work division, the company, the nation at a high level, etc. Groups may overlap. Within these groups, rules are clear for members though implicit. Loyalty towards the in-group is very high, personal interest plays only a minor role. Societal pressure may be perceived as extremely high, especially looking from the outside as a foreigner. The group takes over the responsibility for achievements and failures of the individuals and expects in exchange a high level of conformity to the implicit rules, procedures and etiquette. The in-group is called uchi (内) in Japanese as opposed to soto (外), the out-group. The ‘uchi/soto’ distinction between groups constitutes a fundamental part of Japanese social custom and is directly reflected in the Japanese language itself: when speaking with someone from an out-group, the out-group must be honored, and the in-group humbled. One person’s position within the group and relative to other groups, depends on the context, situation, and time of life. For coaching, it is essential to be aware of the ‘uchi/soto’ distinction to understand better the client and their social identity.
Building strong relationships is central to the Japanese way of being. Among others, it is a strategy to avoid uncertainty. Much time is awarded to relationship building, especially in business settings. One of the ways to show respect towards counterparts (soto) is being sensitive to time. Thus, Japanese tend to arrive at appointments well in advance. Being on time is already too late and disrespectful. Building trust has a lot to do with earning credit and respect. Building trust in Japan is also building a network of obligations (Dreyer 2012). In Japanese, moral obligation, duty, debt of gratitude and a self-sacrificing pursuit of the counterpart’s happiness is named giri (義理). In relationships, people are expected to anticipate obligations. This is true in the business world too. It means also regularly exchanging presents or entertaining business partners outside of the office, showing that way the sense of obligation and gratitude felt for the relationship. Other aspects are the high quality standards and the high level of service, which are constituent to the modern Japanese society, giri to customers. The concept of omotenashi (おもてなし) or Japanese high standards of hospitality, treating clients like gods as a proverb says, is a core principle too. Complementing and opposing giri is ninjō (人情), human feeling and emotions, the spontaneous expression of emotions towards another that springs up in conflict with social obligation, countenance and moderation. The importance of building relationships and the difficulty for people to express openly emotions in public without loosing their face have great importance in the coaching of Japanese clients.
An additional concept of the Japanese culture is significant for relationships. It is the distinction between honne (本音) and tatemae (建前). It describes the contrast between a person’s true feelings and desires, honne, and the behavior and opinions one displays in public, tatemae. A person’s true feelings and desires may be contrary to what society expects or what one’s position and circumstances may require, and they are often kept hidden. Only closest friends might know about one’s honne. Behaviors and opinions displayed in general, tatemae, correspond to conforming to the expectation formulated implicitly by society or associated with one’s position and circumstances. Both may not match. Tatemae and giri are two sides of the highly valued humility and modesty found across the Japanese culture. From a coaching point of view, to produce effective change, it is decisive to talk to the client’s honne and to allow true feelings, desires, opinions. As it is also important to keep the client’s face, the coach needs to find the right strategy, the right balance to establish and maintain a functioning trust-based coaching relationship.
Another constitutive part of the Japanese culture has to do with a strong sense for hierarchies. Individuals are included in in-groups, as seen above, and within most of these groups, a relationship between a mentor (or senior) and protégé (or junior) always exists. The mentor is named senpai (先 輩) and the protégé is named kōhai (後輩). The mentor system is found at all levels of education, in sports clubs, businesses, and informal or social organizations. It implies a relationship with reciprocal obligations. A kōhai is expected to respect and obey their senpai, and the senpai in turn must guide, protect, and teach their kōhai as best as they can. ‘Senpai/kōhai’ relationships can last for as long as both individuals stay in contact, even if the primary context where the relationship was built is no longer relevant. Even though coaching is set up for a limited period, whether Japanese client expect their coach to behave like a senpai is worth inquiring.
Basically, in traditional Japanese culture, the person with a higher status is always right. They hold legitimate authority. In general, status is awarded by seniority and length of service. They are signs of experience and wisdom. That is true for senpais too. Coaches too are expected to be wise and have rich experience to share. They may be expected to be mentors and teachers, as Dreyer (2012) and Tanaka (2013) suggest. This however does not comply with the coaching philosophy defined by ICF.
The Japanese language knows many codified ways to express honorifics. They apply whenever communication happens at different hierarchy levels and between in- and out-groups (uchi/soto). Keigo (敬語), as the honorific language is named, is used to show respect and whenever its use is mandatory in social situations. Keigo may emphasize social distance or disparity in status, or on the opposite emphasize social intimacy or similarity in status. Various language levels enable the expression of respect, humility or politeness. Honorifics are considered extremely important in a business setting and correct use of it towards customers and superiors is important (and requires long training). Not speaking politely enough can be insulting, and speaking too politely can be distancing (and therefore also insulting) or seem sarcastic. As a result, coaching in the Japanese language for an even proficient foreigner is questionable. The danger of a faux pas and thus harming the coaching relationship is a real issue.
Linked to hierarchical thinking, honorific titles are generally employed to address or refer to people and shall not be omitted. As for women, their public status in society is traditionally inferior to that of men, having different roles, mainly within the household. Over the past decades, women are however affirming themselves. The following may be a result of the societal history, as public life is largely dominated by men: women’s speech generally contains more honorifics and is more polite than men’s speech, especially in familiar speech. The coach should be aware of the social status of their client, their hierarchy level and their role, and expect particular social and cultural constraints when the client is a woman showing strong humility.
Harmony is another key concept anchored in the Japanese culture. In Japanese, harmony is called wa (和) and is also synonym for peace and for Japan as whole nation. The old name of Japan is Yamato (大和), using the signs for big and for harmony. Since ancient times, harmony is constitutive of Japan. In addition, Japanese religions and philosophies do not know any dogmatic list of does and don’ts, they tend to highlight a quest for harmony with nature, people, and self.
As seen before, relationships and trust are eased by the high level of ethnic homogeneity in the Japanese population. Diversity and open-mindedness towards foreigners is by far not widespread within society, since foreigners are suspected of not knowing the complex implicit rules arisen from homogeneity. That might be an issue in coaching if the coach is not Japanese.
Modern Japanese society has a non-elitist educational system and only few social ranks, contributing to harmony. This all fosters a high level of conformity to established rules and patterns. A good and visible experience of that conformity is to visit in Japan a business district during rush hours. Business men and women, called salariman (サラリーマン) are all dressed with dark suits, white shirts, dark shoes and similarly dark bags and apparently behaving all the same, going after the same rhythm. This might be an exaggerated picture, but it is salient enough to illustrate the high conformity and harmony accepted throughout Japan. Harmony also fosters consensus whenever possible, stating one’s true opinion and emotions (honne) being disturbing for the harmony. In the coaching process, it sounds reasonable to respect that clients may strive for harmony and consensus and may find it impossible to leave this comfort zone.
One key feature behind harmony is the virtue of doing everything to enable others to keep their face (and not lose one’s own face). Japanese people will take great care with their words and actions to prevent their counterparts from losing their face, even inadvertently. It would definitely destroy the sanctified harmony. For that purpose, a large part of conversations turns around gratitude and excuses. Excuses are often pronounced in advance and are another way of being grateful for the relationship (giri). Additionally, getting loud and aggressive, losing countenance is similar in Japan to losing one’s face. In coaching, great care should be taken so that the client will not lose his or her face.
Japanese culture is efficient at avoiding conflicts which would result in losing one’s face and destroying harmony. Japanese people send many signals to keep harmony. For instance, they turn questions in such a way that the counterpart will always answer yes. There are many ways however to say no, indirectly. Using ‘no’ is however causing distress and harms harmony. One common way to mean disapproval is to be silent. The use of silence and its meaning is very different from the Western world. Implicit messages are hidden into silence and need careful attention. In addition, Japanese people tend to dislike surprises and the unplanned, because it means uncertainty. Coaches should take care of the way they formulate questions, consider the implicit signals and silences and avoid surprising their clients too much.
When things turn wrong, harmony is destroyed. It is then usual to formulate long and sincere excuses in public. These occasions may seem very emotional at once, the person delivering excuses is often crying. The point is that they do not necessarily feel guilty for what happened and what they did, but ashamed. By failing, they are putting shame not only on themselves, but on the in-group they belong to. Because responsibility is taken over by the group and not by the individual, an individual failing brings shame over the whole group, what is sometimes a heavy burden for a single person. From the individual point of view, it is also a way of expressing humility and restoring harmony. A kind of purification ceremony, where emotions are exceptionally welcome (face is lost anyway). Coaching a Japanese person admitting failure may be one of the few times when they may express their honne in a coaching setting.
2.3. Elements of the Japanese management culture and coaching
Relationship-building, hierarchy and harmony are key sociocultural elements of the Japanese culture whose characteristics definitely impact the coaching process in complex ways. It also applies for the Japanese management culture, as we may look closer in the following.
One of the cornerstones of Japanese society, deeply rooted in its business culture is the concept of groupism, as mentioned by Tanaka (2013). Group interests always come before those of the individuals, we saw that. Japanese companies are much more than a contractual place where people sell there workforce. They are a place where identity is created, maybe more than within family. Especially true for larger corporations, companies endorse an educational role. They generally recruit their employees at the universities and let the new entrants all begin together once a year, on April 1st. Over months of training, the new employees learn the way the company expect them to talk, behave, work, the values and behavioral patterns unique to the company. It is a ritual where a sense of identity and obligation towards the company is created. Informal networks and strong relationships are built withing the organization that way too. Employees are expected to be loyal and show conformity to company rules. In exchange, they generally benefit from job security and life employment (even though this aspect has been more and more questioned). Compensation is generally awarded according to criteria like length of service, ability, performance and attitudes like cooperativeness, sense of responsibility and sense of loyalty. Career progression is almost always internal and often promotes cross-sectional experiences. A strong sense of equality and membership can often be observed. In daily work-life, group activities inside and outside of the workplace are common. Companies are understood as a place of self-realization by creating strong ties and achieving group goals. For coaching, bringing awareness to the client about the support network existing within the organization may be fruitful as well as checking the alignment of their personal identity with their company identity. The coach may also be aware that a client switching companies or challenging his or her career may mean a huge break and a loss of identity.
One example of company philosophy and values now deeply routed into the country’s management culture is the one of Panasonic (formerly Matsushita Electric). Its founder, Konosuke Matsushita, was a real paternalistic entrepreneur. He honestly cared for his employees and believed that business had a mission to support society to prosper. He listed in the 1930s seven ‘guiding principles’ (cited by Kippenberger 2002), the ‘Seven Spirits of Matsushita’:
- Service to the public. “By providing high-quality goods and services at reasonable prices, we contribute to the public’s well-being”.
- Fairness and honesty. “We will be fair and honest in all our business dealings and personal conduct”.
- Teamwork for the common cause. “We will pool abilities, based on mutual trust and respect”. • Uniting effort for improvement. “We will constantly strive to improve our corporate and personal performances”.
- Courtesy and humility. “We will always be cordial and modest and respect the rights and needs of others”
- Accordance with natural laws. “We will abide by the laws of nature and adjust to the ever-changing conditions around us”.
- Gratitude for blessings. “We will always be grateful for all the blessings and kindness we have received”.
This example shows how well the Japanese management culture is aligned with sociocultural norms and values as mentioned above. For the coach, it is important to understand the deeper philosophy behind business to support clients in their endeavors.
“KY”. Kūki ga yomenai (空気が読めない). This expression translates into “who can’t read the air”, “who can’t read between the lines” or “who can’t sense the atmosphere”. It describes an indelicate or unperceptive person. The expression brings to attention that Japanese society – and companies are by far no exceptions – values implicitness. Organization rules are often unspoken and hard to understand for out-group members and especially for non-Japanese persons (Yoshino 2015). Outsiders may perceive a culture of ambiguity. Within organizations, non-verbal communication is widespread; informal and implicit rules are common. To be recognized a true member, employees need to understand the unspoken and build group consensus. Behind consensus building lies what Japanese call nemawashi (根回し). It is an informal process of information exchange including private and team talks, gathering support for the issue at stake, feedback etc. It quietly lays the foundation for decisions, projects or larger changes. Nemawashi is guaranteeing internal coordination, information exchange, goal sharing, consensus and is part of the decision-making process (Kopp 2012). Japanese meetings thus are not the place where decisions are taken: they are taken outside of the meeting rooms with many rounds of nemawashi. That is why outsiders may experience decision-making in Japan as long.
The decision-making process itself may be referred as ringi seido (稟議制度). Ringi literally means deliberations and decisions as well as submitting a proposal to one’s supervisors and receiving their approval. No rule or protocol ever defines the way it happens but it is expected that managers must always raise decisions to the next level except for routine decisions. The process guarantees that all relevant colleagues at all levels are included. The ringi seido process begins either when an employee needs consensus on one issue or more generally when an executive gives the starting impulse down to a lower management level to solve a problem (Schneidewind 1991). The decisionmaking will happen bottom-up. Nemawashi is happening continously during the process, in the background. Ringi seido is formally conducted through a document called a ringisho (稟議書). The latter is created and circulated by the employee in charge of the issue. The document containing proposals reaches peers for review. The peers place their personal seal on the ringisho, it is the turn of the peer’s manager to review the document and place his or her seal. Once the ringisho reaches the upper hierarchy level, the decision is final and the document is sent back to the originator who either initiates the idea or re-evaluates it. The ringi seido process fosters an environment of support and agreement for a decision including all persons implied in the project, who can contribute with their expertise.
For the coach, it is important to be aware that consensus and conformity are core concepts in Japanese organizations. They happen through implicit procedures like nemawashi and are intertwined with decision making. Especially when coaching managers and executives, these processes should not be overlooked.