My adventure in the Land of the Rising Sun began in 1997, after taking a teaching job in the small town of Awano, Japan. This traditional rural community, which grows the best strawberries in the world, was a perfect complement to my small-family-farm upbringing on the High Plains of North Dakota.
My teaching responsibilities included instructing first through sixth grades. Teaching was a great way to learn about the Japanese culture and education system, and I stopped using U.S. slang, idioms, and challenging vocabulary pretty fast. Such complexities and nuances are a barrier to communication when working in a foreign country.
Moving to Tokyo in 2000 opened business opportunities for me. Seventeen years later, as a manager at a corporate training firm, I have worked with hundreds of foreign and domestic companies, learning a great deal about the Japanese business and training culture in the process.
Perhaps one of the most interesting lessons I have acquired is the understanding of Japanese learning environments. When doing corporate training in Japan, you need to be flexible toward the learning environment provided. Some companies do not think cosmetic improvements to facilities are necessary. For example, one company offered a room that doubled as the smoking lounge. The once-white walls were stained brown, and it was necessary to open the window to prevent participants from getting a headache.
Another lesson is that complaining might cause you to lose the contract. The environment can significantly influence the quality of training, but complaining about how it looks is not the answer. What is necessary is a little forethought and due diligence to circumvent the more undesirable situations diplomatically. For example, visiting the client’s training facility or asking for a few photos of the training room before choosing a location can help to avoid uncomfortable arrangements. Start by explaining the challenge and what help is needed. Be careful to phrase it in a way that doesn’t blame anyone. Emphasize what might make the situation better, and using a teamwork approach, develop a solution. A teamwork approach is the best option for almost any talent development problem faced in Japan.
People and Culture: Get to Know Your Audience
Japan is a country dedicated to detail, tradition, and hard work. The Japanese are very respectful and polite. Even if participants see or hear a mistake, they will not point it out. That’s because in Japan teachers (sensei) are expected to be all-knowing. While training, if you make a mistake, nonchalantly correct the mistake and advance to the next topic. Also, answer any challenging questions as well as possible and then check on it later. In one instance, a company had to replace a facilitator who was otherwise knowledgeable and talented. The instructor was asked in a meeting skills class how to spell a word. He did not know and replied that he was terrible at spelling. The students thought that if he could not spell this word, he was not qualified to teach this meeting skills class. Modesty is an admired quality in Japan, but be careful not to be too self-effacing.
Many Japanese people define their sense of self through the company that they work for, the position that they hold, the team that they are on, and their age. Most individuals like to work in groups and don’t like to be singled out. Often, they will even fake mistakes to not outperform the senior members of their group. They are very hardworking, sometimes to the detriment of their health. Many Japanese people have a tough time saying no and setting limits. Most tend to appreciate orderliness and very clear, distinct, right and wrong ways of doing things. Harmony within training and society is a crucial concept to maintain at all costs.
In many cultures, the customer is considered to be always right. Japan takes that belief to an even higher level. In fact, even when the client is obviously wrong, they are still right. When dealing with customers, it is necessary to keep this in mind and avoid language that uses the subject you too often. The second person is rarely used in Japanese because it can seem too direct. For example, the sentence, “You need to send the payment by Tuesday” would be more commonly expressed as, “It would be good if the payment was made next week.” Normally, native English speakers do not speak in the passive voice, but the Japanese often do.
The following tips will help you have more effective interactions with Japanese audiences:
• Engage the group. Participants will not interrupt when an instructor is speaking; it is considered very impolite to interrupt or to ask questions. Many who are not familiar with this communication style misinterpret it to be boredom or disinterest. As a facilitator, you should encourage participation.
• Frame questions. Be sure to ask questions in a way that does not require individuals to commit too strongly to an opinion. Ask a question that participants can answer with a “We Japanese do X” format.
• Remember that Japanese culture is homogeneous and individualism is not encouraged. There is a Japanese saying that loosely means “a nail that stands up from the floor must be hammered down.” Manage the participants in a way that they do not feel forced to stand out too much. Making them stand out in front of their supervisors can make them very uncomfortable.
• Get to know participants. Many companies in Japan periodically have their employees take the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) to get a better understanding of their language needs. It would be helpful to ask for a list of the participants with their departments and TOEIC scores. However, some of these scores might be old and won’t accurately reflect an individual’s ability to speak English. This information is considered very sensitive and confidential. After the program is finished, copies should be shredded or deleted.
• Be specific about time. The Japanese are flexible in regard to doing exercises and accomplishing tasks. Be specific about how long a certain task should take. It is often better to assign a shorter timeframe and add a minute or two if needed than to give too much time and have participants struggling to do the task slowly enough to fill the time allotted.
Getting Started: Conduct a Needs Assessment
For many big Japanese corporations, the idea of providing lifelong employment to their workers remains a social obligation. There is a need to balance this commitment and respond to the competitive pressures of the global market. In other cultures, the competitive marketplace might result in a downsizing of the labor force. Instead, Japanese corporations are shifting some of the workloads from severely overworked, salaried workers to temp staff and part-time employees. Japanese companies are caught between a rock and a hard place because they cannot fire any employees due to public condemnation. But there is always market pressure to improve business, increase sales, maximize profits, and grow the company. Many companies approach this situation with a make-do attitude.
Because of the mix of lifelong salaried employees and temp workers, corporations often see mentorship as the most expedient way to train employees. Companies have been using this approach for many years and can benefit from external consulting and training.
Convincing a client of the need for a formalized training program may not be easy. But when the client is ready, always conduct a respectful, thorough needs analysis discussion. Following are some suggested behaviors and activities.
Start With the Right Attitude
Don’t be rigid and fight the Japanese culture, assuming your way is the best way. Instead, be open-minded and accepting of the Japanese way. Learn from it and work with it to achieve goals.
Ask Questions, Then Listen Carefully
It is important to have a clear idea of what exactly the client wants and needs. It may be especially difficult in Japan due to the cultural tendency of answering questions vaguely and politely. It is imperative to listen closely to get to the core issue of any problem. The Japanese will try to avoid as much confrontation as possible, so phrasing questions in general terms that don’t specifically single out any individual enables a deeper understanding of the main contributing factors and the client’s true needs. An example of such a question might be, “What are some problems that managers face in Japan?” or “What do you think are some of the challenges that workers face in your industry?”
Gather Additional Information
If the training course is in English, the first consideration should be the audience’s English skill level. Most talent managers in Japan rely heavily on TOEIC scores to reflect the participants’ English-language ability. Unfortunately, TOEIC focuses mainly on reading, listening, and grammar comprehension, not speaking ability. The students’ jobs and how frequently they interact in English is a much better reflection of their actual abilities. Be prepared to adjust visual aids and support materials accordingly. A short teleconference should give you a good sample of their language skills. The teleconference is also an opportunity to ask participants about workshop expectations.
Confirm Targeted Outcomes
Once you have a clear understanding of the client’s needs, confirm the target outcome with the sponsor or training program organizer so that they have a clear understanding of what will be achieved in training. Confirmation is particularly important in Japan because it is often the only time when the client will offer additional information or guidance. Most Japanese clients expect the trainer to have the expertise to assess the situation, define what the program should achieve, and provide a professional solution. Many talent development managers still confuse wants with needs, so it is often helpful to clarify with them what the program will target and how that connects to the company’s goals.
In Japan, a common misleading want of human resource departments is to provide English-language training so that employees will be more global, even though the company itself does not have any English-speaking business partners or overseas offices. By accepting such a want as the goal of the program, both teachers and students become demotivated. They know they are wasting time, energy, and money on skills that most likely will never be put to use.
Itineraries: Plan the Learning Journey
The most common form of instruction in Japan is a lecture format, where participants politely listen without interrupting the lecturer. If there is too much deviation from that expectation, talent managers and participants may become uncomfortable. For the most part, role plays, simulations, group discussions, and pair work are acceptable skill-building activities. Games of any sort are considered unprofessional and should be avoided. In Japan, around 60 percent of training is instructor-led, another 20 percent is in the form of asynchronous learning systems, and the remainder is mostly structured, on-the-job training. Mobile learning is slowly increasing in popularity, but human resource managers still favor small group classes because of the personalized attention they provide.
Design learning methods that focus on a collaborative effort. The Japanese are excellent at working in groups and are more comfortable with expressing what they have learned from an exercise as a group than individually. However, it is usually uncomfortable for participants to give other members constructive criticism, so pair work often results in flowery, ambiguous feedback. Group-oriented activities where participants are allowed to connect feedback to content will work better, so no feelings are hurt. Periodically ask participants what they found interesting in the lesson and how they might use the targeted skill or knowledge in their jobs. This question should be thrown out to the whole class to avoid putting any individual on the spot. Questions can be used to get more accurate examples that connect with the participants as well as to help segue to the next section.
Measure success without making participants feel uneasy. While most Japanese people are uncomfortable evaluating others, they are often overly critical of their own performance. One effective way of getting a critical evaluation is to have each participant list what they thought they did well and where they thought they could improve. Ask the most active members in the class if they would like to share their list. During this time, help participants balance their modesty with praise and temper their harsh criticism with perspective. In Japan, many human resource departments and training companies conduct Level 1 of the Kirkpatrick four levels of evaluation in the form of smile sheets. Less than 10 percent conduct Level 2 evaluations, and Levels 3 and 4 occur only in very large companies with global operations.
Follow-up training and social learning aren’t common. According to Apex Research, the most popular social media app in 2015 was Line, with 50 million (40 percent of Japan’s population) monthly active users. Twitter came in second with 26 million, Facebook took a close third with 22 million, and LinkedIn was a distant fourth place with only 340,000 Japanese users (Charles 2015). It is very rare for clients to request follow-up training and even more extraordinary for them to ask for training that incorporates a social media element.
Packing Lists: Logistics, Technology, and Resources
Technology limitations are rare in Japan. Most companies have projectors, screens, extension cords, tables, chairs, and whiteboards. Bring any specific adapters or connectors that might be needed. The electric outlets in Japan have the same plug-in configuration as America, but are only 100 volts.
Flipcharts are not included in most classrooms. If a flipchart is needed, give the company advance notice. Whiteboards are found in most business meeting rooms.
Ask the organizer of the event about transportation. Japan has an excellent mass transit system. Most signs are written in Japanese and English, as well as in Korean and Chinese on some of the bigger train lines. Navigating with so many people is the most challenging part of the system. Some of the more congested stations, like those of the Yamanote circle line, are almost frightening during rush hour, which is 7:30-8:30 a.m. and 5-6 p.m. Plan accordingly and allow an extra half an hour to an hour to get to your destination. Taxis are also an option, and are relatively inexpensive if the destination is not very far.
Bring many business cards. Whenever meeting someone new in Japan, especially talent development personnel or upper management, exchange business cards to learn how to address each other properly. When you present your business card, hold it out with both hands and introduce yourself. When receiving someone’s business card, take it with both hands and spend just a few seconds looking over the details to show interest in who they are, their position, and their department.
Review visa requirements. Depending on your nationality, you may need a visa to enter Japan. If the stay is more than 90 days, a proper work visa is required, and the application process can take several months.
Japan is a gift-giving culture. As a gesture of appreciation, consider bringing a box of chocolates or candies from your local community for the sponsor or main organizer of the training event. The key is that it should be something they can easily share with others in their office.
A subway station in Tokyo. Most signs in subway stations are written in English and Japanese.
Customs: Body Language Dos and Don’ts
It is important to be aware of the following body language dos and don’ts.
Appearance and Gestures
Appearance is paramount. The Japanese expect facilitators to always dress as business professionals. For men, this means a suit coat, preferably black, with matching dress pants, a tie, a nice dress shirt, and dress shoes. Women have a little more flexibility with dresses and blouses, but should wear similar formal attire. Please don’t take this lightly. The Japanese are very attentive to detail and are prone to making broad assumptions about professionalism based on appearances.
You also may have to exchange your shoes for slippers. It all depends on the company and facility, but don’t be surprised if you’re asked to put on slippers at the entrance. It might seem that the cheap plastic slippers clash with formal business attire, but for some companies, wearing slippers is still a major tradition and refusing to do so isn’t good manners. A word of caution regarding stairs and bathrooms. Going up and down stairs can be dangerous in slippers. As for restrooms, most likely there will be special slippers to be worn within the confines of the bathroom. To become instantly famous, forget to take off the toilet slippers and wear them into the classroom.
Don’t put your hands in your pockets or chew gum. In general, the Japanese view both of these habits as very unprofessional. In fact, a boss of mine once said that walking around with toilet paper dragging from one shoe would be more acceptable than chewing gum in class.
Be careful not to make too much eye contact. The Japanese can misinterpret this as aggression or flirtation. Likewise, when Japanese people look away when they are speaking, don’t misread this as them being untruthful or aloof.
Introductions and exits are critical. The Japanese bow when they greet people and when they say goodbye to show respect. The depth of the bow represents how much respect is given to that individual. Foreigners are not expected to bow. In fact, an incorrect bow may give insult. It is advisable to stick with a handshake. However, most Japanese people do not have much experience shaking hands, so they often hold a hand too long, too hard, too softly, or just strangely. It will be up to you to shake and let go. Most physical contact beyond a handshake when making introductions or saying goodbye makes Japanese people feel quite uncomfortable.
Avoid pointing with your index finger. Usually, the whole hand is used to direct attention. When asking a Japanese person to come over to you, it is best to use the Japanese “come here” gesture, with palm and fingers down while pulling the hand toward the body a few times. The Western gesture of palm and fingers up while closing to a fist several times quickly is not used in Japan. One of the only times that Japanese people use their index fingers to point is when they are referring to themselves. When they do this, they will point to their noses, not their chest.
Space, Speech, and Phone Etiquette
Be respectful of personal space. Contrary to what it seems by looking at a packed 8 a.m. train in Tokyo, the Japanese are uncomfortable with people moving into their personal space. Of course, this can vary with individuals, but be aware of standing too close. When Japanese people start to step back, move into a more closed posture, or begin looking away, most likely they are starting to feel uncomfortable. Approximately one arm’s length away is a comfortable distance when speaking to someone who is Japanese.
Be mindful of speaking too loudly when in public spaces. In the classroom, speak as loud as needed, but on a train or in a lobby, lounge, hallway, restaurant, or elevator, a lowered voice is expected so as not to disturb others.
Checking your cell phone in class is a big mistake. It is only acceptable during breaks. Viewed as terrible manners, it is unprofessional, especially of a facilitator.
If on the train, do not talk on the phone unless it is an emergency, because it is very upsetting to many Japanese people. With that said, texting, emailing, listening to music, watching videos, and playing video games with headphones on are all acceptable behaviors when on the train. The key here is not to make any loud noise that might bother others.
Drinking is a part of doing business in Japan, and taking clients out for drinks or dinner is common. This custom functions as a way for Japanese to connect and communicate in a less formal environment. Eating and drinking together after a training class helps to establish goodwill, promote open communication, strengthen team spirit, and defuse any conflicts that might have occurred during the day. A few things to note:
• Let the organizer of the event tell people where to sit. Seniority determines the protocol and seating arrangement. It is best to allow the leader to sit first.
• It is bad manners to allow someone to pour their own drink, and it is especially injurious for guests and senior staff to pour their own. The host will feel obligated to keep glasses full. When someone is refilling a glass, it is customary to hold the glass up with both hands, and after they have filled the glass, say thank you (arigato gozaimasu) or thanks (domo).
• Don’t start drinking until the first toast is made. After that, drink freely. Sometime during the event, it would be a very nice gesture on your part to make a short toast thanking specific hosts as well as the support staff in general. When you make a toast, stand up and give people a small head nod or bow. At the end of the toast, say “Cheers!” (kanpai).
Many Japanese businesses require you to trade your shoes for slippers while in the office.
Climate: Create a Warm Learning Environment
Participants are respectful of their instructors and managers. Professor Geert Hofstede’s work on cultural dimensions describes the Power Distance Index, which measures the equality of workers and supervisors. Japan is a high-barrier culture: It is unacceptable to speak up or confront someone in a leadership role.
Sometimes more senior executives confuse their role and believe they are there to critique the lesson, not participate. One way to get them on board is to recognize their position and experience. Involve them by asking for their expert opinion on what they believe it is important to learn from the exercise or training course, as well as how it might relate to their jobs. Other things to do:
• Focus on building confidence and enthusiasm. As Emerson once said, “Nothing was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” This is also true with any learning journey. Many Japanese people suppress the expression of self-confidence, seeing it as an aspect of pride or vanity. It is the instructor’s responsibility to bring energy and enthusiasm into the learning environment by stating how the class is making progress and connecting the learning objectives. One way to do this is by having each participant group list what they can now do better because of the exercise. Endorsing these improvements will also set the tone for how the participants will view these accomplishments.
• Be energetic and animated. The Japanese like energetic, happy, and animated instructors. A good way to set the tone and start the lesson on a high note is to greet them with an energetic “Welcome!” It might be their first time meeting a foreigner, and this will help them quickly get over any shyness. It is reassuring for them to see assertiveness so they can be comfortable with you taking the lead in the interaction.
• Pay attention to seating arrangements. The Japanese appreciate when the host assigns seats because they will not have to figure out who should sit where according to seniority or protocol.
• Refreshments are not required. It is not standard practice to provide refreshments for training events. Beyond bottled water, candies or occasionally a pot of coffee may be offered. Most participants and facilitators expect to bring their own refreshments or get them from vending machines during breaks. That is not to say that students would not appreciate such amenities; it is just a practice that has been slow to catch on.
Things to Consider: Handle Classroom Challenges
Many Japanese people do not feel comfortable standing out and expressing opinions, especially if it is on a controversial topic. To get much more honest and open responses, frame questions as hypothetical and ask for the group’s opinion. For example, instead of asking individuals, “What are some problems that you have in your office?” it would be better to ask each table, “What might be some problems that Japanese people have in major foreign companies?” Here are some other classroom challenges to keep in mind:
• The Japanese are quite comfortable with silence, and this sometimes gets misinterpreted as acceptance, anger, or disinterest. To get a more dynamic two-way exchange, explain that feedback helps English speakers to know if the audience understands and whether they can move on to the next topic.
• To be inclusive of most English-proficiency levels, simplify the language on learning materials and provide Japanese-language support through translated subtitles. Simplification means avoiding slang, idioms, difficult vocabulary, and complex sentence structure. The focus should be on explaining content as simply as possible.
• Role plays are a popular training technique. Remember to make a clear distinction between participating in the role play and giving feedback in instructor mode. One way I do this is by taking off my suit jacket while role-playing and putting it back on before commenting or giving advice. When doing role plays, be careful not to lose the natural, realistic speed and tempo of speaking. It will better prepare participants for the real world.
• It is not uncommon for managers and their direct reports to take classes together. If the manager is very supportive and open-minded, they can be very helpful by modeling good participation. However, sometimes power differences get in the way, where students with better skills tone them down to match those of the manager. One way to counteract this is to do more activities in pairs and smaller groups. Frequently changing group arrangements will help minimize that person’s effects.
Tips and Warnings: Advice for Nonnative Trainers
The following is a list of important information to keep in mind:
• Listen carefully. Japanese training participants tend to voice complaints very subtly. Make it a goal to listen more than speak. The Japanese are very gracious audiences. It would be advisable to periodically ask if they are comfortable or if they have any questions or comments.
• Arrive five to 10 minutes before the scheduled meeting time. It’s considered poor manners to make Japanese participants wait. Trains run like clockwork in Japan, but occasionally there might be a delay. If this happens, it is imperative to contact the manager or another person from the client’s organization immediately to tell them about the delay and to adjust the meeting time.
• Show respect to the senior members of the team or group. It is a smart idea to recognize the experience of senior members to get their buy-in and participation in the classroom. Their level of involvement will often set the tone and level of what is acceptable participation for other colleagues in the room.
• Be comfortable with less concrete answers. Avoid confrontations at all costs so as not to upset others. The Japanese have mastered the art of speaking in ambiguous, noncommittal language. Sometimes foreigners find this terribly frustrating and push Japanese people to speak with less ambiguity, but for the Japanese, this can feel very harsh and too frank.
• Be careful not to overemphasize individual achievement. The Japanese get much more satisfaction from group accomplishments. Allow participants to think on their own first, and then share their ideas with their group. Finally, have the group report their consensus on the topic.
• Don’t rush the consensus process. At the beginning of a project, Japanese people need time to form a consensus on how to proceed as a team. The teams will move quickly after reaching an agreement, because everyone knows their roles.
Teaching in Japan is exciting and rewarding. The Japanese culture is a vibrant mix of traditional values and modern approaches to doing business. Japanese society keeps in touch with its past, while adapting to an increasingly global community. Most Japanese workers understand that being competitive means being more global, and they are now actively exploring what that means for their company, their team, and their job. Japanese learners have a very positive attitude toward learning; they study very hard and are quite appreciative of the guidance and expertise that foreign trainers can provide. Additionally, corporate Japan has immense and varied training needs. The country holds a wealth of opportunities for those willing to navigate the cultural sensitivities and understand the way Japan does business.
About the Author
Matthew Axvig grew up on a small farm on the Great Plains of North Dakota. He attended the University of North Dakota and studied Russian at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Russian and minors in space studies and biology, he spent four years in Awano, Japan, where he worked on sister city projects and educational programs as the city’s international projects coordinator. In 2000, he moved to Tokyo and began his career as a corporate trainer. A year later, he became HR administrator and was put in charge of trainer recruitment, curriculum design, teaching, and logistics. In 2005, he accepted a similar position at another Tokyo-based training firm, where he now manages more than 40 consultants and has designed, developed, and delivered training programs for hundreds of domestic and foreign companies throughout Japan. Matthew earned the Certified Professional in Learning and Performance credential in 2015 and the Master Trainer certification in 2016.
Charles, K. 2015. “5 Things U.S. Techies Need to Know About Japan’s Social Media System.” VentureBeat, November 28. https://venturebeat.com/2015/11/28/5-things-us-techies-need-to-know-about-japans-social-media-ecosystem.