Japanese communicate very indirectly and in a relationship-oriented way. In business conversations, the focus is not on the matter at hand, but on the relationship with the individual. For Japanese, it is more important how you say something than what you say.
As a general rule, the older or higher an interlocutor is in the company hierarchy, the more reserved, respectful and polite you should be when communicating with them. Never openly contradict them.
Loss of face
You should take special care not to cause your counterpart any loss of face. Loss of face means that a person loses their reputation or honor. This can happen if you inadvertently put someone in an uncomfortable or embarrassing position in front of others by, for example, directly criticizing them or addressing some wrongdoing.
Most Japanese managers speak little or no English. For this reason, it is essential that you find out whether you will need an interpreter before a meeting. In addition to language and specialist knowledge, an interpreter should have cross-cultural skills and not always translate everything directly but take communication differences into account. Their advice on how to behave and react when talking to Japanese people is usually very helpful!
Yes or no?
The indirect style of communication and the need for harmony of the Japanese often make it difficult for foreigners to recognize to what extent a Japanese interlocutor agrees or disagrees with a matter or a proposal.
Japanese rarely say “no” outright. They will either say “yes”, which just means that they are still “with you” and will listen to you politely. Or they will use evasive phraseology such as “We have to think about this.” and “We basically agree, BUT….”. They may also simply keep silent, ask counter-questions or change the subject.
As already mentioned, criticism in Japan is very quickly associated with a loss of face. Japanese people react very sensitively because they usually take criticism personally and not purely objectively.
If you want to voice criticism, you should do so very carefully and with indirect language. Wrap your criticism or reprimands in gracious words to avoid the dreaded loss of face.
You can, for example, address critical points during the evening’s casual entertainment “by the way” and in private.
Or you can link your critical remarks to praise. For example, you could say, “We are pleased that we have you, Suzuki-san, in this project, and that you are so instrumental in driving it forward. However,…” and here comes the critical point.
You can also present your criticism by implying that it does not come from you, but from a third party. For example: “We have received feedback from our branch plant that there are quality problems with this product. Would you mind checking that out?”
Or you can have the Japanese person responsible for the problems inform a colleague unofficially. This person then says, for example: “I have heard that the quality of the product is not satisfactory.”
No matter how you do it: if you can’t avoid criticism, be very polite and remember that your Japanese partner must definitely be able to save face!