One of my readers has been experiencing tremendous frustration getting on with her personal and professional life in Japan, and asked me about the right way to communicate with the Japanese, particularly if your Japanese language is not the best. While I am not Japanese, but having invested in learning the language, going to graduate school in Japan, and then eventually working in Tokyo for an American corporation, I do have some thoughts. I wouldn’t say that I have perfected the art, but I have managed to survive. It requires years of practice and training, and still impossible for us foreigners. In any case, here are some tips that I learned the hard way and worked for me:
Silence is golden. Talk as little as you can get away with.
NEVER express your opinion. Not even good or bad. Just pretend as if you have no opinion, but to keep the peace (wa), say nice things about everything, even if they are bad. So even an awful dish is always delicious; you get the idea.
Do not ask the same of others. Do not push anyone to share something that they do not want to. People will share whatever they feel like, but you should not ask them to.
Always beat around the bush. Never ask or request something directly. For example, if you are with a friend and you would like to go to the museum with him. Say something like, “I heard that there is a Picasso exhibition at the museum this weekend. Maybe I will go.” If he does not respond or shows no more interest or does not volunteer to go, it is time to move on to another harmless topic. However, if he starts asking questions or tells stories about Picasso or museums or art, you can then suggest only indirectly, “Oh, maybe you can come along if you have time.” Japanese people do not like to hurt other people or being put in a situation where they have to decline an invitation or offend them or make them feel less important, so they do not like to be put on the spot.
Finally, keep practicing. Start with small stuff and eventually you can move on more serious stuff that can help you close business deals in Japan and get something out of them.