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What You Need To Know Before Arguing With Japanese People

Before you start, it's important to have an understanding of how Japanese people discuss delicate topics.

By 5 min read 62

One of the problems that some foreigners encounter when living in Japan is how to discuss political and ethical subjects with Japanese people. Exchanging smalltalk and simple ideas usually will not be taxing (aside from any language barrier) or pose a problem, but once the speaker graduates from basic conversation to challenge more difficult topics, the possibility of conflict arises.

Take for example the internationally hot topic of dolphin or whale hunting. An ethically interesting and pertinent subject to tackle, but one that beckons conflict with both hands. As foreigners living in Japan, one of our first inclinations is to stop and ask those around us their opinion on the topic. After all, in many overseas media outlets, the issue is framed as a Japanese problem, bringing the whole race unfairly into question.

Why not go to the source directly and ask: What do the Japanese really think of this issue?

Naturally not everyone will want to discuss such topics, and being a politically and ethically sensitive issue, it is bound to ignite a more animated discussion than smalltalk about the weather. However, it seems fair game. After all, it’s in the news. It’s shocking. It’s simple enough that everyone can have an opinion on. Why not talk about it, right?

But already we’re unwittingly walking a precarious line. Broaching a topic such as this, while admittedly not your average dinnertime conversational piece even back home, is considerably easier among groups of likeminded westerners. Political and ethical issues are among those that are not easily discussed in Japan.

Of course, that’s not to say that Japanese people do not speak of them! Quite to the contrary, locals can be quite vocal about political issues affecting them and are not shy to rise up and let the government know with demonstrations.

But among coworkers and casual friends – the sort of people that we meet regularly but do not maintain a close level of intimacy with – these issues are altogether best avoided in the first place. Perhaps even with those Japanese people we are intimately close to these issues are best left unspoken.

Unlike many western countries where a casual pub debate would end at the bottom of a glass, fiery topics in Japan can leave lasting and unwelcome impressions on the Japanese participants. What seemingly should just be a free exchange of ideas, opinions and facts with the aim of perhaps going home a little smarter and more informed has a tendency to act as a catalyst for not speaking or socialising again.

Why is this?

In part the problem is caused by the way westerners are brought up to discuss such topics and, in turn, with the way Japanese people are used to discussing them. Many westerners are used to debates and free exchange of ideas, even to the point of talking over colleagues and making their opinions and supporting reasons clearly known. The goal is often to prove themselves right and win a discourse, or perhaps in a more noble light, to see the absolute facts prevail.

Such is the free nature of this sort of exchange that, sometimes, the person with the most commanding voice or assertive nature is known to dominate, quite irrespective of whether or not his or her ideas are well thought out.

In contrast, in Japanese ‘debate’, emphasis is placed on maintaining a level of harmony with the other person. Rarely is a person’s opinion directly challenged or refuted. To avoid discord, what often happens is that the listener will tend to agree with the speaker’s points, sometimes in such a roundabout and acquiescent manner that a third party might mistake them for actually agreeing with the speaker!

After softening the blow however the listener will then proceed to give their own opinion, often while noting similarities between their position and the speaker’s, and advance a slightly different viewpoint. To which the speaker will perform the same sort of dance, yielding while simultaneously disagreeing.

This ebb and flow of ideas serves to save face and build consensus wherever possible between participants. There are of course situations where an impasse is reached and neither person can advance their opinion without disagreeing outright with the other. Such scenarios usually end in a deflation rather than an explosion (as we might see with two westerners clashing in the heat of debate), leading to a rather unresolved situation that trails off, hopefully to be replaced by a safer topic.

It is however important to remember that not everyone is going to fit these vast generalisations. There are Japanese people who will happily engage in debates, and in turn there are foreigners who crumble when challenged directly. Notably, the general use of the word ‘westerner’ here encompasses so many different countries and cultures that it cannot possibly hope to represent the entirety of foreigners here in Japan. Nevertheless, understanding the observed patterns here will help us to avoid the worst possible scenario where we inadvertently offend and alienate our Japanese friends and colleagues.

On such a topic as arguing in Japanese, it difficult to recommend any specific phrases or speech patterns a foreigner in Japan can learn to avoid such an outcome. Rather, it is the entire mindset towards having such a conversation that must be grasped.

The first rule of thumb would be to avoid talking about such heated topics wherever possible or unless you are absolutely sure the other person is open to discussing it with you.

The second would be to approach any ‘argument’ as a way to bridge ground with the other person. They are not your ‘opponent’ in a debate, but rather your ‘partner’ in a discussion. What are the similarities between your own opinion and theirs? What points did they make that are deserving of merit? Could it be that you actually share the same opinion but are just approaching the issue from different angles? And so on.

Thirdly, when disagreeing, be sure to verbally note where you partner succeeds, in some cases complimenting them on their insight, before gently introducing an opposing viewpoint. Even here, ‘opposing’ would be too strong and the most effective method would be to offer an alternative way of looking at things.

Have you had any experiences where a conversation went wrong? What happened and how did you resolve it? Let me know in the comments!

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  • Brian Le Marquand says:

    I REALLY enjoyed this article. But a poser for you? If ‘The Japanese’ have the right to appear evasive, non-committal, wishy-washy, ineffectual (let’s trot out all the stereotypes once again!), then maybe us one-dimensional Westerners also have the right to be direct, challenging (also other mass outing for adjectives!)??? I know we are in their country and I am being extreme but why pander to Japanese so-called sensibilities? Does that not reinforce the idea that the Japanese way is right rather than there are other, valid, ways of behaving??

  • kay says:

    This is so important in communicating in Japanese society! From my experience, understanding these cultural nuances are more critical than learning the language well.

    In Japanese schools, people aren’t taught to debate or express their opinions aggressively. Obviously, one’s personality isn’t determined by their education. But there is an emphasis on collective thinking rather than individualistic thinking. Many tend to be reserved about their opinions because it might disrupt group harmony. In addition, wanting to disagree and debate about one’s opinions can feel intrusive in one’s privacy of opinions.

    I think these are just alternative ways of showing respect compared to other societies. If someone is agreeing to engage in a debate, that’s totally fine. But if they’d rather refrain and keep their opinions private, they’re likely to passively agree or listen. Furthermore, by showing understanding for the other person’s opinion, they’re trying to maintain a comfortable situation to express differing opinions. People generally expect this kind of respect, and trying to pry out a argumentative conversation can become pretty uncomfortable.

  • Dotpols says:

    In a funny sort of way, I feel like the Japanese way of debating things is rather well represented by the old British TV series “Yes, Minister.”

    Your every day Brits will happily disagree and engage in debate, but that show dealt with the stuffier middle to upper classes of the public service and government, and it was hilarious to watch how indirect absolutely every piece of discourse between the Minister and Sir Humphrey.

    There was a common template at play: Minister puts forward an idea that will challenge the status quo, to which Sir Humphrey responds with vigorous agreement, whilst telling the Minister what a brave decision it was and other seemingly positive comments that are in fact subtle euphemisms for disapproval.

    There is something of a common thread with the British and the Japanese in that sense though – both countries culturally are inclined to be indirect and inoffensive. Douglas Adams put an anecdote in one of his books that really sums them up, but could just as easily have come from Japan:

    This actually did happen to a real person, and the real person was me. I had gone to catch a train. This was April 1976, in Cambridge, U.K. I was a bit early for the train. I’d gotten the time of the train wrong. I went to get myself a newspaper to do the crossword, and a cup of coffee and a packet of cookies. I went and sat at a table.

    I want you to picture the scene. It’s very important that you get this very clear in your mind. Here’s the table, newspaper, cup of coffee, packet of cookies. There’s a guy sitting opposite me, perfectly ordinary-looking guy wearing a business suit, carrying a briefcase. It didn’t look like he was going to do anything weird. What he did was this: he suddenly leaned across, picked up the packet of cookies, tore it open, took one out, and ate it.

    Now this, I have to say, is the sort of thing the British are very bad at dealing with. There’s nothing in our background, upbringing, or education that teaches you how to deal with someone who in broad daylight has just stolen your cookies.

    You know what would happen if this had been South Central Los Angeles. There would have very quickly been gunfire, helicopters coming in, CNN, you know. . . But in the end, I did what any red-blooded Englishman would do: I ignored it. And I stared at the newspaper, took a sip of coffee, tried to do a clue in the newspaper, couldn’t do anything, and thought, what am I going to do?

    In the end I thought, Nothing for it, I’ll just have to go for it, and I tried very hard not to notice the fact that the packet was already mysteriously opened. I took out a cookie for myself. I thought, That settled him. But it hadn’t because a moment or two later he did it again. He took another cookie. Having not mentioned it the first time, it was somehow even harder to raise the subject the second time around. “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but notice . . .” I mean, it doesn’t really work.

    We went through the whole packet like this. When I say the whole packet, I mean there were only about eight cookies, but it felt like a lifetime. He took one, I took one, he took one, I took one. Finally, when we got to the end, he stood up and walked away. Well, we exchanged meaningful looks, then he walked away, and I breathed a sigh of relief and sat back.

    A moment or two later the train was coming in, so I tossed back the rest of my coffee, stood up, picked up the newspaper, and underneath the newspaper were my cookies.

    The thing I like particularly about this story is the sensation that somewhere in England there has been wandering around for the last quarter-century a perfectly ordinary guy who’s had the same exact story, only he doesn’t have the punch line.

  • Nik Edmiidz says:

    There is something very sophisticated about seeing some common ground before expressing your own opinion. But I’ve been in arguments with Japanese that descended into defensiveness and use of red herrings among other logical fallacies… The red herring in one case was that because I come from a heritage of oppression of black people, that I cannot express a negative opinion about a restaurant owner in Tokyo forbidding entry of foreigners into his restaurant.

  • jianfei says:

    After japan was nuked, the Japanese lost face. When I speak to Japanese I always point out the negative things Japan was and still is. I have no concern about this and most Japanese salute me for being direct. Only a stupid Japanese will get offended by direct conversation about their countries short falling.. And when Japan mention to me, how about your Hitler? I tell them directly to their face, Hitler was much worse than Japan. we both reach the argument resolution directly, Now try doing that to a childish Chinese… =)

    • SalmonTacos says:

      Try doing what to a “childish Chinese”? Being direct with them? I’m going to assume that, because you said “childish” that you think they are going to snap at you. Because they are Chinese. That kind of discrimination, is exactly like what this article is doing to the Japanese. So, you say that Japanese don’t get offended by foreigners being direct with them, but a Chinese would get offended. What kind of proof do you have for this kind of discrimination?

      • jianfei says:

        Experience living in China for over two years.

        • SalmonTacos says:

          Doesn’t mean everyone there is childish. Like I said earlier, this kind of stereotyping discrimination that you have against the Chinese is exactly the same kind of discrimination that this article has against the Japanese. You are saying the same thing that this article said about the Japanese, to the Chinese. Really does help you to prove your point, huh?

  • Jeeps says:

    When in Japan I ate whale meat and hourse meat. When in Rome do as the Ronans do.

  • Rafael Munia says:

    One of the first steps to better understand “Japanese people” would be to admit that there are no “Japanese people” as a category.
    We could all stop being racially driven in our views that there is a “Japanese way to discuss”, and a “Western way to discuss” (who the hell are ‘Western’ any way, is this implying that Americans discuss the same way as French so that they can be lumped in the same category!?)

    Plus, nothing is more paternalist and arrogant than this “cultural differences” point of view that thinks that discussing in a way that is no productive, does not reach an end, and privileges ‘saving face’ rather than a free exchange of ideas is not worse, but just different. Its like treating Japanese as incapable human beings. Its just “the way they do things, which is different from “us” “.

    • Guest says:

      I don’t agree, the Japanese way is definitely different to other countries, and more indirect than in the UK, USA or Australia for example. Sure everyone in Japan has their unique character, but there is a distinct way of discussing issues, meetings, doing business, the list goes on and on.

    • crella says:

      ‘Culturally’ not ‘racially’…their debate style is different. Come at a discussion all arms akimbo like a bull in a china shop, and you will alienate them. Not acknowledging cultural differences seems foolish when they’re as plain as the nose on your face.

  • zchug says:

    Of course, Japanese will not disagree with this article’s points

  • David Morton says:

    Right, just ask a Japanese person about guns in the USA and this article falls apart.
    The “appearance” of conformity is important in Japan not actual harmony…

  • Mike Mihata says:

    don’t argue with a samurai

  • Jennifer Anastasi says:

    I’ve had a complex situation with my passive aggressive step mom whom is japanese. She will voice her opinions very strongly and will nag at it as if she is the only logical correct person..However I find my self measuring her character to a warm mother..However far from it, she is lacking as a compassionate person who is trying to harmoniously balance relationships. No sense of affection or spiritual development. .i can’t argue with her about any other perspective. .its about money brand and class with her..scary stuff.

  • Steven A. Cecil says:

    Having had frequent debates with both Japanese, my own people, and just simply people all over the world altogether, I find that the majority of this is not much Japanese related, especially the three rules you listed, which I find to completely correlate with an ideal of civilized and non-heated discussion in the west as well.

    I also think how they’d act also depend highly on how they feel about the specific topic. Having had many discussions on WWII with Japanese, and a few on modern politics, I can assure you that when they feel passionate about the subject and get heated, they can quickly disregard any ideas of harmony and agreement and even go as far as to initiate and increase the heat in the debate, especially with tu-quoques and ad-hominems, with the slogans that Mike Wyckoff mentioned being frequently – and I mean ‘frequently’ – used.

    I think this might be the primary difference, that westerners are more inclined to get heated with debates in general whereas the Japanese may be only inclined to do so if the subject is something they’re passionate about, which I assume is what you’re getting at and your main point.

  • Mike Wyckoff says:

    I’ve found that a lot of when things get heated, Japanese will refer to my appearance and ethnicity and attempt to resolve things hastely by saying, “You don’t understand the Japanese way.”, or “You’re not Japanese!”

    • Chika Cox says:

      I was said that by my American-ex husband – You don’t understand the American way, or You are not American.

  • MK8 says:

    Nice post. My experience is that indeed smalltalk is easier than discussing personal thoughts on certain subjects. I usually try to start such a discussion with saying ‘in the West, it is generally thought that such and such. Is this also true for Japan?’ First, someone will agree or disagree for the majority of people and then steadily, others will fill this in with their own opinion. At that moment, it also gets easier to ventilate your own thoughts on a subject.

  • Stephanie Gertsch says:

    The points at the end seem like a no-brainer to me! How can anyone have a good discussion without acknowledging the other person’s valid points and treating them like a friend? It’s common courtesy. But I have a very laid-back conversation style in general…

  • Firefly says:

    Sounds a but like what I’m doing at schoole each day, nodding and agreeing when the teacher says something, no matter wht it is or if it’s right or not, because if I’d object, I’d probably get a bad grade in return 😀

  • Don Corleone says:

    I found this article very insightful but a little naive in my opinion – spend 20 years with the Japanese and then come back to write it again. The Japanese are a tough, stubborn people – I respect them. However it is best to not push the argument (as you would with American friends) because once bitten it is over – we’re dealing with absolutes here, and you will lose a friend.

    • crella says:

      That’s what they said… 😀

      ” fiery topics in Japan can leave lasting and unwelcome impressions on the Japanese participants. What seemingly should just be a free exchange of ideas, opinions and facts with the aim of perhaps going home a little smarter and more informed has a tendency to act as a catalyst for not speaking or socialising again.”

  • ippatsuya says:

    Excellent article. I know the video is as much a joke as anything else, but I think it’s a little overly stereotypical. The suggestion is that arguments for foreigners descend into some ridiculous brawl when in reality it’s more likely that

    A. one party will just give up
    B. topic focus will change
    C. participants will agree to disagree
    D. one party will change their mind

    You might see this as not a problem as it’s a joke but in my view, those who know it’s a joke know it’s a joke. Those who do not know that will just find reinforcement in a stereotype of foreigners as abrasive, rough and inconsiderate of others. Especially in more formal situations, people in the west are more likely to deviate to the third “Japanese” style of argument. Think of a business scenario where a boss and employee are discussing a product to buy.

    Boss: I really think that product A is going to suit our needs best.
    Employee: Yes, I do agree that it is a well built product. But because of reasons XYZ, I think product B might be more suitable for what we want to do.
    Boss: Well yes, I have used product B personally for several years now. But because of application 123 that we will use, I don’t think it will fit exactly with what we want.
    Employee: Hmm, yes, you may well be right. Maybe I should do some more research into it first

    etc etc. Disclaimer though I am British and have never lived/worked in America (though I worked for about 3 years in offices in England) so the culture may be different “over the pond”.

    The second conversation however is fantastic to the extent that it should be shown to foreigners on arrival at Narita.

  • ross says:

    my experience has been to ask the person if they’re interested in discussing a topic before starting it. also, most people here didn’t even know about the dolphin thing until “the cove” was publicized.

  • Anya says:

    Since I have no interests in politics, I don’t usually bring up subjects like that. Oddly enough, I found out (I’ve been speaking japanese for more than 10 years now) that japanese people are more likely to ask questions you don’t want to discuss. I’ve been asked several times about the politics of my country, my take on races, immigration and such. Anyway, I think the rule might be the same in Japan as everywhere : if the other speaker seems to not be receptive to your opinion or ideas, just nod and try to leave the debate as soon as possible.

  • phu says:

    “The second would be to approach any ‘argument’ as a way to bridge ground with the other person. They are not your ‘opponent’ in a debate, but rather your ‘partner’ in a discussion. What are the similarities between your own opinion and theirs? What points did they make that are deserving of merit? Could it be that you actually share the same opinion but are just approaching the issue from different angles? And so on.”

    This is my beef with the whole concept, at least in America, of what a debate is: No one is interested in finding out who’s correct. They simply want to “win.”

    This goes all the way back to high school: If you’ve ever been to a high school debate, the point is to win. You don’t even have control over what topic you’re arguing (because that’s what it is) or what side you’re taking (because that’s what you’re required to do). You simply receive your topic and position, take notes on your opponent’s presentation, and discredit him as much as possible, whether you believe what you’re saying or not.

    With that kind of foundation, and given the imbecilic bickering that passes for political debate (again, at least in the US, but I don’t think this one’s just us), it’s not surprising that many people don’t understand, or maybe just don’t believe, that they could potentially change their views if only they’d discuss things in a productive manner with an open mind.

    • Larry Cooper says:

      Note that this is what attorneys and other professional advocates do all the time. The American judicial system places justice secondary to the individual’s right to the “best representation” they can afford. Japan is not immune to that mentality, either. The television show “Legal High” uses it for laughs.

  • AkinaKai says:

    This was very insightful. To accept such a diplomatic approach to every argument you encounter is definitely something that requires a twist of a whole mindset.

    I wonder, however, with this vague kind of ending to a discussion, how can you tell if your point came across? Not that you’ve ‘won’ the argument, but that what you’ve been arguing has been accepted and will be acted upon?

  • Gakuranman says:

    Introducing new ideas requires an established level of trust beforehand and a gentle easing of the new idea after acknowledging the other person’s statements first. There’s a good anecdote somewhere in these comments that talks about that 🙂

  • Larry Cooper says:

    Really good article! I think two points are important: 1) you really need to listen for what is being left unsaid, but implied. It took me a long time to learn how to do that in Japanese. 2) Don’t expect that western-style reasoning will always win over a Japanese person. What many westerners see as absolute, self-evident truths are not that cut-and-dried in Japanese culture.

  • Guest says:

    The dog/cat argument was just a bit of fun to highlight the differences in arguments. There were deliberate exaggerations made for humour and to make it clear, so take it with a pinch of salt :).

  • TC Anil Ucar Mutsu says:

    i have question i wonder one think in this video they discuss about photo and when forgein says its cat i wonder why he accept that easyly and dont refuse wekll for Our turkish point if somebody ask me whats this why i need to fight i will just sayt its photoshop dog and crumpycat together …well i dont get it their argue

    • Gakuranman says:

      The dog/cat argument was just a bit of fun to highlight the differences in arguments. There were deliberate exaggerations made for humour and to make it clear, so take it with a pinch of salt 🙂

  • Carole Deveau says:

    What if you brought up a problem facing your own country, instead of jumping from everyday conversation, to whaling. Or a neutral problem to both parties involved?
    I agree that their is a difference in communication between NJ and J, so built up to those touchy topics, and avoid airing out “their dirty laundry” first. People get defensive when someone who isn’t from their hometown/country talks about their faults…and this is true of anywhere, not just Japan.

    Also, the constantly agreeing with the speaker isn’t actually agreeing, it’s active listening. When a Japanese person says yes (hai) in a conversation, they are just stating the fact that they are following your conversation and understanding, not agreeing with it.

    • Gakuranman says:

      These is a good point. I admit that I wasn’t clear enough when raising the whaling point, but I fully agree with you that topics like those are not ones to be brought up lightly, and certainly not with strangers. Nor are they topics that should be reduced to questions about an entire race of people or ones that put somebody on the spot (personally I think that is universal and common sense).

      My aim was to highlight discussion of controversial topics in the media. Ideally, I feel there shouldn’t be a barrier to frank discussion. It doesn’t matter if the news is reported ‘Japan did ABC’ or ‘America did XYZ’. Being able to openly discuss those things with colleagues and friends is important, but the discussion methods needed and implications of broaching the topics differ between cultures.

  • Ronald Ivan says:

    This is very insightful indeed. I am still a bit unclear of how to stimulate new ideas and perspectives in a debate/discussion/argument but now I think I have a better idea how they think collectively in general.

  • Locohama says:

    Excellent article Michael! I think it offers some extremely useful ideas to keep in mind when having a discussion with Japanese people who respond to the NJ style of getting into it in this way. However it seems the onus is placed entirely on the NJ to learn how to avoid “the worst possible scenario where we inadvertently offend and alienate our Japanese friends and colleagues.” I think this ought to be a two-way street. Just as you’ve taken the time to help some NJ understand and navigate this terrain, I think this kind of thing needs to be going on among Japanese as well, and for much the same reason, for their is a great deal of inadvertent offense and alienation seemingly not being avoided coming from the natives. Do you know if such a thing is happening from the Japanese end? Would you agree that the onus should be on all parties involved, that this scenario is optimal, or should the onus be entirely on NJ to accept the sometimes offensive and alienating Japanese styles of communicating and behaving, for whatever reason, while NJ are making efforts not to?

    Honestly, sometimes when I get into discussions with Japanese, it does seem like they’ve had some guidance in this area, but that guidance has actually been misguidance. It appears to me that they’ve (not all, just the people I’m talking about) been told, or have somehow come to the conclusion, that their “natural” style of communicating will not serve them in a disagreement with a NJ, and a less civil, more aggressive style is what “we” are accustomed to and thus they bring it! This has happened numerous times to me. I can’t say if this is the result of their being trained to deal with NJ this way, or if it is derived from the western media. But it happens. Have you experienced that? If so,is your response to that situation to “out Japanese” them or shame them back to their natural Japanese stance by following your wisdom above, or do you bring your western style to the fore? I usually play it by ear… Again, to be clear, I agree with what you’ve written, and I know it is effective. I just had some questions.

    • Gakuranman says:

      Hey Loco!

      I think the onus needs to be on the westerner to adapt more towards the Japanese style of discussing matters when in Japan, for the simple reason that many Japanese people simply will not know how to deal with the more direct approach westerners bring. Japan is not yet multicultural enough to realistically expect that level of understanding. There’s also the old argument of ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’, where it is natural for the host culture to expect a level of adaptation from guests.

      However, what ‘ought’ to be the case is different – I fully agree with you that in an ideal world the onus should be on both parties to understand one another’s cultural background and cooperate to communicate, wherever they may happen to be. Indeed, if Japan is to become more global, it needs to be proactive in educating citizens about these differences in order to mitigate problems. Relying on every guest to the country to understand Japanese cultural norms wouldn’t be effective by itself.

      In regards to your last question, I can’t say I’ve ever experienced this myself, but it sounds like it would be quite uncomfortable! I think I would just try to listen as much as I could, point out the merits in their arguments and then give my own view. Basically somewhere in between what would be best described as the ‘Japanese’ method and the ‘Western’ method, if that makes sense. It’s really tricky to say though, as each situation is different.

      • Locohama says:

        I see.
        If they’re capable of change, and this change would be to the benefit of all involved, then why not make it a priority? Unless you’re suggesting that this change is not in Japanese best interests, or that they are incapable of change, even when it’s in their best interest. I don’t believe that, if that’s what you’re saying. Sure, ideally (I guess) they should be able to interact with minorities as they see fit, one of those privileges of being the majority, here in japan and in other countries I’m sure. But, what that will accomplish is offending and alienating the very people that have foregone their own societies in favor of contributing to theirs as active and productive citizens. I’m not saying that NJ need make no adjustments, need not assimilate or acclimate. Of course not. I’m just saying that it would be a heck of a gesture, to feel that the overt effort I’m making to communicate with them without being inadvertently offensive or alienating is being consciously and conspicuously reciprocated.
        I’m not even suggesting wholesale overnight drastic changes. Like your suggestion in this post, I’d keep it simple as well.
        For example, many Japanese have a tendency when communicating with NJ to not ask questions to gain knowledge, but to confirm the stereotype/misinformation in their heads or to compare your answer with the answer they presume it to be based on the general knowledge base here. Compare these two questions: Americans love hamburgers, right? And: Do you like hamburgers?
        The former is the typical style of questioning one is likely to encounter here. Is it offensive? Not always. Is it alienating? Not always. But the potential to be either or both is there. The latter though is reflective of someone who wants to get to know you, not curious about whether the TV show they watched had it right about us guys.
        Just a simple alteration like that would do wonders.
        Is that unrealistic? Is that alteration a lot more difficult than I’m making it sound? Probably… But I think it’s a worthwhile undertaking, as is yours above.
        What do you think?

        • Gakuranman says:

          I think the point to take home here is that the average person does not want to have an argument, and the western approach is going to sound and feel very much like an argument to most Japanese people. The same goes with correcting people when they push a latent stereotype upon you (Americans love hamburgers, right?).

          If I tried to explain why that or similar statements are ignorant (at best) and obnoxious (at worst) every time they come up, I doubt many people would want to talk to me anymore. There’s a time and place for educating people in better communication with foreigners, and I’ve come to accept that everyday conversation with casual friends, acquaintances and colleagues is usually not the best way to go about it. (Which is a sad conclusion for me to have arrived at, I assure you).

          I completely agree with you in the importance of educating both sides on these issues though and do feel as though it’s possible and necessary for both sides to adapt to either style. The trust between good friends and an open mind is, I find, necessary before one can successfully challenge ways of speaking and interacting. But to try and ‘educate’ people on a daily basis each time we want to have a discussion on some sensitive topic or are offended by some ignorant stereotype? I would hazard a guess that it’s more effort than most people want to expend and would leave both parties bitter and drained if it happened often.

          So, to reiterate: I’m fully for educating both sides on communication techniques and meeting halfway. I’m just not sure that it’s something that can be done successfully on a daily basis with casual encounters. But do let me know if you’ve have success! Maybe there’s a way of pointing out these things in a delicate way that I haven’t yet mastered.

  • Cookee Cular says:

    this too applies to Filipinos. 🙂

  • Kim Rawlings Takayanagi says:

    Great article! With all that under consideration, how do you encourage action on causes you are passionate about without offending people? It’s one thing if people are offended because they don’t agree with your opinion but quite another if people take offense or won’t hear you out seriously due to your approach.

    • Gakuranman says:

      It really depends on the situation. Bringing up a topic you are passionate about at a casual nomikai with friends and colleagues is going be very different to bringing up a topic at a demonstration or event designed for debate, for example. If you’re rallying for a cause, having some sort of officiality to the cause, such as formal registration, a petition and clearly laid out explanations will certainly help. You can direct people to the source without having to confront them directly on the issue.

      In the company, it seems to be a case of picking your battles. Trying to push your opinion on every little issue won’t win you many supporters (although this isn’t unique to Japan). If you are going to push for an issue, then gaining the trust of people who will be commenting on the issue is important (nemawashi), as well as thoroughly thinking about possible objections and worries they may have. If you do your job right, then you will have answered most of, if not all the possible objections before they need to be raised.

      I recently watched a great video from Softypapa, explorer in Japan, talking about this very issue. He describes the office phenomenon very succintly:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cC2wyBmfCTY

    • AnthonyJoh says:

      Good question. How does one bring up topics in Japan that are surely to cause discomfort?

      I supposed the Japanese way is just not to bring it up but that doesn’t help move a society forward if they keep ignoring the issues.

      Do we pull out the gaijin card and just go for it?

      • Kylin88 says:

        My comment on this discussion from Japanese point of view.

        There’s one “Japangrish” called “TPO”, pretty much well known among Japanese, that represents “Time”, “Place”, “Occasion”, these elements to be considered when you speak up some controversial topic.

        It’s as a part of general social ettiquette required rather than just exchanging ideas. However if you really want to raise some controversial topic right now right here, just give an alert with rational reason why you want to discuss, some will accept your proposal.

  • Gakuranman says:

    You touch on an interesting point about group consensus. I mentioned that broaching heavy topics such as whaling should be done with caution, but this assumes that the audience has differing viewpoints on the topic. If it’s an issue that participants all largely agree on, then it reduces the impact of the discussing it. Often though, as you mentioned, those who do agree will not voice their opinion in the group, but perhaps afterwards with a close friend.

  • Joe Erickson says:

    Michael I enjoyed your article.

    I would like to give two examples from my daily life experiences.

    The first was at out yearly bounenkai. I was amazed by listening to the two different viewpoints. The gist is that two gentlemen where having a discussion about what was best for the current town I’m living in and even though they were completely inebriated they never lost there sense of harmony. They completely disagreed with each other on nearly every point, yet before they would say anything disagreeing with the others opinion, they would always say, “That’s so, but…” and then they would continue to say the complete opposite thing of the other person. I thought it was fairly interesting because this continued for about 30 minutes until finally they both agreed that a bowl of ramen was the best solution for the towns problems. In this case they both kept the peace, and still said exactly what they wanted to, but they said it in a way that confirmed the other persons viewpoint before anything else was added. True Japanese style, if you ask me.

    The second was a personal mistake that I made when conversing with a Japanese librarian at one of my schools. I mentioned how the top of her computer was dirty, as it was cleaning time, and she looked at me and said, “you are an A blood type, right.” I said,”well yes” and she continued on about how she could tell because of the comment I made about the dirt. At the end of her comment she mentioned, that blood types play an important part in the making of our personality. Without thinking I blurted out, “There is no way that is true.” and as soon as I realized what I had said, I knew that I had made a big mistake. She had completely shut down and her end of the conversation was over. Of course, I tried to rectify what I had said, but it was too late. She would just nod, and say yes. This was about 3 months ago and I can still sense something when we talk. Things are not the way they were before, it’s hard to describe, but it’s there.

    My biggest mistake here was that I should have treaded softly as soon as the topic of blood types was brought up. I know how strongly many Japanese feel about blood types and a persons personality.

    Anywho, I thought that both of these stories related to your post and thought I would share. Thanks.

    • Anthony Joh says:

      Check out the video above of Michael and Hikosaemon discussing the cat/dog. It’s a great example of your first story.

    • Gakuranman says:

      Those are great anecdotes! Thanks for sharing. The way the two guys in the first situation resolved their differences in particular gave me a chuckle. In seriousness though, after a serious conversation, something light that anyone can agree on usually is a good way of disolving any remaining tension.

      Your second story reminded me of similar situations I’ve been in myself, especially in regards to discussing blood types. Personally I disagree with much of the theory, or at least don’t take it seriously, but I’ve learnt that it’s better just to keep my mouth shut than challenge such viewpoints, especially when the topic is often raised as a lighthearted conversation piece.

  • David Byrne says:

    Michael Gakuran , I think your article is excellent not
    only as a strategy for a foreigner trying to navigate a diplomatic path in
    Japan but also as a strategy for diplomatic relations in general. In promoting
    or selling any idea it’s important to indicate to your opponent/partner that they
    have your respect and that their perspective is important to you. The emphasis
    on avoiding emotional escalation is paramount and wise. In fact such strategies
    more often than not obscure issues and make them personal.

    I have never been to Japan but I have many Japanese
    friends where I live. I have noticed that one has to be very diplomatic
    and skilful in dealing with contentious issues when engaging with Japanese people.
    Here in the west we are much more inclined to the idea of taking the opponent down
    while at the same time saying slyly ‘It’s nothing personal, just business’. Of
    course we are all fully aware that its very personal indeed !

    • Larry Cooper says:

      I think the new U.S. ambassador to Japan should read this article and do some self-reflection before making further pronouncements about things like dolphin hunting. It’s not whether her opinion was right or wrong, it’s that as a diplomat she needs to be more sensitive to local culture.

      • David Byrne says:

        I think Larry that
        this kind of diplomacy straddles a very thin line. One has to consider
        carefully their objective. In a case like this possibly the best approach is
        the gentle hard sell, you know pay the compliments but shroud each one with a
        question that ‘yes’ can be the only answer to and follow the rule, close, close
        and close 🙂

    • Gakuranman says:

      I fully agree. I vividly remember something my old physical education teacher taught our class during a theory lesson that has stuck with me for life. Although I’m not always good at remembering it in the heat of the moment, before any criticism one should aim to compliment the other person on the merits of their position. This helps a lot not just when teaching students and those with fragile egos or lack of confidence, but also as you note, to retain a level of diplomacy :).

      • David Byrne says:

        Of course here in the west we have our favourite retort
        to the opponent that tries to disarm us with flattery: ‘Don’t patronise me you
        smug piece of &(*&(*&*…………..lol”

        Still I agree with you, most people love it when you
        validate their position 🙂

  • Antipodean says:

    I’ve found that ‘some’ Japanese tend to argue a point, especially with other like-minded Japanese around them in such a way as to get audience acquiescence as they discuss their point therefore getting support for their particular point of view and then continue to mutter expressions of support interspersed with the ubiquitous “ne.”

    I’ve had a small discussion on the topic of ‘whaling’ with some of my older students (50s) and the ‘ring master’ tended to come from the ethnocentric point of view of culture and tradition. Whereas those who seemed to oppose the idea, on the whole remained silent. I never brought up the topic and knew in advance that he wanted to ‘stir things up’ as it were. But I merely gave him a wider perspective on why so many people oppose the cultural and traditional practice and eventually he came to see my point of view too whether or not just to keep the peace in the class or realised I was not going to be swayed. I’m not in any way however, opening the discussion up on ‘whaling’ rather giving a one off experience.


  • Lucas Spoel says:

    “The way Westerners are brought up to discuss these topics?????? And on what research did you base this on if I may ask???

    • Gakuranman says:

      Thanks for your comment. The article is based on my experience living and working here for many years, as well as the similar observations of friends and colleagues who have spent much of their life living in Japan and navigating the sea of cultural differences. As I noted, there’s an inherent danger in such generalisations and I am very aware not all westerners and not all foreigners hold the same beliefs nor were brought up the same way.

      However, the majority of those who have spent a significant time in Japan report largely the same findings – that there are big differences between how a typical Japanese person born and raised in Japan would argue or debate in contrast to a typical person born and raised in what are commonly classed as western countries, such as the US and UK.

      • Lucas Spoel says:

        Indeed. Just interesting how you talk about “Arguing”, “Debate” and “Discussing” as they are not the same.

        • Gakuranman says:

          That’s an excellent observation. To maintain bevity in this article I did not go into detail about the differences in each of these terms, but you are quite correct that each carries its own nuance!

  • MoiKnee says:

    Very interesting..



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