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Spinach, Weeds and Chinese Cabbage: Key Words in the Japanese Office

Many Japanese companies rely on principles conceived in the 1980s. But alternatives have emerged, changing how colleagues and bosses interact.

By 4 min read

A few months ago, I thought I’d lost my mind when I heard my boss ask new employees not to forget about “spinach.” Everyone nodded, seemingly undisturbed by her odd request. After the meeting, I asked one of my seniors about it.

She explained that hourensou, the Japanese word for spinach, is also a model for corporate communications that many Japanese companies follow. Many corporations have adopted it since its conception in the 1980s, bringing about many similar terms and alternatives.

What do vegetables have to do with corporate life in Japan? Make like Popeye The Sailor, grab some spinach, and let’s get to the root of it.

Spinach: reporting, communicating and consulting

Takes “if it ain’t broke” to a whole other level.

Hourensou (ほうれんそう), pronounced like the Japanese word for spinach (ほうれんそう), was a term invented by the author and businessman Tomiji Yamazaki out of three key behaviors he expected from employees:

  • Hou (ほう) refers to houkoku (ほうこく), reporting. You’re expected to provide regular updates to your supervisor, not simply hand in tasks once you’re finished.
  • Ren (れん) comes from renraku (れんらく), which means getting in touch with someone. You should inform your colleagues of anything that has, could, or should come up—the good and the bad.
  • Sou (そう), refers to soudan (そうだん) or consultation. Decisions are made collectively, so gather other people’s opinions before deciding. Before making any decisions, you’re expected to consult others.

The self-drivenness we strive for in a Western business environment could be someone’s demise in a Japanese company ruled by hourensou. Making your own decisions, being secretive about a project or not contacting others unless strictly necessary all go against this model in which everyone’s opinion matters. Albeit inclusive, hourensou can drag productivity. That’s probably why other terms have surfaced in a bid to replace it.

Reinventing hourensou

As if navigating the corporate world wasn’t difficult enough.

Enter zassou (ざっそう), or weeds, which also has its corporate counterpart, ざっそう, pronounced the same.

Za () comes from zatsudan (ざつだん), having a relaxed chat. Sou (そう), like in hourensou, refers to soudan (そうだん), consulting. The focus here is to talk constantly, reducing tension when something needs to be brought up. Expect lots of messages and emails from an office that follows zassou!

Named after kakurenbou (かくれんぼう), the Japanese term for hide-and-seek, kakurenbou (かくれんぼう), means quite the opposite. It shares two-thirds of hourensou: the difference is in the initial kaku (かく), from kakunin (かくにん, confirming).

If your company follows kakurenbou, you’ll be encouraged to find your own solutions and uphold them to your boss. Some companies have adopted kakurenbou to stimulate autonomy.

A bitter bite for the bosses

“O” is for okoranai (らない), don’t get angry.

Although hourensou originally applied to employees no matter their rank, in practice it turned out to be what those at the top expected from their subordinates. It soon became clear that bosses also needed a term condensing best practices for communicating with the rest.

Ohitashi (おひたし), a side dish of spinach marinated in dashi and soy sauce, is homophonous with a set of expected behaviors from leaders. Here’s what ohitashi stands for:

  • “O” is for okoranai (らない)—don’t get angry
  • “Hi” is for hiteishinai (ていしない)—don’t be negative
  • “Ta” comes from tasukete (けて)—help out
  • and “shi” stands for shiji shite (して)—give guidance

Ohitashi can seem insultingly obvious. For example, “don’t be negative” is hardly original advice for managers, and “help out” is basically their job description. But the current efforts to prevent power harassment include, in some cases, reminders like this.

Bok choy and the three ‘nos’

It’s time to make like a vegetable and leave.

When overloaded with problems, complaints and confrontation: what’s the best way to go?

Here’s what you shouldn’t do when you encounter a hurdle:

  • Chinmoku suru (ちんもくする): Keeping quiet or being unresponsive, either of which should be avoided.
  • Genkai made iwanai (げんかいまでわない): Not speaking out until you reach your limit, is the second thing to avoid. Whatever it is, big or small, you should bring it up before it’s too late.
  • Saigo made gaman suru (さいまでまんする): Nothing good can come out of a situation where you’re overwhelmed or stretching yourself too thin. Enduring an unpleasant situation until the end, is the third and final error, and a pretty common one, too.

When you join together the initial syllables of these three expressions, you get chingensai (ちんげんさい), which sounds the same as bok choy in Japanese (ちんげんさい), Chinese cabbage commonly used in Asian cuisine.

Japanese office kanji cheat sheet

Here are some key terms used in corporate communications in Japan. Some companies include them in handbooks or mention them in meetings to make sure everyone knows what to prioritize when keeping in touch with bosses, colleagues or subordinates.

Japanese Romaji English
Hourensou Reporting, communicating and consulting. A model of corporate communications that many Japanese corporations follow.
ざっそう Zassou Chatting and consulting (Alternative of hourensou with more focus on communication)
かくれんぼう Kakurenbou Confirming, communicating and reporting (Alternative of hourensou with a more take-charge approach)
Ohitashi Don’t get angry, don’t be negative, help out and give guidance (E.g., guidelines of behavior for bosses in order to avoid power harassment)
ちんげんさい Chingensai Keeping quiet, not speaking out until you reach your limit, enduring until the end (three things you shouldn’t do at work)

Does your company use terms like this? Do you know any other Japanese terms that have emerged recently? Let us know in the comments!

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