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
Hourensou (報連相), pronounced like the Japanese word for spinach (ほうれん草), was a term invented by the author and businessman Tomiji Yamazaki out of three key behaviors he expected from employees:
- Hou (報) refers to houkoku (報告), reporting. You’re expected to provide regular updates to your supervisor, not simply hand in tasks once you’re finished.
- Ren (連) comes from renraku (連絡), 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 (相), refers to soudan (相談) 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.
Enter zassou (雑草), or weeds, which also has its corporate counterpart, 雑相, pronounced the same.
Za (雑) comes from zatsudan (雑談), having a relaxed chat. Sou (相), like in hourensou, refers to soudan (相談), 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 (隠れんぼう), the Japanese term for hide-and-seek, kakurenbou (確連報), means quite the opposite. It shares two-thirds of hourensou: the difference is in the initial kaku (確), from kakunin (確認, 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
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 (お浸し), 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 怒否助指 stands for:
- “O” is for okoranai (怒らない)—don’t get angry
- “Hi” is for hiteishinai (否定しない)—don’t be negative
- “Ta” comes from tasukete (助けて)—help out
- and “shi” stands for shiji shite (指示して)—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’
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 (沈黙する): Keeping quiet or being unresponsive, either of which should be avoided.
- Genkai made iwanai (限界まで言わない): 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 (最後まで我慢する): 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 (沈限最), which sounds the same as bok choy in Japanese (青梗菜), 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.
||Hourensou||Reporting, communicating and consulting. A model of corporate communications that many Japanese corporations follow.|
|雑相||Zassou||Chatting and consulting (Alternative of hourensou with more focus on communication)|
|確連報||Kakurenbou||Confirming, communicating and reporting (Alternative of hourensou with a more take-charge approach)|
|怒否助指||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)|
|沈限最||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!