We are continuing the series of blog posts that provide some basic background knowledge on how to access the Japanese market as a Danish company.

Many companies probably tried having a dialogue, presentation, or sales meeting with a Japanese company, feeling they were close to sealing the deal, and afterwards, nothing happened.

Danes usually have a straightforward dialogue, trying to eliminate any misunderstandings. This is a completely different story in Japan. You will always get a polite answer regardless of what you ask or show them. Often, this means the parties leave the meeting with two different perspectives on how to continue the dialogue

To understand why it is so hard to get a straight answer and seal the deal, we need to understand some of the deeper underlying values of Japanese culture, and their upbringing as children.

In Japan, the people have a word called Wa (和). The word Wa means Japanese-style; however, it also denotes broad ideas and concepts of union, peace, conformity, and harmony. Harmony among people and the environment close to one’s self is the norm that concerns every Japanese citizen. Compared to the Western culture in word and concept, the closest term to Wa would be empathy. Alternatively, to draw a line to the teachings of Christ: “Do to others what you want them to do for you.” However, Wa allows even less degree of self-awareness and ego.

A Danish pedagogue saw a class of Japanese elementary school children marching disciplinarily to their classroom after a morning assembly. He said, “Incredible, but it feels unnatural—Danish children could never do this.”

This paints the picture that from childhood, Japanese children are taught not to be a nuisance to others and to be respectful, fulfilling the concept of Wa. It is not that Danish children do not have these values, but in Denmark, they strive to develop independence and social competences much closer to the ego.

This deeply founded Wa often affects the dialogue, and brings a situation where you feel unsure about the answer you receive from a Japanese businessperson. The Japanese may consider other people first, and may often be afraid to tell their own opinion or give a straightforward answer. They will always put the harmony of the group before their personal interests. In many ways, how you position yourself will depend on what answer you receive.

Therefore, before you can “understand” the straight answer, you need two things: to gain trust and to learn the concept of Wa.