• 小
  • 中
  • 大
  • お問い合わせ
  • TEL:03-6779-9420


Assertion and Assumptions


Harmony Rules


Cultures are changing all the time and these changes are happening more quickly than ever as the world globalizes. However, even with such changes, clear differences in core values are still very evident. In the United States, for example, the culture tends to value assertive individuals and reward those who stand out from the pack. The opposite situation can typically be seen in Japan, where there is a strong tendency to value harmony within groups over individuality.

The well known proverb, The nail that stands out gets hammered down, is a good example of how the culture supports this bias towards group harmony. It is very easy to imagine one nail, or stake, standing higher than the others and being beaten down with a large hammer to the same level as those around it. It is important to recognize that this is typically the collective influence of Japanese culture as a whole.

Japanese society’s emphasis on harmony has been expressed in collectivism and conformism for more than a thousand years. In the early 7th century in Japan, harmony was actually codified as a value by Prince Shotoku in the country’s first constitution. The document was largely influenced by Buddhist and Confucian thought, and it focused on the morals and virtues to be displayed by society. Three of the seventeen articles, paraphrased below, show the importance of harmony that is still very much alive in modern day Japan.

1. Harmony is valued, and the avoidance of opposition is honored
Harmonious behavior creates an environment in which open opposition is avoided. This allows members of society to save face. In a business meeting, strongly challenging someone in front of others would be a breach of that harmony, and so this behavior is not commonly seen. Harmony does not mean that people in Japan do not have opposing views. It means that the way of expressing those opposing views, if expressed at all, tends to be very indirect compared with cultures that value assertiveness.

In a negotiation or conflict situation, it is very common for Japanese to use a neutral third party to help avoid directly criticizing someone. Involving a third party allows both sides to clearly express their views, while also avoiding any open opposition. The third party can then choose softer or more indirect words when communicating the message to further ensure that loss of face will not occur for either of the parties. This less assertive approach allows people to maintain harmony.

2. To turn away from what is private, and towards what is public
Inside a typical Japanese corporation, the line between work life and private life has historically been faintly drawn. While many salaried employees would like to have a healthier work-life balance, the demands of the company are highly prioritized in their lives. Unless it is a day that the company has decided will have no overtime, employees regularly work after hours. On this so-called “no zangyou day,” all employees leave the company at the end of the fixed workday. Not by coincidence, this is also the day of the week that employees tend to participate in work related after-hours social events with coworkers or customers.

Inside the company, individual career advancement has typically been connected more to the number of years served and less to actual performance. Individual performance is measured, but when deciding bonuses, the measurement is made in relative terms rather than absolute terms. This means the resulting gap in bonus sizes between employees is actually very small. While this does not promote assertiveness, it makes sense in the typical Japanese corporation where the focus is on the success of the team as a whole, rather than that of the individual members of the team. The actual output or achievement is often a small part of the evaluation compared with attitude, effort, teamwork, and use of trusted processes.

3. Decisions should not be made by one person alone
Decision-making is rarely done on an individual basis. Although Japan can look like a top-down culture from the outside, those inside it know that if managers want their decision to be supported, they must speak with various layers of people that will be affected. Thus, ideas are slowly advanced through a department or a company through a process of nemawashi.

Nemawashi is a way to test ideas with individuals before presenting them in to a group in a meeting. This very common process allows employees to voice their ideas and get individual feedback from various stakeholders. Ideas can be improved and support can be gained in this process, or ideas can be scrapped altogether depending on feedback. While this approach appears far less assertive than just stating ideas directly in a meeting, it avoids surprises and promotes quicker adoption of ideas with the harmonious support of all involved.

Culture has evolved as a way of successfully interacting with others in society. In a sense it is a learned survival skill for a given environment that dictates a range of acceptable behaviors. From the viewpoint of more assertive cultures, Japanese behavior is often seen as inappropriately passive. At the same time, from the standpoint of a culture that is focused on promoting harmony among its members, assertive behavior feels aggressive. While assertive members may sometimes experience success in Japan, they will more likely be brought back into line by the collective influence of the surrounding culture wielding the hammer of harmony.



















Graham Lenz