Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The gaijin complex~ Japanese communications

Many Japanese feel uncomfortable with foreigners because Japan is homogenous and still a very closed country and they are not used to interacting with foreigners. In fact, a couple of decades ago, Japanese pointed fingers toward rare foreigners and muted "gaijin" which means "outsider person". Lately, the number of foreigners visiting Japan has been increasing and the number of Japanese obliged to live abroad for business reasons is steadily growing. This internationalization increases the opportunities for Japanese to interact with foreigners and Japanese need to conquer the gaijin complex. However, to overcome the gaijin complex is not easy, and learning English is not a sufficient requirement. Japanese and Americans often approach each other with radically different assumptions, and some serious mutual misperceptions arise. These occur because Japanese communications are completely different from Americans: the gift-giving, vague communication and consensus orientation are some specific areas that are different.

One of the misperceptions occurs because Japanese use the characteristic method of interacting with others to show friendship by gift-giving. Japanese give gifts to friends and people that they respect, and Japanese give gifts to keep their friendships. Such a gift or a favor can also mean a debt for Japanese and might impose heavy obligations for them to repay the favor. In this matter, Japanese gift-giving is complicated but one of the important aspects of Japanese culture to show friendship and courtesy. Unlike Japanese, Americans also give presents to their friends or to help others but do not expect an obligation for the favor. Therefore, Americans might make Japanese feel obligated for even their small gifts. On the other hand, if Japanese expect some return for their favor toward Americans, Japanese are frustrated about receive nothing or a lesser gift in return.

Another source of communication problems between Americans and Japanese comes from the Japanese tendency to use a vague communication style. Vagueness is used to avoid conflicts with each other in Japan. Since Japanese dislike conflicts, they keep an attitude of courtesy to other people. However, their courtesy is just on the surface and they hide their real feelings and opinions in many situations. For example, Japanese try to be good to other people, even if they harbor anger underneath. These behaviors are also found in their negotiations. Japanese might save face for their negotiating partner through vagueness, reflecting a polite way of refusing. Even if they want to say "no", giving a flat refusal to any proposition is difficult for Japanese. Such vagueness arises in misunderstanding on the part of Americans. They do not understand the real meaning of Japanese artificial behavior, and often conclude that Japanese have made some commitment.

Another example of vague communication is that Japanese people state their opinions softly and indirectly, which also leads to confusing Americans. Japanese tend to express their thoughts with an indirectness and unclarity, and they may circle around their topic, veer away and wander off on a tangent. The indirectness is a strategy not to hurt other people, and Japanese can read between the lines even with such unclear expressions and understand each other. However, Japanese find it difficult to communicate with Americans who state their opinions clearly and logically and cannot understand subtle meanings. Such direct communication is effective to debate and persuasion, but it might hurt Japanese. On the other hand, the Japanese vague and indirect communication often result in frustration for Americans, and makes it difficult for both Japanese and Americans to conduct effective public relations.

The third point of mutual misperception arises from Japanese principle that is based on consensus oriented communication not to hurt another's feelings. Japanese build consensus and exhibit goodwill to others. The Japanese principle reflects a difference in managerial or negotiating styles from Americans. When we have to solve some problems together, Japanese try to make concessions to reach a solution and saves face all around. Unlike Japanese consensus orientation, Americans are interested in achieving concrete solutions. Therefore, those different principles lead to mutual misunderstanding. Americans feel that Japanese gestures are meaningless or deceitful, and are interpreted as tacit admissions of guilt. Despite Japanese instinctive efforts to reconcile contradictory viewpoints, Americans regard Japanese as two-faced and opportunistic.

Thus, the communication between Japanese and foreigners is very difficult because their many different assumptions come from cultural differences. Japanese have characteristic culture such as a gift-giving, vague and indirect communication and consensus orientation which are their communication strategies to avoid conflict and get along with others. However, since Americans have different principles from Japanese and use other ways to interact with people, Japanese and Americans have some serious mutual misunderstandings. To avoid frustration from misunderstandings and make good relationships, Japanese should understand another culture and learn other communication methods. This is important for Japanese to achieve their goals in the world.


  1. Konnichi wa!

    Genki desuka?

    I am a gaijin (female) living in Florida.
    I was missing Japan (I used to work there)
    and as I was surfing the internet,
    I came across your blog.
    It's very interesting. Eigo jozu!
    Do you ever miss Japan? I do, tokidoki.
    It was a big part of my life for many years.
    Where in Japan are you from?

    Do you know where I can get the special
    sauce for my soba noodles?
    I really like to make soba, but the
    "soba sauce" is missing, and I don't
    know where to buy it. Perhaps you do?

    My email is: ilovedaikichi@yahoo.com
    Yes, I do love daikichi, oishii yakitori!

    O genki de!


  2. Frani-san,

    Thanks for your comments. You lived in Japan for a long time? I'm from Shizuoka. Where did you stay in Japan?
    I don't miss Japan so much, I'd like to see my family and friends though. Do you miss Japanese food? I haven't bought soba sauce here, but I think we can get one at Japanese grocery store. I'll check it out next time I go there and give more information, or I can buy one for you. :)

    I would love to become friends! I'll write you email, too. Keep in touch!
    Talk to you soon!

  3. My email is:

  4. Hi Mizuho,

    Why don't u miss Japan so much?

    I might have troubles if I visit Japan for a long period, because I don't accept gifts! lol I tell people who want to give me gifts to donate it to a charity instead. They can give me the receipt and tell me why they chose that particular charity. If someone surprises me with a gift, I will usually refuse it. It's an uncommon attitude is America too, but even more so in Japan! What would a Japanese person do if they want to "keep my friendship" or "show they respect me" but couldn't get me a gift?

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