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When Cultures Collide

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When Cultures Collide


This review of literature will examine some of the more prevalent complications that tend to arise with cultural diversity in the workforce, primarily between Japanese and Western English speaking cultures. The author will convey first hand knowledge and experiences, supported by case studies and documented research in an attempt to recognize some of the more problematic areas of concern that many Western English speakers and Japanese non-native English speakers face during simple interaction at work, as well as in social settings.

If anyone has had the opportunity to spend any length of time in Japan, they are immediately drawn to just how dissimilar the Japanese and American cultures really are. It is one thing to read about it in a book, or to be able to recognize some of the key differences depicted in accurate portrayals of Japanese society in films, but to experience it first hand is quite another. The fact is, Japanese culture is about as foreign to Western eyes and ears as humanly possible. Every aspect of verbal language, and of course written languages (which there are three of, by the way) is completely alien to us. Certainly, if anyone is fortunate enough to be able to witness these unique differences from a first hand perspective while visiting Japan, they will have no choice but to try and adapt and take onboard customs and traditions that may very well feel quite awkward at first- such as the common practice of removing one’s shoes prior to entering a dwelling or traditional restaurant, or the tendency for Japanese to avoid physical contact and displays of affection, even among family members. But these minor cultural inconsistences pale in comparison to what a Japanese National might experience while striving to adapt to a Westernized culture or from an international business perspective.
Let us consider the following incident depicted in Douglas Lipp and Clifford Clarke’s book, Kiki: Dangers and opportunities- the crisis facing U.S. bases Japanese companies. Lipp and Clarke document the problems Japanese managers face in managing American employees in the United States. There are some 400,000 Americans currently employed by the U.S. subsidiaries of Japanese firms. The objective and process of written performance appraisal, among other organizational policies and practices, stand out as areas where the gap between intentions and assumptions of the Japanese employer and that of the American employee can be very significant. In one excerpt, an American employee who has been with the U.S. subsidiary of a Japanese company for two years received from his Japanese boss a performance rating of 4 on a 5-point scale. Dissatisfied with this rating, he approached his Japanese boss to ask for critical feedback and specific information on how he can improve his performance. The Japanese manager explained that he received a good performance rating but would not elaborate on specific areas where the employee can improve. Each party was disturbed by the action of the other. Why? From the American employee’s perspective, honesty was paramount. He wanted to get a “feel of where he stands” among his peer group, and perceived the Japanese manager as ineffective, a slave driver, and one who cannot give honest feedback to his employee. The Japanese manager, on the other hand, perceived the American employee as immature by demanding and requiring constant feedback. In his opinion, an employee should know what his manager thinks of him “by the way he is treated”. From the Japanese perspective, the purpose of a written performance appraisal was to make the person feel good and to motivate him to strive for excellence. To the Japanese employer, harmony and the ability to understand implicit messages were paramount (Tung, 1993). To further help illustrate this already awkward and frustrating scenario, consider this: Unlike American culture where it is common to look your superior in the eye when talking as a means of conveying a feeling of sincerity, in Japanese culture, to gaze directly into the eyes of someone of higher authority denotes defiance and disrespect.
In terms of cultural diversity, it is required to understand the culture where another comes from if harmony is to be achieved (Gupta, 2012). Culture is defined as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguished the members of one human group from another Culture, in this sense, includes systems of values; and values are among the building blocks of culture.” As per this definition, an individual is able to perceive how much influence culture has on people. This is markedly felt in an international environment. If people are considerate in understanding other cultures and make the necessary adjustments to accommodate the needs of others, then they can earn the cooperation of others. On the other hand, if people insist on promoting their own culture and value system whether it is agreeable to others or not, then it can be surmised that sooner or later the personal relationship will encounter major conflicts (Gupta, 2012). Most conflicts that surface in a cultural diverse setting are caused by miscommunication and misunderstanding. Ethical considerations are subject to interpretation. The reason there are cultural differences is because there are differences in how the situation is understood. Almost everyone would agree that ethics is doing the right thing but how to reach an ethical decision is open to debate. Coming up with a final business decision depends on situational factors such as organizational goals, organizational code of ethics, the legal environment and the perception of the other party. Organizational goals may be set but people from different cultures may have different approaches in reaching them (Gupta, 2012).
The United States Navy is one Organization that has made significant strides in embracing cultural diversity. Speaking at a National Naval Officers Association Conference, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Mullen stated “diversity continues to be a leadership issue and critical to the Navy’s future success” (Rice, 2012). “A complex environment is one characterized by multiple critical elements that differ significantly.” Complexities such as joint collaborations, emerging technology, and globalization contribute to the challenges of organizational diversity within the Navy. Culture is not created by declaration; it derives from expectations focused on winning. We can only have a culture that encourages performance if we recruit the right people, require them to behave in a way that is consistent with the values of the Navy espouses, and implement processes that will allow the Navy to be successful (Rice, 2012).
Even in the U.S. Navy though, an American Sailor could still possibly find himself face to face with a Japanese National whose level of English might not be considered “up to par” with the norm. The USS George Washington, a Navy aircraft carrier attached to the 7th fleet and responsible for patrolling the waters of the Western Pacific, makes its homeport in Yokosuka, Japan. While the ship is home ported and many Sailors are embarking on a well-deserved liberty call after return from a long and exhausting deployment, the ship is primarily frequented by contractors and technicians who work for Ship’s Repair Facility, Yokosuka, Japan. The dominant ethnic background of personnel employed by the facility is, not surprisingly, Japanese. So for the unfortunate Sailor who was unlucky enough to have duty on a particular day when the rest of his shipmates were out on liberty call, he or she might find themselves engaged in a particularly awkward conversation with a Japanese National who, unknowingly to the Sailor, might only be trying to find the location of the nearest toilet.
The fact of the matter is, many Japanese tend to perceive Communication with non-Japanese as an embarrassing and unpleasant, if not frightening experience (Kowner, 2002). Individual Japanese have expressed this sentiment on numerous occasions since the forced opening of Japan to the West in 1854. So just what exactly is it about Americans and Westerners in general that account for this so-called “foreigner-complex” for Japanese?
Geographical Isolation
Perhaps the most common explanation concerns the fact that Japan is an “Island Country”. Living on an isolated archipelago 180 km distant from the closest continental shore has evidently affected Japanese history by preventing extensive contacts with the country’s neighbors.
Linguistic Barriers
The Japanese language, so remote linguistically from Indo-European languages, has been viewed as another source of Japanese miscommunication with foreigners. The fact that foreigners cannot speak Japanese means that Japanese have to speak a language of which they have poor command and may even be exposed to a situation where they would be regarded as different from the people around them. The performance of Japanese in various language tests seems to prove this notion. Toward the end of the 1990s Japan’s rank in TOEFL (The Test Of English as a Foreign Language) average scores declined to 180th out of 189 nations taking the test (Inoguchi, 1999).
National Character Several scholars have looked into the supposedly psychological idiosyncratic character of the Japanese in search of an answer. Eto (1977), for example, focused on the shyness Japanese feel when approached by foreigners speaking a foreign language as a major barrier in their communication. This shyness is the result of the fear of failing in a mode of communication one believes one has to master, but in reality does not. Viewing the level of English education in Japan, it is no wonder Japanese experience shyness, especially when communicating with foreigners in the presence of other Japanese.
General Incompetence in Verbal Communication Scholars have long noted that Japanese people tend to experience difficulties also when communicating with their compatriots. Hence, the problem of communication with foreigners is only an extension of a general problem of communication. Several cross- cultural studies have supported this notion, showing that Japanese exhibit a high level of communication apprehension also within their own culture. The essence of the problem lies not only in non-verbal communication barriers, but also in verbal differences concerning status recognition. The Japanese code for communicating social status differs substantially from the codes common in foreign countries, of the West in particular, to the extent that Japanese perceive foreigners as violating their status during intercultural encounters. Generated by real or imagined behavior, this perception causes Japanese to dislike communication with foreigners and to perpetuate the feeling of inconvenience to fellow Japanese. The ultimate outcome is the development of cultural apprehension for communication with foreigners, especially among people who have never experienced an intercultural encounter. This apprehension affects future encounters with foreigners and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy regarding nature of intercultural communication. Status differences are considered as one of the central factors in intercultural communication. Many studies have demonstrated the existence of differences between ritual followed and non-verbal rules observed by Japanese and non-Japanese, usually Americans, when communication within the culture. Such studies examined a wide array of topics, such as ways of self-presentation (Japan’s humble and meek personality/communication style as opposed to the Japanese’ perception of foreigners’ communication style being obtrusive and inconsiderate), sitting distance while communicating, apology style (which in Japan tends to be a long, drawn out process as opposed to Westerner’s apologies being relatively brief), and embarrassment remediation, as well as the extent of physical contact which in Japan, as mentioned previously, tends to be very limited (Kowner, 2002) One possible solution as a means of bridging the communication barrier gap, at least in the organizational sector, is to employ a broader use of visual aids. Akio Yamamoto of the Industrial Property Cooperation Center in Tokyo, considers the use of “visual information” key to delivering technical education across cultures. Verbal language by itself makes understanding difficult enough in varied cultures. Explanations, in his view, whether they be written or spoken, are one-dimensional. Visual information can achieve understanding at a glance, as its essence is two-dimensional. Yamamoto believes illustrations, and even cartoons, should be used as much as possible as a proven method for conveying a message (JMA, 1991). Cultural diversity in the workforce is here to stay. There is no escaping it. It is critical for the success of every organization to fully embrace cultural diversity and to learn to appreciate each other’s heritage. The U.S. Navy has taken significant steps to this extent, even designating certain months to celebrate the contributions of a given ethnicity, i.e., “African American Heritage Month”. On the Japanese side, a greater awareness of foreign behavior combined with real-life experience with foreigners may reduce the sense of status violation. Many Japanese believe that merely learning a foreign language can alleviate the problematic aspects of intercultural communication. In recent years, millions of Japanese seem to have reached this conclusion and have joined English conversation classes, where foreign teachers help them to overcome fears of communication with non-Japanese. If each of us takes appropriate measures and does our part to be a little more accepting of a culture that might not be entirely familiar to us, and perhaps learn to be a little more forgiving and tolerant for the individual who is putting forth noticeable effort to carry on a conversation that may or may not be in his or her primary language, then it is safe to say we are on the right path.


Eto, J. (1977). Japanese Shyness with Foreigners. In P. Norbury (Ed.), Introducing Japan, Pp. 74-77.
Gupta, V. K. (2012). Diversity and Strategies in an Organization. Retrieved from
Inoguchi, T. (1999). Japan’s Failing Grade in English. Japan Echo, Vol. 26, Pp. 8-11.
Kowner, R. (2002). Japanese Communication in Intercultural Encounters: The barrier of
Status-Related Behavior. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, Vol. 26, Pp. 339-361.
Potoker, E. (1993). Management and Training across Cultures: Importance of Non- Verbal Communication Strategies—A Case Study. Retrieved from
Rice, K. R. (2012). A New Strategy on Diversity: Aligning Leadership and Organizational Culture. Retrieved from
Tung, R. L. (1993). Managing Cross-National and Intra-National Diversity. Human Resource Management, Winter 1993, Vol. 32, Number 4, Pp. 461-477.…...

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