There are several places in the world where form and protocol and symbolism are more critical and more important over content and substance.
Many Asian countries fall under this rule.
But the most important Asian country where the above rule is strictly applicable is none other than Japan.
Japan still is one of the most innovative countries in the world – no doubt about it, though the innovation is more on video games, automobile technology, bullet train technology, and manufacturing. There may be several other areas which I might be missing out here. However, slowly but surely, it is receding from startup innovation as the country is fast ageing. There is of course, SoftBank which continues to invest in many non-Japanese startups around the world. There are some creative startups in Japan itself, but increasingly we do not hear much about them.
One reason is the ageing population, the other reason is the culture – I am not ruling out many other potential reasons. The cultural impact is severe – to the extent that it dominates over everything else in a conversation. The cultural customs and the resulting inhibitions have ruled out the open, transparent, informal exchange of ideas and thoughts which is an essential ingredient of a startup culture.
Japan is so clean and spotless (more so than even Singapore) that peoples’ minds are trained to spot rubbish rather than see creativity. I do not believe that Japanese can tolerate chaos in their society, or suffer an indulgence towards foreign influences easily. The “openness” is rather severely limited. One other reason is their commitment to speaking almost exclusively in their mother tongue. While speaking in English is limited, it is not unusual – people do understand what a foreigner is asking for in general. However, a free English conversation is always a tough proposition when Japanese language is so much more natural for them to converse in. They also expect foreigners to learn and use Japanese language. All this limits the influence of foreign ideas. If this is the status of English, one can imagine what happens to other languages.
Of course, there are many characteristics of the Japanese society which merit our attention and appreciation. In that society, we can see the result of dedication, passion and commitment towards building an almost egalitarian livelihood for all people. It is also known for people helping each other in times of troubles or catastrophes, as evidenced in the recent floods or past earthquakes. The general standard of living is far better than most countries, and the infrastructure that has been built out in large cities like Tokyo is simply amazing, providing a benchmark to most other Asian cities.
On the negative side, Japan has a real challenge in containing its costs. Everything, almost everything is expensive compared to most other places. Why should a taxi ride for 10 KMs cost more than USD 30 is something I could never understand. Why should a simple meal cost more than USD 12? Why should a coffee cost more than USD 5? And, so on and so forth. Luxury items are priced horrendously high. Apartments are obscenely expensive even at just 350 SQFT space.
Coming back to the discussion on form and protocol, this is an essential part of the Japanese society and cannot be ignored by anyone. The politeness cannot be misconstrued for compliance or agreement. Almost every Japanese is polite and mostly quiet – yes, there is silence almost everywhere except on the roads. You are not supposed to speak in the elevators, or laugh. There is hardly any laughter sound to be heard. You also do not see kids running around in a super market or mall, at least I did not see. It is strange, but that is the way it is. Possibly Japanese parents frown on children making noise or playing around in public places.
It is very hard to imagine that it is the same Japanese society with its staid and polite culture that invaded many Asian countries and attacked Honolulu in the Second World War. There is obviously strong grit and determination in every Japanese which have played out well for them after the War in the reconstruction and rebuilding efforts, leading to one of the most successful industrial societies in human history. You can see the dominance of Japanese brands in every walk of consumption around the world, though these brands are under threat by the Mainland Chinese brands now.
In a nutshell, if you are a foreigner wanting to make a quick entry into the world of Japanese business, it would not be possible unless you first fully understand the critical importance of Japanese customs. If you are meeting a client during a social occasion, your glass (of wine or beer) should be held at a level lower than the clients’ glass. If you are meeting a few client executives in one meeting, the senior most client executive’s business card should always be kept on the top of the other executives’ business cards on top of your wallet which is also kept on the table. You have to bend almost at a right angle when concluding a meeting, and so on and so forth.
Welcome to Japan! Enjoy the Japanese culture, customs and behaviour. Of course, enjoy the fabulously pure Japanese food!
3rd August 2018