A Japanese business acquaintance told me what Yes, Maybe, and No mean in meetings in Japan.
- If you are in a meeting and the person says yes, it means maybe.
- If they say maybe, it means no.
- If they say no, you’re not meeting with a Japanese.
While he said this with his tongue firmly in his cheek there is actually a good amount of truth in it.
Meetings in Japan tend to be quite different from meetings in the western cultures. These differences can actually cause discomfort for many western business people. Since I am an American this is written from an American’s perspective. I am also writing from my nearly 30 years of experience in Japan and hundreds of meetings that I’ve attended over the years.
Meetings in America are usually assumed to be held in order to reach decisions, including some specific actions to be accomplished once the meeting is done. An agenda may be prepared and distributed to attendees prior to the meeting or at the start of the meeting. This enables the attendees to settle issues one-by-one. Decisions on each agenda item are made before moving on to the next item.
Japanese, on the other hand, tend to work on projects, not one-by-one items to be decided.
American meetings tend to be lively affairs, with people speaking up, or sometimes speaking over each other; ideas are bandied about, and the meeting may even include arguments between the members. Ideas are raised, presentations may be shown, and decisions are often made in the meeting with one person, or a team, taking responsibility for bringing the idea or new product to fruition. Tasks may be assigned with specific milestones and deadlines set for the team or each person.
When Americans come out of a meeting, they tend to feel that it was a good meeting if decisions were made, agreements were reached, goals were set, and everyone has a clear path to the next steps needed.
Japanese sometimes have a difficult time following the action in an American style meeting. Even more so if the meeting is held via video or teleconference. I once had an employee at a very popular social media company tell me that she found the pace of these conference call meetings much too fast for her to follow. She said that she would listen and think of something to say, but by the time she had formulated how to say it in English the meeting had already moved on to other topics. These conference meetings were often a source of stress for her, she told me, because she felt unable to contribute anything to the meeting.
Meetings in Japan may appear to be sedate affairs, especially to an American who is used to a very spirited and/or noisy meeting, with only a few people speaking, not much discussion on ideas presented, and there may be one person basically outlining what everyone knows already.
Long periods of silence are common. I remember sitting in a meeting with several of the US home office executives of the company I was working for at the time in attendance. At one point the silence went on for a few minutes. The execs were looking at me, as the representative American assigned to Japan, with raised palms in a silent question about what was going on. I just motioned for them to be patient and later I told them that these silences are common as people are either thinking, or in a more likely scenario, no one wanted to speak up as that could come off as rude to the more senior people in the room.
Another common scenario is to see people sitting with their eyes closed. The general understanding is that these people are thinking and they’ve closed their eyes to concentrate better. I’ve seen chins bouncing off of chests though, so I guess that deep thinking required some nocturnal-like head bobbing, too.
ACTIVITY BEFORE THE MEETING
Activities preceding a meeting in Japan are quite often more important than the meeting itself. In many cases the decisions to be discussed in the meeting are just a formality because the decisions have actually been made prior to the meeting. That’s why I’ve said decisions to be discussed and not decisions to be made during the meeting.
Americans tend to assume that meetings are for the purpose of discussing issues, adding, changing, or discarding ideas, and then decisions can be made in the meeting. American meetings are typically quite active, people are welcome to participate and speak up, and participants come out of the meeting feeling like something has been accomplished due to the actions, discussions, and decisions made during the meeting. The real activity now starts and actions are put into place to bring about the results. If something isn’t working right another meeting may be held, or people may even go “back to the drawing board” to start over or make major revisions to the project. How many times have you heard someone say, “That was a good meeting!” and another person responded, “Yeah, we made some good decisions and got a lot done!”
While meetings similar to American meetings may be held in Japan, especially when the meeting is for training, or bouncing creative ideas off of each other, or just general team meetings, the more formal meetings are generally different.
Discussions and negotiations on projects, programs, or products are more often held in one-on-one, or small group sessions, well before the formal meeting. This pre-meeting activity means that the formal meeting is really just a ritualistic approval of what the various groups, teams, or managers have already agreed on prior to this meeting. Disagreements and conflict are avoided in the formal meeting because these points have been hashed out in the pre-meeting informal discussions. These discussions may have taken place in a semi-formal setting in the office, at a bar over drinks after work, or even on the golf course. Very seldom is anyone surprised by anything being discussed in the formal meeting. Thus, we see mainly sedate meetings with various parties reading word-for-word what everyone has on a document in front of them. Hands are raised, or verbal assent is given, if an ‘agreement’ is needed.
WHAT NOT TO DO AT A GREEN TEA MEETING
From personal experience I learned that surprise questions are not appreciated in Japanese meetings. As president of an American company in Japan I attended a meeting with our local partner company together with my boss, who was visiting from the USA, and a consultant who had been very instrumental in bringing the American company into Japan and was, in fact, receiving millions of dollars in annual revenue due to the very smart contract he had negotiated for himself with the US company. Prior to heading to our Japanese partner company’s office for a formal meeting, which in reality was what I’ve always called a “green tea meeting” (everyone drinks green tea and says pleasant things to each other and the meeting is soon over), the consultant gave me a list of questions that he wanted answered. In hindsight I realized that his questions were for his benefit and he didn’t really care what the partner company thought about me, even though I was going to be working with them for the next few years.
As the meeting concluded and everyone was half out of their chair, I let it be known that I had a few questions to cover before we left. With some serious dark looks being cast about (the green tea was gone) everyone sat back down. I went through my list of questions and the person in charge, a senior manager at the partner company, answered what he wanted to answer, but only superficially for most of the questions.
A couple of days later, after my boss had returned to the US and the consultant had eased his way into his first-class seat on his flight home, I received a very scathing email from the senior manager telling me, in no uncertain terms, to never do that to him again. I had done the unthinkable. I had asked questions that had not been presented to him and his team prior to the meeting, which would have given him fair warning and time to prepare. (My thoughts were, ‘Prepare? Why should you have to prepare for things you should already know?) I had embarrassed him in front of his peers and worse, in front of a couple of his seniors. The reality was, these were things his team as a whole may have known the answers to, but as the manager on the team throne, he didn’t necessarily get himself bogged down in those day-to-day things. Of course, he copied my boss on his email and despite the fact my boss understood what had happened it fell on my shoulders to write and deliver a properly worded apology and a promise to never do such a horrid thing again.
MAKE YOUR MEETINGS IN JAPAN MORE SUCCESSFUL
So, if you’re based in Japan and meeting with your Japanese partners, or coming to Japan with meetings planned and you want them to be more than a green tea meeting, do your homework, or more appropriately your ‘spadework’ beforehand. By spadework, I’m referring to the Japanese practice of nemawashi (literally digging around the roots to prepare the soil for planting). If you’re coming to Japan today, holding a meeting tomorrow, with a five o’clock flight to get back home in time for the weekend (yes, this really happens), don’t be surprised when you find yourself scratching your head next week and wondering what the hell happened because you heard “maybe” or “we’ll take it under consideration” from the Japan side in the meeting (both mean no, remember) at the meeting and you were sure you’d have a deal in hand to show your boss in just a few days, but now you’ve just learned that nothing is going to happen. Another best laid plan has gone awry.
Your nemawashi may consist of getting here a few days early, hosting some dinners and drinks, maybe even a round of golf (if you don’t have staff here there are companies to help with this sort of spadework), some one-on-one drinks or even just coffee with a few key players, and then holding your meeting with, hopefully, at least a few decisions already locked up. If not, enjoy your green tea and plan on coming back a few times over the next several months to finally get the deal done. Don’t get impatient, don’t rush it, and very importantly, don’t let your impatience show through at a meeting. Table pounding demands have never won anyone any points in a meeting in Japan as far as I know. As I’ve told many American business acquaintances, take your first estimate of getting something done in Japan (or of making a profit), double that, now double it again and you’ll be getting closer to the reality.
And, most important of all remember, patience my friend, patience.