How often have you seen it happen? The boss blurts out something completely wrong, and the employees smile and offer no objection. Perhaps you yourself, as a foreign guest, have been “the boss” in this situation. I certainly have! What you’ve witnessed is Japan’s vertical social structure, where there is no point and indeed no acceptable means to object to your superior.
In the West, we also have superiors and inferiors, but we don’t really like to emphasize the point, because we have to be careful not to anger our co-workers. We mock the “yes men” around us and try to minimize our power structure. In Japan, though, a life without vertical relations would be one full of confusion and anxiety. What direction should we be taking? Whose chain of command are we under? Thus, the problem at hand: there’s no way to appeal the decisions of your friendly local bureaucrat.
Foreigners often feel powerless in this culture, even after many years in the country. You will often hear regrets that Japan’s overly structured society stifles innovation or prevents equal treatment. Japanese locals, who have probably seen countless examples of talent suppressed by the system, will add to the criticism. Certainly nobody is perfect in any country, but it’s easy to forget in this flood of lamentation that you are living in the third largest economy in the world and one of the safest places on Earth. That didn’t happen through a government order; it required the cooperation of an entire people.
Every aspect of Japanese life is marked by this shared belief in program, enlivening and giving meaning to the basic, everyday relationships in our lives. It’s woven neatly into the language, so that honorific or casual attitude is always specified. The regularity of aisatsu, greetings, in the office, and set phrases at the restaurant or convenience store, provides constant reassurance of the existence of program. In the 1960s, businessmen considered a clean suit more important than a full meal. And the same instinct that creates this vertical society also creates many of the special experiences sought after by foreigners who come here.
Nothing demonstrates this better than the nomikai, a ritual that continues to astound newcomers, and with good reason. Told he will be made to attend an office party after his arrival, a Westerner’s mind might naturally flicker to horrific memories of similar events in his home country: standing awkwardly around groups of unfamiliar coworkers, and being forced to pal around with your boss as if he were an average guy. Instead they give him an assigned seat and a set meal to attend to, and tell him not to fill his own beer glass. If he wants beer, he must fill the glasses of those around him. These simple rules, if followed by everyone, perform magic. Suddenly the simple act of filling up a glass becomes an exchange of thoughtfulness: you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. The new guy gets a chance to solidify his role at his business by demonstrating concern for, and interest in, his coworkers. He leaves the nomikai feeling fulfilled and better connected. Only the cleverest gaijin, though, will realize that life at the office is supposed to work the same way.
So, given all these benefits to the Japanese way, what’s a manager to do when his boss is wrong? This is an eternally hot topic in Japan, for which a certain answer might never be found, but a local small business owner offered me one answer last night. He told me that when the foreign trade ministry representative came to his office, he treated him like a king, respected his every order, smiled and nodded while he listened to a long stream of bad advice—and then proceeded to do just the opposite, making big profits for his company. Better to ask for forgiveness than permission.
Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn166, Oct. 2012)
Opinions expressed here are our writer’s and not the publisher’s.
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