Why Career Goals Don’t Matter In Japan: Understanding the Japanese Salaryman’s Mindset

Understanding the Japanese Salaryman’s MindsetI started my career at a large commercial bank in Japan. Shortly after I received the offer, the HR manager asked me which department I wished to work in. Naturally, I told him my preference: the venture capital division.


I was sent to a different department, without receiving an explanation for that decision. I later discovered that the correct answer should have been a similar response to this:

Rude tourists in Japan

gyokutei nihon2Last December, I brought an American friend of mine to a hot spring. We decided to go for a luxury experience and went to a high end ryokan, a Japanese-style inn.

Here, you get to enjoy amazing food and hot springs experience in a wonderful atmosphere: a tourist magnet. Dinners at a high end ryokan are a relaxed, luxurious affair, where several different courses are brought to your room one by one, giving you the opportunity to savor and appreciate each dish fully and in peace.

A direct word for “google it, you dumb a**!”

ggrkYou may not believe it, but there is a word for "google it, you dumb ass" in Japanese: it’s pronounced "gu-gu-re-ka-su (#ggrks)."

The implied message of the word is this:
You’re cutting corners if you ask someone a question you can find an answer to later on and that you may even pass for disrespectful, as by doing so you’re wasting someone’s time.

Why Japanese don’t like small talk

Smalltalk“I don’t know why my boss in Dublin (Ireland) always starts our video conference by telling me what she did during the weekend. Why can’t we just dive into the meeting without wasting time?”

Many Japanese complain to me about how they don’t understand why their non-Japanese colleagues love small talk so much. "I have no problem when we’re talking about work" they say "but when it comes to small talk… I don’t know how to carry on the conversation and it’s a real pain.”

How the Nail that Sticks Up Gets Hammered Down

Some of you may have heard the old Japanese proverb “The nail which sticks up is hammered down.” Guides to doing business in Japan often illustrate this proverb using dress code (e.g., don’t wear flashy clothes to business meetings), but its meaning is much deeper than this.
A few years back, I helped organize a large conference in Tokyo, for which the goal was to have the young generation become more interested in politics. The speakers were top notch: CEO’s from established firms, a well-known TV news anchor, a journalist, a member of the National Diet, and a sociology professor from a prominent university. We invited young entrepreneurs and businesspeople on stage to discuss why young people aren’t voting and what we can do about it. Hundreds of college students came to watch this event. Then it happened…

Japanese culture explained in one photo

People frequently ask me to explain why their Japanese colleagues and/or business partners conduct business the way they do. I explain why, give advice and yes, most people say they got it. But I often wonder whether they really “got it.” Understanding culture is difficult and usually cannot be easily explained in words.
Last August, I gave a crash course on Japanese culture via webinar for the executives of a global entertainment company. When I showed a photo of a typical train station and described the morning rush hour commute, there was clearly an “A-ha moment” for the executives. Many interesting questions were asked (e.g. “Why is the person wearing a mask?”). The Japanese mindset of conformity and consistency was captured in this one simple photo.