Once you have settled into your working life in the company, you will
come across many situations that you will find strange or difficult for
a foreigner to comprehend.
One of these things is the way Japanese tend to and can seem to
communicate with each other non-verbally.
Japanese communication relies much less on word usage and much more
heavily on non-verbals. While words are important, they also use body
language, gestures, facial expressions, body posture and tone of the
voice to convey their message. Japanese like to think of communicating
through intuition rather than just with words.
Once reason for this is due to what is known as a high degree of shared
context or background information. The Japanese take great pride in
being a homogenous society, with everyone of them having the same shared
experiences; from birth, through school, work or housework, retirement
and death. This is similar to the type of shared communication seen in
close families, and between spouses and their children.
Japanese, however, tend to have this shared context communication style
not just with their close relatives and family members, but across their
“Ichi ieba ju wo shiru” (Hear one, understand ten) is a Japanese phrase
you will come across. This sums up this Japanese way of communication in
both private and business settings. They believe that when people are
working together, they should be attuned to the business culture, ethics,
systems etc and each other, that long-winded explanations are
From the phrase above, it means that a precise statement of 10% of the
message should enable anyone in the group to understand the other 90%.
Attention is also paid to the non-verbals at the time the message is
delivered such as the tone of voice, facial expressions, posture and
body language and any other non-word clues (ahh, umm etc.)
The Japanese also use a lot of onomatopoeic words to describe things.
(Onomatopoeic means using words to describes sounds, emotions etc like
crash, bang, zoom but taken to higher level in Japanese). I will write
more on this later.
Other terms you will come across include “Ishidenshin”, which means
“Being on the same wavelenght”, “Aun no kokyu” meaning “Breathing the
same air” and “Haragei”, which translates as “Stomachs talking to each
All this is quite different to what is done in America, Europe and other
parts of the world where precision with words is deemed extremely
important, and grey areas clarified immediately.
This difference in style between the Japanese and foreigners can cause
confusion, distress and frustration. How many times have you heard
someone say “I just can`t undertand them”, “I thought we were getting
somewhere but I was wrong”, “I`m never sure where where we are with them”,
and finally, the classic “I wish they would just say what they really
In order to avoid misunderstandings with this particularly Japanese
style of communication, here are some ways you can overcome this.
If unsure, gently ask them to give further explanations. Say “Can I have
more information about the project, please?” or “I just want to make I
understood everything you said so do you want me to etc. etc.”.
Never be afraid to ask questions, even if you prefer to do so after in
private. Ask them to explain more about the situation, project etc
because if you don`t ask any follow-up questions, they will
automatically assume you have understood the remaining 90%!
It is important to pay attention to the non-verbals, too, as they add
just as much context as the verbals. It will take a bit of time but you
will get there if you keep an open mind and eyes to observe and pick up
messages and help you to read between the lines.