In 1990, I married into a family of licensed performers of Noh, the traditional masked dance-drama of Japan. One of the first performances I saw was ‘Atsumori,’ one of the masterpieces of the repertoire. From Atsumori, I learned an important aspect of doing business in Japan: the blurring of identites.
In ‘Atsumori’ two men meet, a monk and a grasscutter. It begins in typical Noh fashion, straightforward and direct. A man enters, a monk. He announces who he is, and tells the audience where he’s going and why. But throughout the play, the two characters’ identities are blurred.
The monk is, in fact, a monk, but years before he had been a samurai warrior who became a monk out of regret for the taking of a life. The grasscutter is in reality a ghost, the restless spirit of a young samurai who the monk had killed in battle many years before. The true identities of the two men, their relationship and their position in society are purposely blurred by the author to great effect.
When doing business in Japan, identities are often blurred. In the west it is generally considered friendly and polite to ask questions in order to show sincere interest in a person’s opinions, interests and hobbies. In Japan this can often come across as rude, perhaps even an invasion of privacy, and many of the things we talk about freely and openly are considered off-limits by the Japanese.
So, here's five things you shouldn’t talk about when doing business in Japan
My wife is Japanese, but we first met in Spain. In 2015, in fact, we celebrated our 25th anniversary. A lot has happened in the last quarter century, but we still argue in Spanish.
The Spanish of Andalusia, where we lived, love a good argument. I remember being baffled in Spain at dinner parties. Someone would casually say something extremely controversial – “Things were better when Spain was a dictatorship!” – and all would plunge into a fast-paced argument, with everyone, it seemed, speaking at once. If the conversation flagged, another controversial statement was made, and the conversation would come back to life, fast and furious.
The move from Southern Spain to Tokyo was the biggest culture shock of my life. After three years in Seville, I had grown accustomed to good-natured but loud debate, both as the norm and as the ideal. So very early in my first days in Japan, when people around the table grew silent, I became uncomfortable. I reverted to my old, tried and true strategy: I blurted out a controversial topic in an effort to start a conversation on Japanese politics.
My first faux pas!
Japan has been a healthy democracy for many decades now. The Japanese, of course, have personal opinions about national, international and local politics, and will often discuss their beliefs, hopes and frustrations openly, but there is a time and a place for everything. In this way, the Japanese are the polar opposite of the Spanish. It is rare that the Japanese discuss politics in public or at work. They approach any controversial subject with caution.
2) Marital Status
In 1989, I started working at the National Noh Theatre for the International Theatre Institute, Japan Center. To break the ice, I asked one of my new colleagues if she was married.
Aother faux pas!
It was immediately apparent that this was not an appropriate question, and it took several months to recover from this early gaff. She eventually answered my question some six years later. By then we had become good friends. She let me know that, when I first asked ‘that question,’ she was stunned and considered me extremely nosey. But she now understood, she said, that this was just a culture clash.
This is, of course, a generalization, and varies greatly from region to region. People from Osaka, for example, are much more likely to discuss prices, salaries and expenses. In Tokyo, by contrast, such things tend to remain vague or off-limits. When doing business in Tokyo, you may receive a surprise payment after doing someone a favor. Conversely, you may receive an envelope full of beer coupons when you were expecting cash.
4) “What high school did you go to?”
In Japan, students rarely go to the high school nearest their home. Students are tested regularly from a very young age to decide which school they will attend next. The hensachi, or national ranking system of schools, is taken very seriously by the Japanese. Whether or not a person is proud of their high school, asking which high school someone attended, usually a harmless question in the west, is in Japan akin to asking “What is your IQ?” Worse, it may cause friction between a colleague who, for example, went to a ‘74’ school and another who went to a ’73.’
Religion is not a particularly dangerous topic in Japan. There is rarely a fistfight or even a heated argument about it. But while religion may not be controversial, it is considered personal, and questions about someone’s religion, sect or personal beliefs are best avoided.
In the Noh play ‘Atsumori,’ the blurring of identities is a beautiful esthetic, similar to the beauty of a forest on a misty day. It is best to approach Japanese business with this mindset. A good rule of thumb is this: Don’t ask questions. It is much better to wait patiently and be attentive to what people choose to reveal to you. This will take some practice, but in the end is a much safer way to do business in Japan.