“Honey, does this dress make me look fat?”
This is the deer-in-headlights question that provokes fear in every wise man, young or old. It makes guy’s life flash before his eyes. Visions of sleeping on the couch, take-out meals for weeks and stony stares chase quickly through his mind. It’s a nail-biter. Or so I’m told by my husband who, for years, simply refuses to answer this question or any question like it. He raises his eyebrows and gives me a look that’s half amusement, half pity, and returns to watching the baseball game. I sigh, return to the mirror, twisting and turning, trying to see all of me to ascertain the truth for myself. In frustration (and only in my own mind), I tell my husband “Honesty is the best policy!” And he replies, “OK, then, it’s not the dress that makes you look fat. It’s the fat that makes you look fat.” Oops.
“If you truly want honesty, don’t ask questions you don’t really want the answer to.” ~ Burmese proverb
Truly, a bit of a muddle exists between honesty and courtesy. During lunch at the beautiful Hotel Okura yesterday, the discussion returned to a topic that first arose during my visit that morning with Shiozaki-san, a member of the House of Representatives and acting chairman of the policy council for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). I asked Shoizaki-san about foreign investment in Japanese business, and he gave me a very straight answer that, frankly, surprised me in its honesty. He noted that Japan welcomes foreign investment, but there isn’t much of it. He believes the language barrier and culture are an issue for many American investors (I learned Monday that all business documents at the Tokyo Stock Exchange must be in Japanese.) It may be expensive, especially tax-wise.I found myself surprised by his honesty, and then surprised at myself for being, well, surprised. An honest answer to a straightforward question. Why the surprise?
So, I brought the topic up at lunch with my host, his wife and Chida-san, a very promising young man who hopes to attend Harvard business school, apply for an Eisenhower Fellowship and potentially to run for parliament. Chida-san currently works as political secretary to the Governor of the Kanagawa Prefecture.
Takeichi-san’s wife gave me some clarity. She explained that the courtesy and respect I discussed earlier (Embracing My Inner Fogey) trumps almost everything else in Japanese culture. The risk of offending a guest overrides the blunt honesty that Americans value in business. Perhaps, she gently suggested, I’ve already picked up on this, and didn’t expect Shiozaki-san to be quite so forthcoming?
She hit the nail on the head. That morning, I moved the conversation with Shiozaki-san ahead rather rudely, I fear. After discussing some pleasantries for a while, and sipping coffee, I became worried that I would run out of time to ask my questions. So I dove right in with a question about the future of Japanese agricultural policy over the next five years. Eight eyebrows shot up around the table as heads swiveled toward me. With a slight laugh, Shiozaki-san eased the tension with a comment—”Now, I guess the entrance exam begins!” I apologized, realizing I had rushed in impolitely.
With this experience, I learned how the cultural differences between America and Japan could make business tough. Being a natural introvert and slightly reticent as well, I’ve had to train myself toward a business pace in America where speed rules. Americans honor decisiveness, control, agility, pressure. We tend to take information directly, so being self-effacing or downplaying the capabilities of a product or service can be seen as evidence of poor quality. We expect direct questions. Meetings should be as short as possible, and we do not consider a meeting a success unless it starts with an agenda, and results in a tangible action or decision.
Conversely, in Japanese business, the ritual of the business card (meishi kokan) provides an excellent illustration of how business works. When receiving a card, take it with both hands, read it over carefully, repeat the printed information aloud, and then place it carefully on the table in front of you, referring to it in conversation when needed. Don’t drop it in your pocket, stuff it in your bag or write notes on it. Never leave it behind. The card provides a tangible representation of the person before you. I’ve observed that here, honored business values include relationships with others, careful listening, deference to elders, politeness, respect and diplomacy.
Clearly, people in the United States (particularly those in agriculture, I would submit) and Japan share many values—the importance of family, community, child rearing, education, private sector strength, patriotism, food security, satisfaction in a job well done. I believe the lessons we can learn from each other (in business and personal life) could result in greater balance and better decisions.
Moving along, (regrets, I seem to have lost my momentum and drive for a moment), yesterday I also had the honor of meeting House Member Moriyama-san, chairman of the committee on agriculture, forestry and fisheries. We visited about the aging Japanese farmer, the competition between U.S. and Aussie beef, food security including dependence on foreign food, the free market and traceability in the supply chain. Moriyama-san made a thoughtful point about product traceability being not only about food security, but, perhaps more importantly here, about pride in a product made by an individual, and giving an individual the ability to claim a well-made, quality product as his own.Enough meanderings, I must get ready for another day in Japan! Now, to choose what to wear…
“Honey…do these pants make me look fat?”
Some people never learn…