May 15, 2016
There's probably a book on meetings in Japan, somewhere. I haven't read it. Perhaps I should. Maybe there's a course I could take (Any recommendations?). No, I can't claim to be an expert on this, in the sense that I know the way things should be. I am, however, a salaryman in Japan, and I have been to more meetings than I'd ever hoped I would go to.
So, setting any more well-read advice aside, I present here my observations of how these things have panned out in my experience. Maybe there's something here you can take into your first meeting in Japan.
Note* - I should qualify that by 'meeting' I'm talking about meetings with parties outside of the company I work for.
Don't expect much to get done
Sometimes I don't know why I'm even in these meetings. Not because I'm way out of my depth, but because I'm wondering why we're having a meeting at all. It's probably an oft made remark about meetings in Japan, but it's one that can't be understated. Don't go booming into these things expecting to reach decisions in one sitting. That will be as well received as a pair of undies in an onsen. Bide your time, and let them run their course. Try to find a number of ways to phrase your position, and you'll get there eventually. Maybe!
Respect your elders
This seems to be paramount. Most the people we meet with are significantly older. It also remains the case that, for the most part, management types in Japan are of a mature vintage. The contrast between our 'in team' communication and that with elders from other companies is glaring (and part of the reason why everything moves so slowly). We have to follow their lead, and if they want to verge off into some talk about weekend tennis sessions, so be it.
One incident that drew a sharp intake of breath was the time I cracked open my bottle of 'meeting fluid' before anyone else. The thing is, prior to this, I'd become accustomed to a series of meetings where all parties were so familiar with one another that a lot of the 'rules' had gone out the window.
This was a first-time meeting with some heavy hitters, though. That being said, it was hot in there and I'd sat staring at that bottle of water like a well trained dog for at least 15 minutes. Maybe I could take a sip. When I did so I felt a frisson of tension, particularly from the rest of my 'team'. Still, the captain, if you will, of the opposing team seemed sympathetic and immediately opened their bottle, thus diffusing any tension.
Lesson learned though, know your status and wait for others to hydrate first.
Bring along a quirky notebook
It's a damning statement, but I can hand on heart say that this salaryman's most interesting contribution to meetings in Japan thus far has been a 100 yen notebook with a cute/childish design on the cover. It never fails to draw favorable remarks. Maybe if I could make more worthy contributions, it wouldn't get so much attention. Until that time though, this thing has been my best friend.
"What's your opinion of the fiscal growth projected for next year based on analysis of last year's revenue versus ..... ?".
"Errr, let me just consult this rather fetching notebook!".
Stay in the game
This could be said of meetings around the world I suppose. It's especially important for the non Japanese speaker in a meeting conducted in Japanese, though.
You go in with the best intentions of keeping up. You stay with it for 10 minutes or so, and then it just starts to get ahead of you. You try to get back in the game, but before you know it, you're doing that thing of trying to look like something in the meeting's paperwork has caught your attention. And then all of a sudden, the room is quiet and everyone is looking at you waiting for you to say something. This moment sucks. Stay in the now. If you can't keep up, don't try. Just be aware of the most recent sentence.
The non native speaker (of Japanese)'s worst nightmare. It's hard enough keeping up with these meetings when you're just talking about that day's weather. Throw in someone somewhere in another country, and a bit of tech with some sound fuzz and time delay, and you've a recipe for a meeting that's almost impossible to follow. Best thing to do, bring out the fancy notebook and write stuff down.
Also, take comfort that you can put your lack of worth down to a bad line!
It's not always as formal as you might think
Despite, perhaps, a reputation for stifling, complex formality, meetings in Japan don't take long for things to relax. It's not unusual for participants to mess around on cell phones or have laptops open to check emails that have nothing to do with the agenda at hand. Some people even fall asleep (although better to be a few meetings in, before you bring this one out).
I think the "Japanese" meeting is as much, if not more, about creating bonds/trust than it is about sealing deals. Once someone knows what you're about, then you can fall asleep on them!
Another angle on this is the business of swapping business cards. It's probably written somewhere that there's an order in which this should be done. I'd look for it, but honestly, when I ask the locals, no one seems to know the correct way. And no one seems to care.
A foreign salaryman in Japan, documenting life from somewhere near 'salaryman town' Shimbashi, Tokyo. Way out of my depth!