Feb 9, 2016

What is Hansei? – 反省- Japanese Business Etiquette – Japanese Self-Reflection and Apologies

What is Hansei? – 反省- Japanese Business Etiquette – Japanese Self-Reflection and Apologies photo

“Hansei is really much deeper than reflection. It is really being honest about your own weaknesses. If you are talking about only your strengths, you are bragging. If you are recognizing your weaknesses with sincerity, it is a high level of strength.” – Jeffrey Liker, The Toyota Way

What is Hansei? – 反省 and how is it used in Japan?

In the west, we are sue happy and legalistic.  If someone makes a mistake, we are quick to make sure that the person responsible is punished.  The thinking behind this is that if other people see the consequences of a mistake, they are likely to be much more careful in their own work so that they prevent mistakes from happening.  Because of this, westerners, (Americans especially) will do everything that they can to avoid taking ownership of their mistakes, for fear of retribution.

In Japan, the exact opposite is true.  Management will take responsibility for the mistake, while the employee internally is expected to feel very terrible about their mistake using it as a driving motivational force to assess their process and devise a solution.

In a recent podcast, Japanese Intercultural expert Rochelle Kopp said that the #1 challenge Japanese people had when working with Americans/westerners was that they did not take responsibility for their mistakes, and that they did not publicly apologize when something went wrong.

Hansei is VERY important to success in a Japanese cultural context.

In Japan, when someone makes a mistake, they will profusely apologize, take responsibility, and propose a solution for how they can prevent the same mistake from happening in the future. This process is referred to as 反省 – or Hansei. (Loosely translated as self-reflection or soul searching)

How can this be practically applied?

In notifications and formal written apologies, we can use the concept of hansei in order to better communicate with Japanese partners and clients.

Rochelle Kopp suggests the following format for apology letters –

  1.  Notification of the regret.  (I am very regretful and ashamed to inform you that something bad has happened.)
  2. Explanation of the situation.  (Clear explanation of the event without any excuses for how it happened.)
  3. Notification of regret and soul searching, then providing a solution to prevent the mistake in future dealings.  (We are all deeply upset by this mistake and have spent much time to think about this.  Moving forward we will take X action step to make sure that this does not happen in the future.)

This process is not just for show, as having a solid action plan moving forward will allow you to prevent future mistakes and it will also show that you have a general care and concern for your Japanese clients.

What are your thoughts on Hansei and how can it be better applied?



Sam is the marketing director for a Japan Market Entry consultancy. He helps businesses start efforts in Japan. He also blogs and learns Chinese in his spare time.


  • KpQuePasa

    on Feb 9

    I wish this is a thought process that could successfully be brought back to the states &/ other western cultures who are more likely to immediately jump on a litigation bandwagon. I am not by any means perfect at this, but I try very hard to own up to my own mistakes. More than once I've apologized for my screw up, and a friend or family member quickly jumped to say "oh, but it's not YOUR fault, because *x/y/z* happened and you couldn't have done anything about that. Really, *they* should be sued." Such a culturally ingrained mentality. Hmm. Which is a really long and round-about comment to say: I liked this post, and I like the idea of Hansei, and I wish it could be brought to the rest of the world yesterday. Thanks for sharing.

  • trekkingbecky

    on Feb 9

    Great post! :D I recent launched an Expat Tuesday link-up on my blog, Trekking with Becky, where expat bloggers can share their posts about ANY aspect of life abroad in ANY country; I would LOVE to have you participate! :D Here's the link to this week's link party - http://www.trekkingwithbecky.com/expat-tuesday-getting-glasses-japan/ THANKS, and I hope to see you there! :D


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