Best practices in doing business between Germans and Japanese

This article presents seven recommendations for action that will help to support and improve business cooperation and collaboration between Germans and Japanese. The author of this report is our employee Vincent Schwaner, who developed these measures as part of a scientific thesis. 

As a basis, the well-known "Hofstede dimensions" were used to identify relevant differences between the German and Japanese work cultures. Subsequently, interviews with Germans and Japanese who have worked in the respective other culture were conducted to analyze the basis for these recommendations for action in a business sense. This complex topic was worked out scientifically in great detail. In this article, however, we will concentrate only on the results - i.e. the seven recommendations for action.

Recommendation 1: Promote the language skills of the employees concerned.

In all respects, it is necessary to speak a common language, which is usually English. During the interviews, it became clear that already on a purely linguistic level the problems often begin, which are frequently underestimated or not recognized by the people concerned in their working lives. These difficulties were found to be independent of age groups or hierarchical levels. An organization should therefore attach great importance to the language skills of its employees. Be it English, German or Japanese. Extensive language skills had an unrestricted positive effect on cooperation. This should be a matter of course - but even today it is not.

Recommendation 2: Conduct cultural and communication training.

A sufficient linguistic level of all employees alone, however, does not guarantee that cooperation between Germans and Japanese will already be successful. Germans and Japanese are similar in some behaviors that are shaped by culture - for example, general punctuality or the desire to fulfill contractual agreements. This already offers scope for very successful cooperation. However, both cultures differ greatly in the way they communicate, which can be a make-or-break criterion not only - but especially in "fresh" cooperation environments. Therefore, the overriding goal must be to ensure smooth communication between people. 

According to Edward T. Hall, German culture is considered one of the lowest context cultures in the world: language and communication are direct, problems are explicitly addressed, and an open discussion culture is instilled from childhood. There is a fundamental mindset that criticism can be used to improve not only results, but also oneself. Thus, communication is explicit and clear, and little needs to be read out of context. 

As a contrast, however, Japan is considered one of the highest context cultures of all: Interaction and language are indirect, and problems are not openly discussed in order to save face for others and oneself.  Conflicts and problems are carefully resolved over a long period of time with respect to all people involved to ensure harmony within a group. Much is communicated in context and recipients must independently perceive and interpret the information sent. 

This contrast shapes business life and decision-making to such an extent that a potential conflict can arise between Germans and Japanese. Such differences should be explicitly explained. German interviewees had problems finding their way around the Japanese environment, especially in the initial phase. Many implicit rules of Japanese culture pose challenges for Germans in that they often do not understand why a conflict has suddenly arisen. Conversely, many Japanese reported that direct communication in Germany was irritating or even seen as personal attacks, but after a period of getting used to it, this type of communication could usually be classified and was viewed positively, particularly in terms of efficiency in business communication. 

Over time, both sides become accustomed to this method, but it can take months or even years to become accepted and cannot be controlled. For this reason, an organization should create opportunities to provide employees with sufficient information in advance and to train them in how to deal with each other in order to accelerate the familiarization process and make it controllable.

Recommendation 3: Conduct face-to-face meetings on a regular basis. If these are not feasible, use video calls for coordination purposes and written communication for technical coordination. In addition, set up internal chat programs for less formal, day-to-day communication.

Since face-to-face meetings, considered by far the best basis for communication, are often not possible on a regular basis in international teams, organizations should consciously use digital channels for communication to foster trust between employees and prevent miscommunication. Video telephony is preferable because traditional phone calls hide much of the context of an interaction, such as facial expressions and body language. The prerequisite, of course, is that the participants also turn on their cameras. 

For further communication to convey technical information, written communication should again be preferred. Given that communication between Germans and Japanese usually takes place in a foreign language for at least one person, technical details can be misunderstood or even forgotten, especially due to varying language skills. In addition, a sender or a receiver often does not notice that information has been distorted or lost. Written communication can prevent this in that the information can be clearly structured. For everyday internal communication, positive aspects of chat functions such as Microsoft Teams were emphasized, since they require less formality, which has a positive impact on speed and the general understanding of communication, because less is said in code.

Recommendation 4: In special cases, utilization of a "Nakadachi"; i.e. a 'middle man' or 'mediator'.

Another method used to avoid communication problems between individual team members is the deployment of so-called "Nakadachi". These are people who are familiar with both the Japanese and (in this case) the German work culture and often "negotiate" between the two cultures as an implicit part of their own role, i.e. they take on the role of mediator. Communicative conflict potential is transferred to them by preparing and filtering information and views to be passed on to members of the other culture and, if necessary, providing context. "Nakadachi" can be found in most German-Japanese organizations. Nevertheless, it must also be said that their use is not useful or efficient in any situation, and not all communications should be "simply" conducted through such a role. Instead, attention should be paid to the measure and scope of the task, as communicative bottlenecks may arise. It can make more sense to also train all employees concerned to avoid negative influences of cultural differences on communication, and to involve the "Nakadachi" in various communications rather than setting him up as a single link in a communication channel; or if so, to use him alternatively for communication between a few key roles. 


Dependencies in the German-Japanese work culture


Recommendation 5: Weighing costs and benefits in decision-making processes.

Decision-making processes in Japan and Germany are different. In other words, the typical Japanese "nemawashi" (i.e., informal coordination activities prior to official decision-making moments) must be weighed against a "German goal orientation". Both "systems" offer advantages and disadvantages. 

In the interviews, German decision-making processes were described as "goal-oriented". In them, one or more goals are defined in advance and then strictly worked towards. Both Germans and Japanese see this approach as more time-efficient than the "nemawashi" approach common in Japan. However, decision-making processes in Germany in particular require clear exchanges of opinions and discussions. Overruled people usually have to accept the result, with the risk that processes are not accepted afterwards or are actively blocked, thus disrupting work and goal achievement. In addition, some Japanese perceive such a goal-oriented approach as inflexible and even stubborn, working toward a single, predefined goal. 

Typically, Japanese "nemawashi" is instead process-oriented. Instead, stakeholders are consulted informally before the official decision is made, and their preferences are taken into account as best as possible into a proposal that represents all relevant opinions as much as possible. The official decision is then usually just a formality. This process is perceived by both Germans and Japanese as lengthy and often political. However, once a decision has been made, the implementation and realization proceeds relatively smoothly due to the extensive consideration of all relevant viewpoints and opinions of stakeholders, resulting in fewer adjustment costs afterwards. It is true that Germans tend to be skeptical about "nemawashi". Nevertheless, advantages are also recognized in active consensus-building and a less conflict-oriented approach. In this context, it makes sense to question whether the processes within the organization are more "German" or "Japanese" in order to identify necessary changes to increase efficiency and make implementations easier.

Recommendation 6: Definition of a clearly defined process framework where teams can move freely.

Both Germans and Japanese prefer standardized processes in business life, but there is a tendency in both cultures to "over-define" and "over-bureaucratize" processes and then to follow them almost stoically. As a result, on the one hand, the advantages of typical procedures and work approaches of a respective work culture are often lost, and on the other hand, members of both cultures often have difficulties dealing with special cases. Inefficiencies and loss of time due to a lack of flexibility can arise, which are likely to happen regularly when two cultures work together. 

When defining the process landscape for intercultural collaboration, a balance should therefore be found between standardization and flexible freedom, which makes it possible to deal with special cases without overburdening employees and thus combining the advantages of both work cultures. Thus, depending on the tasks and responsibilities of a team, a framework with hard boundaries should be created in which people can move freely and pursue their activities. As long as teams and their members act within this framework, they can play to their own strengths and thus develop the best possible work engagement. 

Recommendation 7: Establish standardized information management system.

With regard to process adjustments to reduce conflicts in the cooperation between Germans and Japanese, this point is probably one of the most important: Almost all interviewees mentioned the targeted handling of information in the organization as an effective means of avoiding problems. Therefore, the use of an information management system is strongly recommended. Depending on the organization, such a system can range from standardized exchange of simple files (e.g., Excel or SQL files) to token systems to elaborate, globally used and complex databases with associated programs. All these approaches are successfully used in practice, and their positive effects were confirmed in the interviews. However, the functions required and the complexity of the program should be carefully examined, as more elaborate and complex systems bring more functionality, but also the need for more employee training and bureaucratic effort, and thus generate higher costs. 

Reasons for the need for such a system are many. For example, they help ensure the correct and timely dissemination of information and thus reduce information monopolies of individual individuals (groups), which are often built up across countries. The reduction of such information monopolies also prevents opportunism on the part of individual actors and promotes mutual trust among colleagues through increased information transparency. In addition, increased transparency raises the acceptance of decisions and measures, as the background to these can be better understood by all those involved, making "nemawashi", for example, less likely to cause conflict. Furthermore, misunderstandings in communication can be uncovered more quickly if contradictory or incorrect data are recorded. 

Another point that should be mentioned only briefly at this point is that such a system can additionally be linked to a standardized prioritization procedure of tasks. This is necessary because it has been shown that Germans tend to underestimate the importance and urgency of tasks, while Japanese tend to overestimate them. Such a system can be used to assess the need for overtime, for example.


Some of the above aspects may seem obvious or even trivial to those familiar with Japan or Germany. However, it should be explicitly mentioned once again that these recommendations for action are based on some - the most culturally relevant - aspects relating to the working world and, if ignored, can have a strong impact on collaboration. Much of the potential for conflict arises in the context of communication and impacts almost all levels of teamwork. However, if these conflicts can be mitigated or avoided altogether, cooperation between the German and Japanese cultures provides fertile ground for joint success.


About the author:

Vincent Schwaner was born in Germany and lived in Japan for about 2.5 years before and during his business studies. He gained work experience within a Japanese IT company in Japan as well as in Germany and knows the collaboration with Japanese people from his own experience. The above article is based on his bachelor thesis at the University of Münster, in the context of which he empirically investigated the cooperation between Germans and Japanese in terms of work culture.


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