People Innovation Excellence

Japanese Companies in German, A Case Study in Cross-Cultural Management

Politeness as a cultural norm. An amusing but still consequential contrast in German and Japanese cultural patterns turns on the issue of politeness. The Japanese are famous for taking politeness to extremes: the ritual gestures of deference and humility (bowing); the verb endings and forms of address that vary with the status of the parties and the formality of the occasion; the frequent insertion in normal speech of apologetic expressions (e.g., surnimasen).

Moreover, a distinct offshoot of the Japanese politeness syndrome that time and again confuses gaijin (foreigners) is a reluctance to say no with clarity, finality, and firmness. The title of Akio Morita and Shintaro Ishihara’s (1989) provocative book, NO to ieru Nihon (The Japan that Can Say NO), addresses this tendency. Ironically, the Japanese avoidance of refusal is tied to behavior that Westerners find disingenuous if not downright rude: a propensity to ignore rather than acknowledge queries or requests to which the Japanese party prefers not to accede. This sort of communication problem is widely attributed to the vagueness of the Japanese language and to a Japanese disdain for blunt, contractual commitments.

But its roots also lie with the Japanese aversion to conflict, particularly of a confrontational, face-to-face sort. Germans, in marked contrast, suffer a reputation for being curt, blunt, arrogant, if not, at times, flat-out rude. Germans with whom we spoke acknowledged a shortage of civility within their ranks, particularly evident in the aloof at best, at worst irritable and surly demeanor of retail clerks, service workers, and petty bureaucrats. “Service with a scowl,” as the Wall Street 2.

The ultimate in polite forms is keigo, a flowery style in which fewer and fewer young Japanese are competent. Recently companies have taken it on themselves to school their employees in this form, since it still finds occasional use in formal business rituals. Journal recently labeled it (Nelson, 1994), does at times appear to be the German norm. Of course, some of the rough treatment meted out by lower-level German service workers no doubt stems from a social democratic aversion to the sort of groveling by service people that is still rife in Japan. Yet there is a common thread in German brusqueness and Japanese politeness: distaste for easy informality early in a relationship. Germans and Japanese are similarly averse to the use of given names with all but intimates, and both are critical of Americans for their glib informality and superficial friendliness. Both cultures, moreover, value deep and lasting relationships in business and politics but are resistant to forming them with outsiders. The Japanese have a reputation for being hard to get to know.

Reasons abound: the scarcity of leisure time; the separation of men’s and women’s lives; the inadequacy of Japanese homes for entertaining; the separation a collectivist society imposes on in- and out-group members. The standoffishness of the Japanese was troubling to the Germans in our study. They saw it as a barrier to genial workplace relations and strong identification with the Japanese-owned firm. German managers claimed repeated efforts to socialize with the Japanese staff there were invitations to dinner, sports exhibitions, and other 3. Indeed, the need for greater transparency (romei) in Japanese business and diplomatic relationships is much discussed in Japan these days (Ozawa, 1994). Part of the reason for former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa’s extraordinary popularity as a reformist politician was his plain speech that broke with Japanese tradition and set him apart from run of the mill Japanese politicians.

Contrast, for example, the mumbled, tedious, and ritualistic televised speeches and debates of the Japanese Diet with the sardonic eloquence and sharp personal attacks that are routine fare at the British House of Commons.  Some claim variations by region or land. A colleague from North Rhine-Westphalia suggested that Hessians (residents of the German state of Hessen) were much more brusque and blunt than was typical of her area. 6. Perhaps in particular the resident gaijin community in Japan whose complaints on this score daily fill the letters-to-the-editor page of The Japan Times. events. Yet the same distant attitude prevailed in the office the following day.

Even during afterhours drinking outings the barriers remained. One German manager observed that there would be “Japanese” business from which the Germans were excluded and “other” business in which they might get involved. Long-term Japanese residents, however, claimed that in their experience it was the Germans who were unfriendly and reclusive. Certainly the Japanese were every bit as bothered by German brusqueness as were the Germans by Japanese aloofness. There were numerous statements to the effect that: “Germans are too argumentative”; “Germans are too blunt”; and “Germans will not accept blame for problems.” One Japanese manager did, however, opine that, while these differences in presentation of self made communication awkward and stressful, cross-nationality conflict was not the outcome of note. “Oh no,” he said in response to our question, “almost all the conflict is among the Germans themselves; they are often so rude to each other.” The peculiar Japanese charge that “Germans will not accept blame” warrants special comment. Ritual atonement is an institutionalized conflict resolution device in Japanese society. The Japanese expect and admire the forthright assumption of guilt, prompt and public mea culpas, and profuse apology even in situations where Westerners find it unnecessary or inappropriate. A key role obligation of higher-level managers in the Japanese firm is the reflexive acceptance of symbolic responsibility for the failures of their divisions or the errors of subordinates whether the manager’s own actions were in any way implicated or not (Wall Street Journal, 4 April 1989). It is in contrast rather European (ergo North American) to be direct, forceful, and “principled.” The characteristically Western impulse to defend oneself and shift the blame to others or cir cumstances strikes the Japanese as an egregious abdication of management respnsibility.



Japan scores 46 on the Individualism dimension. Certainly Japanese society shows many of the characteristics of a collectivistic society: such as putting harmony of group above the expression of individual opinions and people have a strong sense of shame for losing face. However, it is not as collectivistic as most of her Asian neighbours. The most popular explanation for this is that Japanese society does not have extended family system which forms a base of more collectivistic societies such as China and Korea. Japan has been a paternalistic society and the family name and asset was inherited from father to the eldest son. The younger siblings had to leave home and make their own living with their core families. One seemingly paradoxal example is that Japanese are famous for their loyalty to their companies, while Chinese seem to job hop more easily. However, company loyalty is something, which people have chosen for themselves, which is an Individualist thing to do. You could say that the Japanese in-group is situational. While in more collectivistic culture, people are loyal to their inner group by birth, such as their extended family and their local community. Japanese are experienced as collectivistic by Western standards and experienced as Individualist by Asian standards. They are more private and reserved than most other Asians.
Japan is one of the most Masculine societies in the world. However, in combination with their mild collectivism, you do not see assertive and competitive individual behaviors which we often associate with Masculine culture. What you see is a severe competition between groups. From very young age at kindergartens, children learn to compete on sports day for their groups (traditionally red team against white team).

In corporate Japan, you see that employees are most motivated when they are fighting in a winning team against their competitors. What you also see as an expression of Masculinity in Japan is the drive for excellence and perfection in their material production (monodukuri) and in material services (hotels and restaurants) and presentation (gift wrapping and food presentation) in every aspect of life. Notorious Japanese workaholism is another expression of their Masculinity. It is still hard for women to climb up the corporate ladders in Japan with their Masculine norm of hard and long working hours.


The German society is a truly Individualist one (67). Small families with a focus on the parent-children relationship rather than aunts and uncles are most common. There is a strong belief in the ideal of self-actualization. Loyalty is based on personal preferences for people as well as a sense of duty and responsibility. This is defined by the contract between the employer and the employee. Communication is among the most direct in the world following the ideal to be “honest, even if it hurts” – and by this giving the counterpart a fair chance to learn from mistakes.

A high score (Masculine) on this dimension indicates that the society will be driven by competition, achievement and success, with success being defined by the winner / best in field – a value system that starts in school and continues throughout organisational life.

A low score (Feminine) on the dimension means that the dominant values in society are caring for others and quality of life. A Feminine society is one where quality of life is the sign of success and standing out from the crowd is not admirable.

Performance is highly valued and early required as the school system separates children into different types of schools at the age of ten. People rather “live in order to work” and draw a lot of self-esteem from their tasks. Managers are expected to be decisive and assertive. Status is often shown, especially by cars, watches and technical devices.

Japan culture are more collectivism than individualism, because japan have polite culture. They s bow-ing whenever they see their friends, co-worker, or anyone they know. Japanese prefer group work and group decision making and try to seek the best group outcomes. Many people known that Japanese people are very sociable. They were sociable with their local people and tourist that visiting their country.

Germany is a country that have individualism personality. They not very sociable with everybody. They only care about their own personal business. For them, less social time is more work time, that’s why germany rarely do meeting in their office. They prefer go home after they finish their job. They also doing their job in individual way rather than in group way.


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