If you'd like some context, please read other blogs in this series: Frontload to Offset Risk: What Learning to Skydive in Japan Taught me about Smile! You're the Example: What Learning to Skydive in Japan Taught me about Japanese Business, and It's the Ritual Stupid! What Learning to Skydive in Japan Taught me about Japanese Business.
Behind much of the culture shock Westerners experience in Japan is the society’s vertical interpersonal social structure. The hierarchy defines who enters first, where each person sits, who takes the first sip of tea, and so on. Even in emails, when cc’ing others, you must list their names according to hierarchy, not alphabetically or a random order.
In Japan, a clear hierarchy is necessary for people to feel comfortable. In the Japanese skydiving club, when it came to line-up order, it went right down the line of who had been in the club the longest. This was obvious because the wall of the club was adorned with plaques inscribed with our names and membership numbers, mounted and numbered in chronological order.
But when we went out at night, things could change.
One night, for example, we were joined by Yamaguchi-san, a new club member who had fewer jumps than many there.
I had just sat down where I normally would when whoa! Everyone had shifted, and since I hadn’t, one of my seniors was left sitting by the door (lowest status position). Highly embarrassed, I eventually deduced that because Yamaguchi-san was much older than the rest, and had made some jumps in the military before the club was even created, he was being honored. The sense of him having paved the way elevated his position in this setting and it was reflected in where others seated him.
Thinking about it now, I realize that even though I made my 1,000th jump at about the same time our instructor in Japan made his 500th jump, if I were to see him again I would automatically humble myself before him. No matter how successful one is in Japan, you’re taught never to forget what you owe your teachers for having started you on the way.
From then on I began to observe that there is a nuanced, situational hierarchy in Japan that requires you to be very alert to notice. The subtle situational shuffle described above was not all that obvious, but sitting just anywhere would clearly tread on a protocol that keeps group relationships in harmonious equilibrium.
This brings me to Lesson Number 4: Know the hierarchy and when you don’t know, wait until others clue you in.
A similar sort of shuffle can be seen in the current Japanese corporate world where seniority and rank may vary more than before as more companies adopt merit promotion. Also, outsiders are being hired into higher positions than old-timers creating hierarchy confusion if not hierarchy hell.
In the Japanese skydiving club, one’s profession also played a role in the respect they were accorded. In the U.S., what a person does professionally disappears before you reach the drop zone. No one cares – if they even knew – what anyone else does outside of jumping. A case in point: After years of jumping with one easygoing but slightly scatter-brained jumper, I happened to learn he was, of all things, a surgeon! When I gasped in shock, “Vic, you’re a surgeon!?!” he replied, “The human body is very forgiving.” At a U.S. drop zone, all that matters is your skill and personality.
Japanese, on the other hand, try to discern their status relative to others in the group as soon as possible so they will know how politely to speak and how deeply to bow. Hence the value of an introducer to let you know ahead of time.
The business card is the next best informer as it tells you the person’s employer, department, and title – all things that help you determine relative status in Japanese business. This is the main reason business cards are ubiquitous.
In a Japanese company, everyone knows everyone else’s status, which is why the meeting seating order is clear. So if you’re visiting the Japanese headquarters from a subsidiary, and come to a meeting room early, it’s best to wait standing until others come and indicate where you should sit. Otherwise, you’re likely to be greeted with, “Why are you sitting there?!” or treated to a behind-your-back, “Ed sat in Kato-san’s seat!”
When there are multiple variables in a social setting, Japanese will be watching for subtle indicators to decipher what others are thinking. Many rules are situational and much of Japanese communication is vague, and thus the classic saying, “Hear one, understand ten.” Japanese are taught to kuuki o yome! meaning “read the air.” It’s using your inner “antennae” to stay on the same wavelength with others and to read or detect their unspoken thoughts and intentions by inference, or by interpreting subtle gestures and facial expressions. If you can’t intuit the multiple implicit messages, get someone to fill you in.
Very little in Japan is random, so hold back, listen, watch, and get a buddy to fill you in on the nine things you’re missing. Eventually, if you’re patient and humble enough, you’ll start to see clues. But even then, to assume you’re beyond needing guidance is a mistake. There’ll be lots of things you miss and any cockiness is a sure way to develop enemies who will undermine your success. Experienced skydivers die from getting too self-assured; experienced Japan-hands can experience the same “virtual” fate.
Taking your business lessons from different activities in a culture, make memorable stories. What are some of yours?