Cultural Miscommunication

In the history of US-Japan relations, what has been the greatest cultural miscommunication?

Good question. Perhaps the United States’ failure to anticipate a well-organized, successful military attack on Pearl Harbor when placing an oil embargo on Japan? Or, maybe the United States not anticipating Japan’s economic rise from the ashes after the war?

That’s history though. There are plenty of controversies that I won’t touch here (were the atomic bombs really the determining factor leading to Japan’s surrender…Wait, no, I’m not writing on this!).

Here are a few problematic areas that come mind:



People in Japan apologize to maintain group and hierarchical harmony. Sometimes a Japanese will apologize even if all parties know he or she was not in the wrong. Americans, on the other had, tend not to apologize even if they are obviously in the wrong: it may be considered unnecessary, many times it’s not expected, and it can even come across as a sign of weakness. As a result, Japanese people will apologize to Americans, not realizing it may be used again them.


Group consensus building versus individualized self-assertion

The Japanese cooperate much more than Americans, who enjoy competition and even rule breaking. In the 80s Japanese companies were many times sued for antitrust when they brought to America their practice of coordination between rival companies, common in Japan, but illegal here.

A Japanese proverb says, “The nail that sticks out will get hammered.” This tradition leads to seemingly stronger societal harmony, but qualities such as leadership and constructive change, valued in the US, are less salient. Differences in expectations of societal and institutional change often can lead to disagreement between Americans and Japanese.

In Japan, you sacrifice yourself to the group. In the US, the group exists to benefit the individual. Americans are far more willing to leave work on time even if things are unfinished, but this could be a career ender in Japan.


Stating the obvious about people and other social values

“You’re fat.” “You’re ugly.” “You’re stupid.” People in Japan say these things bluntly to others. In America, it’s not polite to do so. Americans get offended when they go to Japan and people repeatedly tell them they’re overweight, for example. Likewise, Japanese can get in trouble in the US if they don’t realize such comments are frowned upon here. In Japan, such comments may in fact be a sign of affection.

It’s not just a different concept of politeness. Social norms such as hierarchy, gender relations, and national identity are ingrained into Japan institutionally through language and other means. American society is more flexible: it’s young and consists of immigrants. Japanese culture is over 2000 years old with limited immigration. Cultural momentum is ingrained: change is harder to achieve, let alone initiate.


National Pride

You can’t separate nationalism from international relations and business. Mistrust and resentment precipitating from differences in interpretations of culture and history amplify feelings of nationalism, and fuel the flames of discord.

Patriotism is being proud of your country and the virtues it offers the world. Nationalism is thinking your country is better than all other countries.

Cultural misunderstandings, both at the individual and organizational level, can take on nationalistic tones without an effective mediator.

“What, I can’t believe they did this! We Americans/Japanese would never do such a thing, this is outrageous…”

“I can’t believe they sent us this message. Those Americans/Japanese are sure crazy, how can I work with them…”

I’ve heard comments such as these arising in both cultures. Both behave, think, and act differently, and the inability to understand each other can lead to blame, name-calling, and even ill will if unchecked.

I am a patriot: US citizen born in Japan. I am loyal to both cultures, but not nationalist to either. Having been surrounded by citizens from around the world since early childhood, my worldview is more objective. My mind can often see through the fog generated by the passions of nationalism. Including US-Japan relations.

The potential for cultural misunderstanding will always be there. However, recognizing the sources of these misunderstandings, you also have the prospect of genuine intercultural communication.